Britain can be as fearful and prone to anxiety as any nation when faced with crisis. A fascinating international conference at LJMU - 21-22 June - is entitled Britain Afraid: Imperial Insecurities and National Fears (1798 - 1945).
We spoke to organiser Dr James Crossland, Reader in International History who, with Dr Chris Vaughan, is setting up a new Centre for Modern and Contemporary History at the university.
Q – ‘Britain Afraid’ is a stark headline and one that goes against the stiff upper lip culture we associate with the Empire rulers. How afraid was Britain and what we were afraid of?
A - As the events of the past two years have shown, Britain can be as fearful and prone to anxiety as any nation when faced with crisis. That said, this conference was conceived of before the pandemic by myself and other members of the Invasion Network, which is a group of scholars who started off interested in invasion scare literature, which was very commonplace and popular in Britain during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Such was the range of fears in Britain during this time, however, this network of scholars have since branched out to look at other sources of anxiety in Britain’s history. For this reason, this conference covers everything from fears of radicalism and insurgency in the colonies, to panics over domestic terrorism, to concerns over military and economic decline, immigration and a variety of other issues which, though drawn from Britain’s past, have plenty of contemporary resonance.
Q – Did a lot of the stuff we associate as novel in say Goerge W. Bush’s 'War on Terror' actual begin under the British?
Britain was one of many nations that had to deal with the development of terrorism in the late 19th century. However, compared to Russia, France, Spain and Italy – where hundreds of anarchist terrorist attacks occurred – Britain got off rather lightly in regard to the number, frequency and severity of incidents. That said, as happened during the 21st century ‘War on Terror’, the British press were very hyperbolic in their reportage of terrorist attacks and would often exaggerate the scale of the threat. In certain presses it was also not uncommon for xenophobia to creep into the reportage, based on the notion that only non-Britons could possibly engage in bombings and assassinations. Britain was also a participant in the international policing efforts to contain anarchist terrorism by exchange intelligence and building up what today would be called watchlists for international terrorists, as well as pioneering one of the first bomb squads tasked with diffusing improvised explosive devices. So yes, a lot of what was assumed to be novel from 2001 onwards doesn’t seem quite so once you look back to the late Victorian ‘war on terror’.
Q – David Olusoga says it’s not his job to ‘make people feel good’ about the past. How important is it that we continue to deconstruct the Colonial Era?
It’s always important to look for the ugly in history. To my mind, understanding comes through confronting uncomfortableness – what is the purpose of history if not to seek understanding?
Q – Your keynote Kim Wagner says we are not responsible for the past but we are responsible for what we choose to remember and to forget? Do you agree with this?
Absolutely. This goes to the point of needing to face the ugly and, as it pertains to this conference, to identify the sources of the ugly. Societal anxieties and irrational fears have led to many a dark outcome in the history of not only Britain, but of many other nations. It’s that connection between feeling fears and responding to them that this conference will explore.
The conference will take place on June 21 & 22 in The Redmonds Building. LJMU. See full Britain Afraid Schedule 2122 June.