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I have never considered myself a political historian, but a cultural and social historian whose work may have something to say about politics. The world of parliamentary debates, internal party politics, opinion polls, committee meetings and manifestos felt remote from my pursuit of the everyday experiences of migration, empire and war.
Political organisations, structures or policies might offer the necessary framework for my research—the legislative change which impacted constituents, non-governmental organisations’ commentary on policy change, the MP who offered leverage for a campaigning group—but not its substance. Yet, my work is closely shaped by key political questions about citizenship, about the state, and about the postcolonial and global geopolitics that have informed political responses to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.
By thinking about citizenship as relational and everyday, I have considered, ‘Who gets to be a family in the UK and in Europe?’ And ‘who is able to have a family life that is private from the state?’ Drawing on examples from my own research on refugees and asylum seekers in modern Britain, and on the wider field of modern British history, I demonstrate the possibilities of diversification as a way to enliven political history's future. What might the diversification of British political history look like? Whom do we count as political actors? Who has access to democratic processes and where does politics happen beyond these processes? To what forms of political thought do we attend?
Political actors: who is counted?
The first aspect of ‘diversification’ is who counts as a political actor, and whose politics is taken seriously. Becky Taylor urged historians to keep two thoughts in mind: taking somebody seriously on their own terms and the importance of understanding the world from someone else’s perspective. In particular, how do marginalised and mobile populations relate to the state, and what is their view on this topic? Though some of these populations may be numerically small or localised, they have not been insignificant in making the British past. Exploring how such populations have been categorised and treated by the state, and how they have responded, helps historians to understand the extent of state power at local and national levels. By taking different people seriously as political actors, we can analyse, critique and compare the many ways of doing politics and being political in British history. Refugee politics is one point in question.
The Messy Business of Doing Politics
‘Messy’ is an apt term for refugee politics. Rather than just a ‘single issue’ of immigration, refugees are woven into the wider fabric of policy making, whether in promoting English language education for children or providing health and social care for elderly refugees, among others. The sprawling nature of refugee politics means that the records of relevant NGOs and charities are deeply enmeshed in local council politics and funding, alongside their archives. This suggests the need for further attention to regional and local differences, rather than concentrating on the nation as the singular analytical frame.
The importance of the local is most evident in housing provision for refugees and asylum seekers. This was decentralised to local government because of dispersal policies that scattered new arrivals to limit the ‘burden’ of financial support and tolerance on existing populations. In 1980, the Woodchurch Tenants’ Association began to contest Vietnamese refugees’ residence in a housing estate in Birkenhead, offering one example of ordinary politics in action. Through campaigning work and disruption of council activity, the group successfully forced the council to stop housing refugees in the empty flats next door. These refugees were no longer able to have a private family life on the estate. This raises questions over who is and who is not able to have a private family life on a topic which is just that - private.
Part of ‘diversification’ also means considering who had access to various democratic processes. Refugees and asylum seekers, the homeless, and Gypsy and Traveller communities may not have the stable address needed for inclusion on the electoral roll. Those treated violently or with suspicion by the state may prefer to remain off the radar of authorities. As well as questioning the representativeness of polling data or surveys as sources, we could think about the other places where political opinions are expressed. These are not new questions. Historians of the disenfranchised, including historians of suffrage, have long dealt with politics beyond the electorate. But they push us to locate where, and in what form, those outside the electorate are participating in politics.
Diversification also means looking beyond British politics. The entangled political aspirations of the refugee who does not necessarily want to be in Britain any longer than is needed draws us into new political geographies. Interviews with Chilean exiles in the UK have demonstrated that while Chilean solidarity politics brought exile communities into contact with British politics, their allegiance to Chile remained supreme. Other arrivals to Britain were not necessarily as concerned with the prospect of a return ‘home’. For many arriving from the former empire as citizens, Britain’s politics were their own. But the importance of international political ties and allegiances should not be underestimated. Acknowledging this helps to reframe geopolitical relations with the UK beyond the boundaries of the nation-state. It also helps to work towards a more transnational and comparative approach to political history.
Finally, diversification means reflecting upon the political thought and thinkers to which we attend. This includes both the historical thinkers whose ideas and influence upon British politics may not have been widely acknowledged. Diversification is not only about expanding the historical actors deemed political, but the debates that political history enters. This requires a more foundational rethinking about who we read and whose ideas we take seriously.
What are the dividing lines and pathways that British political history has not yet trodden? Will British political history’s future dwelling be built on existing foundations, or might it find a new form? Understanding the political implications of the broader field of modern British history will help secure the vitality of this field and enhance its diversity. The possibilities for connection and collaboration within the broader field of British history seem ripe for the taking.