I am a PhD student in human geography studying the networks of solidarity developed during the miners’ strike of 1984-5. Part of my reason for wanting to do this research is a sense that developing our understanding of this important historical moment for the left is useful for contemporary progressive politics. I am not sure, however, that I have always properly examined this justification. One of the most famous history books on the miners, Hywel Francis and Dai Smith’s The Fed (1979), in some ways exemplifies this kind of approach. The preface, written by senior South Wales mining union officials, summed up what they felt the book should do: ‘We trust that this volume will assist our members in gaining a better understanding and appreciation of past sacrifices so that they, and succeeding generations, may strive more vigorously for the socialist society our forebears struggled valiantly to attain’. In a later edition, Francis and Smith wrote that the book had been blamed for a series of strikes in the South Wales coalfields in the early 1980s. This kind of spur to action, whether it was true or not in this case, seems a fairly unlikely outcome of most historical writing. Nevertheless, I am interested in discussing whether or not it is possible to imagine history ‘as a weapon in left-wing political campaigns’ and how we would go about doing this.
I am, like many other lefties who study British history (or historical geography), influenced by ‘history from below’ and the History Workshop movement in particular. While there is of course still important work being done through bodies with strong connections to this tradition—History Workshop Journal, History Workshop Online, the Raphael Samuel Centre—the History Workshops themselves have gone. Anna Davin pointed to the weakening of adult education and the labour movement; the integration of some of ‘our once-so radical political and intellectual ideas’ into the education system; and the gloomy present undercutting ‘those hopes that by understanding the past we could change the future’, as explaining the decline of the History Workshop movement. My interest in helping to organise this conference is to get postgraduates together who research the past and identify with progressive politics to discuss both what we can learn from these radical traditions and what needs to be done differently now.