Not yet the Break-up of Britain: Researching the history of Britishness

Paul Ward, Professor of Modern British History and author of Britishness since 1870 (London, 2004), considers the role of history in understanding the outcome of the referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014.

I’m terribly disappointed by the outcome of the Scottish referendum. I hoped for Scottish independence as a way of changing a too conservative and complacent United Kingdom in which too much power rests with traditional elites from wealthy, privileged backgrounds and which the Labour Party has historically accepted as ‘the British way’.

Britishness since 1870

In the last days of the campaign I did think that a Yes vote was possible. The Yes campaign was exciting and radical and the British Establishment combined to try to suffocate it. It is an amazing achievement that 45% or so of Scottish voters, despite this barrage of ‘Better Together’ propaganda, voted for an independent Scotland. But as a historian of Britishness and other national identities, I did think that the outcome would be a No vote.

My research across the last 20 years has been about the way in which the United Kingdom has allowed the negotiation of multiple identities within its borders – that it has been possible to be Scottish, Welsh and English within the UK. That, at the top of society, being united gave elites in Scotland the chance to be imperial rulers, and that politicians from Scotland and Wales (Lloyd George for example) had the opportunity to play a global role based on Britain’s imperial past. For others, there were advantages to being British and united offered by the success of radicalism, which culminated in the British National Health Service – a rallying cry for Yes campaigners in Scotland was that English Tories were privatising the NHS and that independence would save it.

Britishness is able to absorb but not assimilate, because this inclusive view of Britishness seeks to allow space for the expression and affiliation to a never-ending range of identities. Sam Selwyn, a Trinidadian novelist of South Asian descent, utilised the phrase “black British” to describe all non-white Britons, and while the term’s use is disputed, particularly among those young black people alienated by police and state racism, it has also been taken up with pride by a range of prominent figures. The adoption of the description “British Muslim” also signifies integration with a sense of difference. It is also clear that many, probably the majority, of people see that cultural contact between different ethnic groups in the UK leads to cultural trading rather than cultural contamination. Most white Britons do not feel swamped by “foreign” cultures, but embrace them in a huge variety of ways. In many northern cities for example the traditional galas are now joined in the civic calendar by Asian-inspired melas and Afro-Caribbean carnivals. The Notting Hill Carnival, held annually in London in August, is the largest street festival in Europe. As it is possible to be a British woman, so it is possible to be black-British, Chinese British, as it has been possible for most in Wales to be British and Welsh. Of course there are tensions and conflicts – the Irish revolution of 1916-21, the Troubles, racist murders and violence all show that it’s not always easy living in Britain, and more than four out of ten Scots want out, but the UK and Britishness are flexible enough to accommodate much of the debate and discussion about living in the UK.

Last of the Summer Wine meets multi-cultural Britain. The programme for Huddersfield’s Carnival of Racial Friendship in 1978

This is what I’ve explored in my books, Britishness since 1870, Unionism in the United Kingdom, 1918-1974 and Huw T. Edwards: British Labour and Welsh Socialism (available from all good booksellers). As a citizen, I want radical social and political change and I’m optimistic that it can happen, but as a historian I know that radical change isn’t easy to achieve and that to achieve change you need to understand what you are up against. I’ve argued, based on historical research, that Britishness is a remarkably resilient identity. The Scottish referendum, which I so hoped would break up Britain, showed that a historical approach to national identities is essential.

History at Huddersfield uses research-led teaching and a commitment to public engagement to ensure that what we do is both useful to society and beneficial to the employability of our students. We see our students as researchers  –  partners in the development of knowledge with academic staff, often through co-production of knowledge with community partners. For more information see  and

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The BBC’s World War One At Home Live and Armed Forces Day in Woolwich by Amerdeep Singh Panesar

On June 28th I was given the opportunity to work with the UKPHA’s outreach team at the BBC’s World War One at home tour in Woolwich. The BBC’s World War one at Home tour is visiting many different locations in the UK and the aim of tour is too reflect on the impact the war had on families and communities during the outbreak of war.  With Armed Forces Day falling on the same day it was fitting the tour was based at the Woolwich army base. My role on the day was working with the UKPHA (UK Punjabi Heritage Association) and there outreach team. Our contribution to the tour was a stall recognising the non-white contribution to the World War one war effort focusing on Sikh/Indian contribution. Despite the Indians playing a large role in war their contribution is often forgotten.  Close to 1.5 million Indians served fighting in all the major theatres of battle from the Flanders fields to Mesopotamia. At Woolwich we had many artefacts from the war for the public to view and handle. This included original war medals and a Death Plaque which was given to the next of kin of servicemen/woman who had fallen. Other objects were on the stall such as a standard Indian soldier’s kit bag and an officer’s swagger stick. The stall also included a stereoscope to view images from war.

In all we received a positive reaction from the British public on the day. For some of the people that came to the event it was a shock for them to learn so many Indians had gone to War to defend Britain and its allies. Many were surprised about size the Indian contribution in terms of soldiers sent. The main aim of the day was to promote the opening of the Empire, Faith and War gallery at SOAS, Russell square which is an exhibition on the Sikh contribution in World War One. The Gallery is open till 28th September with free admission. For more information please visit I would also like to thank the BBC and UKPHA for giving me the opportunity to be a part of the World War one at home tour.

History at Huddersfield uses research-led teaching and a commitment to public engagement to ensure that what we do is both useful to society and beneficial to the employability of our students. We see our students as researchers – partners in the development of knowledge with academic staff, often through co-production of knowledge with community partners. For more information see  and

You can email us at

Manchester and the Punk scene

Third year student, Jack Clarke, shares his love of the Manchester music scene and his experience of researching and writing an honours project

Towards the end of our second year at University we were given the option of choosing our topics and titles for our upcoming dissertation in the third year. As much as I enjoy history my initial idea of writing 12,000 words on local politics wasn’t as enthralling as first thought after some further reading. I began exploring my own interests for a historical twist and decided on local music. Being from Greater Manchester there has always been a large pride in the local culture and I’ve seen the effects music had on friends, work-peers and family, and how music drove opinion. Continue reading

World cup fever

Dr Daryl Leeworthy waxes lyrical on world cup songs and football camaraderie

With the last steps on the road to Rio nearly upon us, it’s time for football fans across the world to settle down in front of the radio, the tv, or the projector screen in the pub, to watch one of the greatest sports tournaments humans have yet invented. The best bit about soccer is the camaraderie that goes along with it – getting carried away singing songs and leaping to the air when your team scores. Sadly, as a Welshman, my team never quite makes it. We will one day! And so, I fall back on my dad’s nation – England – to pin any hopes of a world cup victory on. Continue reading

Huddersfield: A Century of Pacifism – student soundwalk

Stop the War Coalition

My name is Jack Yard and I am a second year History undergraduate studying the ‘Hands on History’ module, led by Dr Janette Martin, at the University of Huddersfield. For our second project of the module we were set the task of producing an audio walk presenting an area of Huddersfield’s history to the public. The project required us to carry out research through both archival research and oral history, and then assemble the twenty minute audio walk on editing software. Continue reading

Linking dress history and the study of amateur film

Amateur Cine World, Front Cover July 1948

Heather Norris Nicholson, at the Centre for Visual and Oral History, in the Department of Media and Journalism at the University of Huddersfield, tells us about her latest journeys into seeing differently that spring from and add to her continuing work on amateur visual culture and the making of films by Britain’s non-professional filmmakers during the mid twentieth century. Continue reading

The Impact of History on Mental Health Awareness

‘Hands on History’ students at the Mental Health Museum

Dr Rob Ellis tells about how history plays a part in Mental Health Awareness week.

This year Mental Health Awareness week takes place between 12-18 May. As part of the programme of events that are taking part across the country, I will be giving a public lecture, hosted by West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS).  As a historian of mental health care, I know the WYAS collections well and I am looking forward to discussing the importance and relevance of them with another new audience. Continue reading

Holly Lewis tells us about her work placement with St Anne’s Community Services

Students and participants in the St Anne’s Project

As a second year history student and a person who has a keen interest in modern history it is very easy to be swept away with tales of great nations and great people. We may often turn our sights to our own country but it is, however, a rarity that we turn our sights to something closer to home: our own community. Continue reading

Student sound walk exploring Huddersfield’s march to war


War Recruitment @ Kirklees Image Archive

My name is Adam West and this is my second blog as a second year history undergraduate at the University of Huddersfield where I have been undertaking a module looking at making history more accessible to the Huddersfield public. This module, called Hand’s on History, was taught by Dr Janette Martin and during the course of the year, in groups, we were to design an exhibition board and make a sound walk, both centred on historic themes in Huddersfield.  I have written a blog on the exhibition board, which was called Combat, Khaki and the Colne Valley, which was based on a conscientious objector in the First World War. For the sound walk, my team consisting of Martyn Richardson, Amy Austin and I decided to use Martyn’s idea of World War I and the march to war as a terrific sound walk, which went alongside the centenary of the start of the war this year.

Recruitment in Huddersfield was similar to most working class towns; the soldiers were mixed in their moods as was the crowd, as many had been expecting war, (not in mainland Europe, but rather in Ireland). The soldiers in Huddersfield were part of the West Riding Duke of Wellington Regiment and on the 5th August 1914, with the outbreak of war, 450 men and officers marched down New Street and into St Georges Square to begin their journey to war. Most were sent to guard water towers and power stations in Lincolnshire and were to arrive in France at a later date.

Our sound walk consisted of contextually setting the scene of Huddersfield in August 1914 when people awoke to a war-time Britain. Standing outside the Town Hall, listeners are guided through the soldiers feelings as they march down New Street and John Williams Street towards the train station. The narrative takes  the listener on a detour to the Market Place where recruitment would begin when the attrition rate at the front began to rise.

After the listener ‘re-joins’ the soldiers at the train station they are immersed into the feelings and thoughts of an anonymous soldier from Huddersfield and his diary extracts  and letters home. All the extracts were compiled from online sources and letters found in the West Yorkshire Archive Service in Huddersfield. Beautifully read out by Martyn, the listener experiences the devastation of war as the letters slowly begin to descend into writing of pain and suffering. Towards the end of the sound walk, a two-way alternative ending was scripted at the Market Cross in the town centre where the listener reaches a certain point, a gas attack on the front,  and they are not sure whether the person survives or dies.

This highly emotive end tries to distinguish how close every soldier was to death and tries to paint a picture of the sacrifice made from the 4500 soldiers that died on the Front from Huddersfield.

This sound walk attempts to show and reveal the emotion that would have been evident at the onset of war in Huddersfield in 1914 and the experiences the soldiers on the frontline went through by the reading out of their thoughts through mock letters. The research on gathering information from the Huddersfield Examiner and WWI letters shows the authenticity of our sound walk and attempts to put the listener there in 1914. We were also fortunate to get to talk to John Rumsby and Cyril Pearce of the Huddersfield Local History Society, who were both able to give us helpful information in formulating our script for the sound walk.

As well as using a piece of classical music as backing music for the sound walk, we ended on the Last Post as an attempt to leave no eye dry and hopefully engage with the listener to remember the lives of those who died.

Adam West

If you would like to hear the sound walk please get in touch with Janette Martin


History at Huddersfield uses research-led teaching and a commitment to public engagement to ensure that what we do is both useful to society and beneficial to the employability of our students. We see our students as researchers – partners in the development of knowledge with academic staff, often through co-production of knowledge with community partners. For more information see and

You can email us at