Category Archives: United Kingdom
Ask any of the few remaining World War II veterans what they did during the war and you’re likely to get a humble answer. But ask the person on the street how important their country’s contribution to the war effort was and you’ll probably hear something far less modest. A new study suggests people from Germany, Russia, the UK and the US on average all think their own country shouldered more than half the burden of fighting World War II.
Our national collective memories seem to be deceiving us, and this is part of a far more general pattern. Aside from those veterans who have no desire to revel in the horrors of war, we may have a general psychological tendency to believe our contributions are more significant than they really are.
You can see this in even the most mundane of tasks. Unloading the dishwasher can be a perennial source of family irritation. I suspect that I’m doing more than my fair share. The trouble is that so does everybody else. Each of us can think: “The sheer injustice! I’m overworked and under-appreciated.”
But we can’t all be right. This strange magnification of our own efforts seems to be ubiquitous. In business, sport or entertainment, it’s all too easy for each participant to think that their own special stardust is the real reason their company, team or show was a hit.
It works for nations, too. A study last year, led by US memory researcher Henry Roediger III, asked people from 35 countries for the percentage contribution their own nation has made to world history. A dispassionate judge would, of course, assign percentages that add up to no more than 100% (and, indeed, considerably less, given the 160 or so countries left out). In fact, the self-rating percentages add up to over 1,000%, with citizens of India, Russia and the UK each suspecting on average that their own nations had more than half the responsibility for world progress.
A sceptic might note that “contributing to world history” is a rather nebulous idea, which each nation can interpret to its advantage. (The Italians, at 40%, might focus on the Romans and the Renaissance, for example.) But what about our responsibility for specific world events? The latest study from Roediger’s lab addresses the question of national contributions to World War II.
The researchers surveyed people from eight former Allied countries (Australia, Canada, China, France, New Zealand, Russia/USSR, the UK and the US) and three former Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan). As might be expected, people from the winning Allied side ranked their own countries highly, and the average percentage responses added up to 309%. Citizens of the UK, US and Russia all believed their countries had contributed more than 50% of the war effort and were more than 50% responsible for victory.
You might suspect that the losing Axis powers, whose historical record is inextricably tied to the immeasurable human suffering of the war, might not be so proud. As former US president John F Kennedy said (echoing the Roman historian Tacitus): “Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.” Perhaps the results for the Allied countries just reflect a general human tendency to claim credit for positive achievements. Yet citizens of the three Axis powers also over-claim shares of the war effort (totalling 140%). Rather than minimising their own contribution, even defeated nations seem to overstate their role.
Why? The simplest explanation is that we piece together answers to questions, of whatever kind, by weaving together whatever relevant snippets of information we can bring to mind. And the snippets of information that come to mind will depend on the information we’ve been exposed to through our education and cultural environment. Citizens of each nation learn a lot more about their country’s own war effort than those of other countries. These “home nation” memories spring to mind, and a biased evaluation is the inevitable result.
So there may not be inherent “psychological nationalism” in play here. And nothing special about collective, rather than individual, memory either. We simply improvise answers, perhaps as honestly as possible, based on what our memory provides – and our memory, inevitably, magnifies our own (or our nation’s) efforts.
How do you calculate real responsibility?
A note of caution is in order. Assigning responsibilities for past events baffles not just everyday citizens, but academic philosophers. Imagine a whodunit in which two hopeful murderers put lethal doses of cyanide into Lady Fotherington’s coffee. Each might say: “It’s not my fault – she would have died anyway.” Is each only “half” to blame, and hence due a reduced sentence? Or are they both 100% culpable? This poisoning is a simple matter compared with the tangled causes of military victory and defeat. So it is not entirely clear what even counts as over- or under-estimating our responsibilities because responsibilities are so difficult to assess.
Still, the tendency to overplay our own and our nation’s role in just about anything seems all too plausible. We see history through a magnifying glass that is pointing directly at ourselves. We learn the most about the story of our own nation. So our home nation’s efforts and contributions inevitably spring readily to mind (military and civilian deaths, key battles, advances in technology and so on). The efforts and contributions of other nations are sensed more dimly, and often not at all.
And the magnifying glass over our efforts is pervasive in daily life. I can find myself thinking irritably, as I unload the dishwasher, “Well, I don’t even remember the last time you did this!” But of course not. Not because you didn’t do it, but because I wasn’t there.
Hidden women of history: Eleanor Anne Ormerod, the self taught agricultural entomologist who tasted a live newt
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
Insects have always been intimately connected with agriculture. Pest insects can cause tremendous damage, while helpful insects like pollinators and predators provide free services. The relatively young field of agricultural entomology uses knowledge of insect ecology and behaviour to help farmers protect their crops.
One of the most influential agricultural entomologists in history was an insatiably curious and fiercely independent woman named Eleanor Anne Ormerod. Although she lacked formal scientific training, Ormerod would eventually be hailed as the “Protectress of British Agriculture”.
Eleanor was born in 1828 to a wealthy British family. She did not attend school and was instead tutored by her mother on subjects thought to increase her marriageability: languages, drawing and music.
Like most modern entomologists, Eleanor’s interest in insects started when she was a child. In her autobiography, she tells of how she once spent hours observing water bugs swimming in a small glass. When one of the insects was injured, it was immediately consumed by the others.
Shocked, Eleanor hurried to tell her father about what she had seen but he dismissed her observations. Eleanor writes that while her family tolerated her interest in science, they were not particularly supportive of it.
Securing an advantageous marriage was supposed to be the primary goal of wealthy young women in Eleanor’s day. But her father was reclusive and disliked socialising; as a result, the family didn’t have the social connections needed to secure marriages for the children. Of Ormerod’s three sisters, none would marry.
The Ormerod daughters were relatively fortunate; their father gave them enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Their status as wealthy unmarried women gave them the freedom to pursue their interests free from domestic responsibilities and the demands of husbands or fathers. For Eleanor, this meant time to indulge her scientific curiosity.
Foaming at the mouth
Ormerod’s first scientific publication was about the poisonous secretions of the Triton newt. After testing the poison’s effects on an unfortunate cat, she decided to test it on herself by putting the tail of a live newt into her mouth. The unpleasant effects – which included foaming at the mouth, oral convulsions and a headache – were all carefully described in her paper.
Omerod’s first foray into agricultural entomology came in 1868, when the Royal Horticultural Society asked for help creating a collection of insects both helpful and harmful to British agriculture. She enthusiastically answered the call and spent the next decade collecting and identifying insects on the society’s behalf.
In the process, she developed specialist skills in insect identification, behaviour and ecology.
During her insect-collecting trips, Ormerod spoke with farmers who told her of their many and varied pest problems. She realised that farmers were in need of science-based advice for protecting their crops from insect pests.
Yet most professional entomologists of the time were focused on the collection and classification of insects; they had little interest in applying their knowledge to agriculture. Ormerod decided to fill the vacant role of “agricultural entomologist” herself.
In 1877, Ormerod self-published the first of what was to become a series of 22 annual reports that provided guidelines for the control of insect pests in a variety of crops. Each pest was described in detail including particulars of its appearance, behaviour and ecology. The reports were aimed at farmers and were written in an easy-to-read style.
An early form of crowdsourcing
Ormerod wanted to create a resource that would help farmers all over Britain. She quickly realised this task would require more information than she could possibly collect on her own. So Ormerod turned to an early version of crowdsourcing to obtain data.
She circulated questionnaires throughout the countryside asking farmers about the pests they observed, and the pest control remedies they had tried.
Whenever possible, she conducted experiments or made observations to confirm information she received from her network of farmers. Each of her reports combined her own work with that of the farmers and labourers she corresponded with. The resulting reports cemented Ormerod’s reputation.
Ormerod was invited to give lectures at colleges and institutes throughout Britain. She lent her expertise to pest problems in places as far afield as New Zealand, the West Indies and South Africa.
In recognition of her service, she was awarded an honorary law degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1900 – the first women in the university’s history to receive the honour. Such was her fame that acclaimed author Virginia Woolf later wrote a fictionalised account of Ormerod’s life called Miss Ormerod.
While she undoubtedly contributed to the rise of agricultural entomology as a scientific field, Ormerod’s legacy is complicated by her vocal support of a dangerous insecticide known as Paris Green. Paris Green was an arsenic-derived compound initially used as a paint (hence the name).
Although Paris Green was used extensively in North America, it was relatively unheard of in Britain. Ormerod made it her mission to introduce this new advance to British farmers. So strongly did she believe in its crop-saving power, she joked about wanting the words, “She brought Paris Green to Britain,” engraved on her tombstone.
Unfortunately, Paris Green is a “broad spectrum” insecticide that kills most insects, including pollinators and predators. The loss of predators in the crop ecosystem gives free rein to pests, creating a vicious cycle of dependence on chemical insecticides.
Paris Green also has serious human health impacts, some of which were recognised even in Ormerod’s day. The fact that arsenic was a common ingredient in all manner of products – including medicines – may partly explain why Ormerod seems to have underestimated the danger of Paris Green to human and environmental health.
Ormerod’s steadfast promotion of Paris Green seems naïve in retrospect. But the late 1800’s was a time of tremendous optimism about the power of science to solve the world’s problems.
Paris Green and other insecticides allowed farmers to cheaply and effectively protect their crops – and thus their livelihoods. In fact, less than 50 years after Ormerod’s death, chemist Paul Muller won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the infamous (and environmentally catastrophic) insecticide DDT. When viewed in light of the “pesticide optimism” of her time, Ormerod’s enthusiasm about Paris Green is easier to understand.
Interestingly, Ormerod wasn’t just an insecticide evangelist. Her reports gave recommendations for a variety of pest control methods such as the use of exclusion nets and the manual removal of pests. These and other environmentally friendly techniques now form the core of modern “integrated pest management”, the gold standard for effective and sustainable pest control.
Eleanor Ormerod was devoted to the cause of protecting agriculture at a time when few “serious” entomologists were interested in applying their knowledge to agriculture. She recognised that progress in agricultural entomology could only happen when entomologists worked in close partnership with farmers.
She continued working and lecturing to within weeks of her death in 1901; in all of her years of service, she was never paid.
The link below is to an article that looks at the discovery of a Viking drinking hall in Orkney.
Tramping artisans who marched thousands of miles a year are proof that Britain was built by migrants
“If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere” – so said British prime minister Theresa May in a speech which captured the tone of the Conservative government’s long-running campaign to crack down on immigration. From creating a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, to ramping up visa restrictions and pursuing a Brexit deal to end freedom of movement between the UK and Europe, the Conservative government has made strenuous efforts to prevent immigration to the UK.
What’s perhaps more surprising is that the opposition felt compelled to say something similar: the Labour party’s manifesto declares it would honour the EU referendum result and end freedom of movement, replacing it instead with “fair immigration rules”, as yet not clearly defined.
Both parties’ stances contain a grain of irony. The Conservatives – seen in the past as supporting businesses that make money from international labour – now seeking to tighten the borders. Labour – a party descended from unions set up to support worldwide movement of labour – now showing little sense of solidarity with international or EU workers.
But as a professor researching labour history and media communication, I find the greatest irony is that migration helped forge the very social, cultural and economic infrastructures that Britain now seeks to wall off from the rest of the world.
A brief history of British migration
Between 1815 and 1930, an estimated 11m Britons left for North America, Australasia and South Africa. During the same period, 7m Irish shipped out to the US and the British dominions. Migration on this massive scale contributed to imperial and labour diasporas – economic migrants shifting across international borders during a period of great change.
At the same time, between 1840 and 1911 around 4.5m people moved from the countryside to British cities such as London, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Glasgow, Birmingham and Newcastle to take up work and learn new skills. With this came the need to help those without jobs.
Until the Trade Union Act of 1871, UK trade unions were prevented from organising for political purposes. Instead, workmen banded together as mutual self-help societies. They provided funds for illness and death duties, set up regional support networks and offered members financial support during periods of unemployment.
From the early 1800s onwards, UK labour unions built sophisticated structures to support the movement of people locally, regionally and globally. The general workings were similar: societies issued members with travelling documents indicating their good standing, as well as information on union contacts strung along a circuit of towns.
Travellers presented themselves to such representatives (available in the evening usually in a pub or meeting space), where they would be issued with an official note for lodgings, offered food and drink and paid a small sum for distances tramped (between a half-penny or a penny per mile). If work was forthcoming, they would be directed to relevant employers; if not, they continued onwards.
In such ways, tramping artisans would often cover huge distances over a course of many months. In one extreme case from 1848, a tramping typographer marched over 1,800 miles, leaving London to take in the delights of Southampton, Bristol, Glasgow, Stirling and 21 different Irish towns, before returning to his old haunts a year later.
A global network
International movement was part of that mix. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, union-sponsored emigration grants offset travel costs of union members, enabling them to circulate along transnational routes as part of the British Empire’s colonial expansion in places such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and India.
The Scottish Typographical Association, for example, operated a structured emigration scheme for its members. Between 1903 and 1912 it paid out over £1,626 in emigration grants – worth £625,000 in modern currency. Travel subsidies usually averaged between £5 to £10 per member (worth £500 to £1,000 in modern currency), depending on how long they had been a member of the union. This was quite substantial during a period when you could enjoy a pint of bitter in your local pub for a penny, travel from Birmingham to London for 20p, and the average earnings in 1908 were £70 a year.
Governments and civilians in British settlements were often complicit in subjugating, suppressing and destroying indigenous cultures in pursuit of colonial expansion. The ongoing impacts of colonialism in these places are many and complex. Yet migration played its part in shaping those regions in ways that have since defined their national identities, bringing trade skills and knowledge.
Migrants supported by union schemes started businesses that were central to shaping the economies of emerging communities and towns, such as Lawrence in New Zealand, Ballarat in Australia and Kimberley in South Africa. They parlayed and passed on their knowledge and expertise to others they encountered on their travels.
The unions that emerged in the 19th century developed complex information and support networks to respond to the need for trade worker movement. They were used to support those who could not find long-term work, and to create global knowledge and skills exchange systems.
British people should recognise that the working world today has been greatly shaped by a freedom of movement that was once encouraged and supported. The flotsam and jetsam of the past, also despised as citizens of nowhere, often became civic leaders thanks to union links and support, offering generosity of communal spirit and embrace of potential worth. It’s best not to forget such lessons, in today’s turbulent times.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at Late Bronze Age ‘Must Farm’ in eastern England.