A Future Based on the Past: the scholarly and career benefits of studying History at postgraduate level

Why study history at postgraduate level? What do the expert commentators say? Here at Kingston University the History team often point our applicants to a range of sources which explain the huge benefits of postgraduate history, either at taught-course level or via masters research.

One good example of such a source is BBC History magazine which, back in October, 2015, contained a very handy supplement on expert advice, practical tips and inspiration for students ‘hoping to plan a future based on the past’. This remains highly relevant today, especially if you are thinking of applying to study history with us.

Cartoon of pencil

When it comes to careers with history as your skills-set, the supplement provided some truly great details on how an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in history can lead to all manner of careers, and it listed some famous celebrity graduates in the UK to illustrate the point.

From the world of the media, such history graduates have included the broadcaster Jonathan Ross, who studied Modern European History at the University of London, and radio presenter Simon Mayo, who graduated from Warwick University with a degree in History and Politics.

From the world of literature, another history graduate is the writer Penelope Lively, who found tremendous success as a writer of books for children and then of more general novels. Her best-selling novels have included Moon Tiger, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1987. The acting world has a famous history graduate in the shape of the comedian and writer Sacha Baron Cohen (recently on our TV screens in Who Is America?, a critical satire on rightwing politicians in the USA) , who graduated from Cambridge Uni in 1993 with a degree in History. The Golden-Globe winner and Oscar-nominated actor has since become one of Britain’s best-known comics, whose creations have included Ali G and Borat.

And the world of British politics has witnessed numerous examples of history graduates rising through the ranks, including even to the top job of British Prime Minister: former PM Gordon Brown graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a First-Class degree in History, and then stayed at the same institution to complete a postgraduate PhD in History ten years later, titled ‘The Labour Party and Political Change in Scotland 1918-29’.

Another section in the BBC History magazine supplement contained a fascinating short article by Dr. Anna Whitelock, of Royal Holloway, University of London, on the role of the historian today, and the new challenges and opportunities of the digital age. Her points were real food for thought for anybody contemplating studying history at postgraduate level, including here at Kingston.

Documents stacks in a repository at The National Archives (WikiCommons)

Documents stacks in a repository at The National Archives (WikiCommons)

As Dr. Whitelock commented in her opening line: ‘Has there ever been a better or more important time to study history? The past is alive, dynamic, controversial and hugely relevant’. She went on to argue that history is constantly being written and rewritten, contested and reinterpreted. Moreover, history is more than just studying the past – it is also about ‘critically engaging with the present and future’.

Furthermore, in her estimation, a history degree (whether at undergrad or postgrad level) is not just for those who want to be professional historians – ‘it is for anyone who is curious about the world around them and who wants to be a critically engaged citizen’.

Dr. Whitelock also pointed out that a history training can lead to a career in law, business, publishing, heritage, teaching, media or politics, but it is ‘equally valuable for those wanting to become an artist, author, actor or even a computer game designer’.

Significantly, according to Whitelock, the digital age has brought many new opportunities for historians in the 21st century, ‘opening up archives online, digitising documents and allowing the study of far-flung archives from home’.

The National Archives

That said, she also reminded us that ‘there is nothing better’ than visiting an archive and touching documents, and studying history can give access to ‘this vast treasure trove’. I couldn’t agree more! Here at Kingston Uni, we love to encourage original research. We have, for example, all the tremendous benefits of The National Archives (TNA) very close to us, just a bus ride away at Kew. And those students who might choose to embark on studying history at postgraduate level will have exciting opportunities to do this via a dissertation of their choice.

Studying history, Whitelock argued, also ‘requires students to consider what the archives of today will consist of for future generations of historians’. This is because there has been a revolution in communication, with tweets, texts, and e-mails rapidly replacing ‘traditional’ forms of contacts, such as hard-copy letters.

John Galsworthy Building

Dr. Whitelock then offered a nicely succinct summary of the dilemmas and challenges faced by historians today in the light of these rapid changes: the key questions, she wrote, are this: what should be preserved? How? By whom? And for whom?

Here at Kingston Uni, we actively encourage our students to think critically about all these types of questions and challenges, and more! Our History MA has a core module on ‘Doing History’, while students can choose other options from choices in the study of 20th century Britain, the study of international history, or the impact of the 18th century on British history, culture and society.

We also run an exciting staff and student talks and events programme called Cultural Histories at Kingston, where guest speakers from Kingston or from ouside institutions deliver individual talks or participate in round-table discussions and debates.

All of our taught-course MA modules are in the hands of real specialists in their fields, who have national and international reputations, and who are keen to integrate their own research into teaching their students. So, what are you waiting for? Check us out. Go to:


Dr. Steve Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

Kingston on Thames

(images: Wikimedia Commons)



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Insiders/Outsiders: New nationwide arts festival to celebrate wartime refugees and their cultural creativity

German and Austrian Jews who created art while being held in British internment camps in the early years of World War Two are to be celebrated in a new festival. Details have been announced in the UK of a new year-long nationwide arts festival, Insiders/Outsiders: Refugees from Nazi Europe and their Contribution to British Culture, which starts this month and will run until March, 2020.

According to an article by Michael Prodger in the Times newspaper (4th March), one hundred events will be held across the UK in association with the festival, and there will be a new book of the same name by Lund Humphries. There will also be a tie-in website.

Jewish chidren arrive in Britain 1938

More awareness now exists of the number of Jewish children who were able to find sanctuary in Britain in the late 1930s (see photo). But not many people realise that, when war was declared in September, 1939, there were an estimated 70,000 exiled Germans and Austrians in Britain. Many of them were adult Jews who, during the course of the 1930s, had escaped Nazi anti-Semitism, rising persecution and possible internment in camps in Germany and Austria, and had found what they believed was a safe-haven in Britain.

Yet, with the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany, many of these refugees, men and women alike, had been classed as ‘enemy aliens’. The British Home Office quickly set up an aliens department and created tribunals to investigate every one of these ‘aliens’ over the age of 16. Over 120 tribunals were set up across the UK in order to process and categorise aliens according to the  ‘threat’ they potentially posed: three categories of threat were created: ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. Those in category ‘A’ were to be interned.


By early 1940, the tribunals had processed about 73,000 cases, and about 60,000 were classed as category ‘C’, which meant they were exempted from internment. However, thousands were classed as category ‘A’, and were soon arrested and interned in a variety of emergency camps set up in places such as Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Bury, and even on the racecourse at Kempton Park. The majority of the internees were sent to camps on the Isle of Man (see photo).

The process of arrest and internment was inevitably very traumatic for many of those classed as category ‘A’, especially those who hated the Nazis and had found what they thought was a new and genuine form of freedom in England. In my own research on Kingston and Richmond, for example, I found a number of cases where Jews who had been working as housemaids or in other occupations had committed suicide rather than submit to arrest.

In June, 1940, after Italy entered the war, some 4,000 Italians living in Britain were also classed as ‘enemy aliens’ and a considerable number of them were also placed in the internment camps.

Many of the German and Austrian refugees who were interned were artists, architects, musicians, writers, film-makers and other talented figures from the cultural world and, ironically, had been categorised as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis. When they had come to Britain, many had found the freedom and individual liberty to express themselves artistically once again. The shock of internment left many disappointed, angry or simply confused at the attitudes of the British Government.

Interestingly, though, and importantly, when they were interned in the British camps, many held on to their cultural identities and pursued their talents – in so far as they were able to in difficult conditions – in the camps. The new festival aims to reconstruct this relatively under-researched topic.

On the Isle of Man, for example, there were ten camps which held about 14,000 internees, and a significant number of internees became determined to pursue and maintain their creative talents, using whatever materials they could find. The festival will show how, for example, ‘paint’ was created out of soot mixed with condensed milk, with brushes made out of sticks and clipped hair. Wallpaper torn off the internal walls of boarding houses (which had become part of the camp near Douglas on the Isle of Man), or paper napkins, or the pages of newspapers, were all utilised as drawing or painting paper. New forms of communal artistic life developed among the internees, with exhibitions, art classes, music and other cultural events staged within the camps. At Kempton Park, a popular ‘University’ was also created.

The festival aims to re-tell and celebrate all this incredible cultural creativity, and point out and remind us how many of the internees went on to make major contributions to Britain’s post-war cultural, academic and social life.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)


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‘East of Suez’ – Theresa May re-opens Harold Wilson’s imperial closure

A special guest blog by Dr. Neil Partrick  www.neilpartrick

Fifty years ago the British Government was struggling with austerity at home and exploring an uncertain international future. Nostalgia for what remained of Britain’s imperialism was not part of the ‘world power’ role that Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson ambiguously advocated when first elected in 1964. He wanted Britain to join the European Economic Community but prioritised the US relationship. Although he refused to send British troops to Vietnam, Wilson was targeted by the left, angry that he had not severed US-UK relations over the war.

Harold Wilson

This combination of financial and political factors made cancelling UK military commitments ‘East of Suez’ a seemingly easy option despite Washington’s blandishments for the UK to maintain its old imperial placement. Arab allies were not happy either. Feeling the decision would make them potentially vulnerable to Iran’s imperial ambitions, they begged and covertly offered financial inducements to Wilson’s Government to remain in the Arabian Peninsula. Given that the Shah was also a close British friend, Wilson’s Government calculated any such risk to the planned pull-out was manageable.

Half a century on, the May Government is trumpeting the UK’s return ‘East of Suez’ as a resumption of a British global role outside of Europe. A modest set of UK bases are once again being established in the Gulf and British officials are arguing that the UK’s national security necessitates that we help face down Iran. Gulf allies are grateful for this historic turnaround, and as the US tries to reduce its own military exposure in the Middle East while continuing to marshal Gulf allies against Iran, it is very happy for Britain to resume a ‘permanent’ military presence.

Wilson wisely kept Britain out of the US’ neo-imperial schemes in Vietnam and terminated the UK’s old imperial role East of Suez. Prime Minister Tony Blair reversed Wilson’s logic by signing up to the post-911 US ambition to reorder the Middle East, starting with Iraq. It seems incredible that 16 years after that debacle began, the current British Government is putting British forces literally in the frontline as US and allied Gulf tensions with Iran mount.

Wilson’s Defence Austerity

In the 1960s the Labour Government carried out a series of defence cuts that effectively ended Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s ambiguous ‘world power’ pretensions. The old aircraft carrier stock was to be wound down, a planned new, larger carrier was axed, and the purchase of the US F-111 fighter was abandoned. The political fig leaf of an ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent (Polaris), however, was maintained.

The announcement in 1968 of an end to the UK’s military role ‘East of Suez’, while not absolute when implemented in 1971, fitted with this trend. Apart from the crown colony of Hong Kong, Britain’s active military involvement in the Far East ended when UK-backed Malaysia’s three year struggle against Indonesia concluded in 1966. Without planning on remaining in Malaysia and Singapore, a UK military presence in the Gulf made little financial or practical sense. Having two months earlier pulled out of Aden after Egyptian troops had vacated Yemen, the East of Suez decision in January 1968 seemed a relatively small affair. Not to the Americans, though.

President Lyndon B Johnson discusses NATO issues with British Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

Maintaining Britain’s historic military presence East of Suez in the face of defence cuts and the Labour Government’s assertion that any future British military action should be UN-backed, was a contradiction. However, Wilson knew that this residual British world power role mattered to President Johnson (pictured with Wilson). LBJ and his diplomats saw this symbolic and practical British presence – in the Middle East as well as the Far East – as a useful adjunct at a time when the US was struggling in its fight against communism in Indo-China. Wilson had refused to send British troops to help the US in Vietnam but, wanting US support for Sterling, had delayed the pull-out. Sterling’s devaluation in 1967 and Britain’s ongoing economic malaise, brought the costs of such commitments back into consideration.

After the implementation of the pull-out in 1971 the UK still had troops in Hong Kong but had stopped being a player in Far Eastern security. However, while Britain had terminated its formal commitments to defend Gulf Arab rulers, it developed an extensive training and defence export role in the Gulf and even retained two air bases in Oman until 1976 to aid the Sultan’s repression of the Dhofar rebellion.

British Naval Forces

Gulf rulers had tried to persuade the Wilson Government to remain in Arabia. In May 1967 Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal had asked the Labour Prime Minister to keep British troops in Aden, believing that all Arabian hereditary rulers would otherwise be vulnerable to Egyptian-inspired Arab nationalism. The Kuwaiti emir promised to discreetly meet the cost of retaining the British presence in the Gulf (1), and thus retain the valued UK commitment to the Al-Sabah family’s defence. Publicly it was a different story. Kuwait politically exploited the UK’s decision as an opportunity to, paradoxically, assert both its Arabness and its sovereign independence, while various southern Gulf entities would for the first time enjoy the trappings of statehood. In advance of 1971, HMG diplomats had encouraged the Arab southern Gulf coastal sheikdoms to form a federation (2) that would cooperate with UK-friendly Kuwait and Oman and, most importantly, Saudi Arabia.

In 1968, the Wilson Government was unable to take proper account of the strategic vacuum it was creating, which the Shah of Iran would try to exploit to the Gulf Arabs’ disadvantage in the wake of Egypt’s political and military defeat by Israel in June 1967. After 1971 both Conservative and Labour Governments would compound the problem by arming Iran alongside US promotion of the Shah as an ostensible Gulf policeman in the wake of Vietnam having curtailed US global ambitions. Following the 1978/9 Iranian Revolution and the outbreak of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, the UK began to aggressively arm the Gulf Arab states, a trend that expanded following the British role in the US-led coalition that removed Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. The legacy of the 1991 Gulf War was that Britain effectively re-signed the defence commitments to the small Gulf Arab sheikdoms that it tore up in 1968. (In contrast, Britain’s commitment to Oman had never really lapsed, while the UK has never had a formal defence commitment to Saudi Arabia).

In 1971 the extent of the military real estate that Britain actually abandoned in the Gulf was a naval base in Bahrain (given to the Americans) and an air base in Sharjah (given to the newly-formed UAE). However, these were symbols of a corresponding formal UK commitment to defend the Gulf rulers. Cutting that commitment meant that Kuwait, and the three countries whose independent creation directly flowed from Wilson’s decision – the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar – were from 1971 responsible for their own defence. Since 1991, the UK (like the US and France) has periodically signed formal commitments to defend these countries (and Oman), and the RAF has had access rights to several local bases.

Returning East of Suez

Britain's Prime Minister May attends the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Manama

The current Conservative Government, eager to project a global UK role post-Brexit, sees little problem in what it trumpets as its return ‘East of Suez’ i.e. to eastern Arabia. An expanded British role in Gulf Arab security was a policy objective of the Cameron-led Governments. Since the Brexit decision, Prime Minister Theresa May and her defence ministers have very publicly asserted that Britain is back in the Gulf and that this is intrinsic to UK national security. This is strongly welcomed by Gulf rulers as a welcome reassurance at a time when the US, since Obama, has been wanting a less frontline role in regional security.

In practical terms this has meant that, since 2018, the British navy once again has a facility in Bahrain; an Anglo-Omani naval base is being constructed in Duqm on the Arabian Sea specifically to accommodate a new British aircraft carrier, while a joint training base housing British troops is about to open there; and a planned, albeit modest, British army base in Kuwait only awaits the Emir’s sign-off. In addition, the Emiratis host a British airwing at the Minhad base in Dubai and have invited Britain to station more uniformed personal there (3). British or jointly-controlled military facilities on the Arabian Peninsula will place the UK front and central should periodic tensions with Iran escalate. Such physical statements of UK defence commitments are primarily intended as a deterrent against threats to Britain’s Gulf allies. Any extended UK military action in their support would necessarily involve far greater deployments of British troops and arms, aided, if not dependent on, US support, and possibly in cooperation with the French who have a naval base in Abu Dhabi.

A half-century ago the Labour Government called time on frontline British exposure in the Gulf. In a very different climate today, Britain is seemingly even more, as the old adage has it, ‘in search of a role’ than it was under Wilson’s Government following ‘the loss of Empire’. The contemporary role the Conservative Government has re-opened for Britain in the Gulf may run considerably greater risks than Wilson’s historical closure.

(1) See pages 195-196, Partrick, Neil, ‘Kuwait’s foreign policy (1961-1977): Non-alignment, ideology and the pursuit of security’, http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/3164/

(2) In the event, seven of them formed the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain and Qatar opted to be separate states.

(3) See p. 333, Partrick, Neil, Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation (IB Tauris, London, 2018).

Dr. Neil Partrick is a freelance Middle East consultant

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)





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The National Archives provides first details on new ‘Cold War’ season

The National Archives (TNA), at Kew in south-west London, has provided some preliminary details about its new ‘Cold War’ season, which starts in April, 2019. It will comprise an exhibition, ‘Protect and Survive: Britain’s Cold War Revealed’, together with a varied programme of associated events.

The National Archives

TNA’s Cold War season will open with the special exhibition, located on the ground-floor of the building, and this will help launch a series of fascinating events which will explore the reality of life in a Britain that was under the persistent threat of nuclear attack during the Cold War era. The events will also include some exploration of the secret intelligence war engaged in by East and West, and how this impacted on Britain.

The events include:

Friday 5th April (evening): ‘An Evening with Dame Stella Rimmington’. Appointed Director-General of MI5, Britain’s domestic Security Service, in 1992, and the first woman to hold the job, Dame Stella is now a best-selling thriller writer. She will discuss her career, and there will be an opportunity for questions afterwards.

Thursday 25th April (afternoon): ‘The Scandalous Case of John Vassall’. This event will be devoted to the infamous case of  John Vassall, a civil servant caught in a ‘honey trap’ by Soviet intelligence at the height of the Cold War.

Thursday 9th May (evening): ‘From the Bomb to the Beatles’. This event looks at the general history and socio-political evolution of Britain in the 20 years following the end of the Second World War, a period of domestic events and surprising changes in the country, against a background of rising Cold War tensions.

Friday 17th May (evening): ‘Archives at Night: Cold War Revealed’. This promises to be an entertaining evening event for all, with quizzes and other activities, plus a chance for special tours of the new exhibition ‘Protect and Survive’.

TNA’s bookshop on the ground-floor will also have a range of history books devoted to all aspects of Britain’s role in the Cold War and to the more general ‘freeze’ in international relations that occurred during the Cold War period.

For more details on the Cold War season, see: nationalarchives.gov.uk/coldwar

The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9-4DU

Nearest tube station: Kew Gardens Station – District Line and London Overground

Cold War chemical suits


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