Local history is first for the chop

County archives are seen as a soft target for spending cuts - but their loss would disconnect us fro

A friend of mine, a professional historian, once described himself as an "archive anorak". Having done some research in county archives recently for a number of projects, I'm starting to see his point.

There's nothing like the excitement -- stay with me on this one -- of unearthing a document which only a handful of people have seen in the past 300 years, but which provides the vital missing piece of some puzzle you've been working on.

There are constant surprises to be had: parish records, for example, are far more than a matter of births, marriages and deaths, but record all kinds of transactions -- charitable, business and the plain dubious. You can find letters giving an instant and shocking access into the life of a person long since forgotten.

Alongside all this, the staff are unfailingly helpful, the silence is incredibly soothing and there are often rare and interesting books worth making the trip for alone. As you might have gathered, I have to admit to falling for the strange and specific allure of the archives.

I say "strange" partly because "local history", as a discipline, often seems rather unfashionable. As it remains mostly the preserve of amateurs, it's the direct heir of 18th- and 19th-century antiquarianism -- and has inherited many of the latter's faults, including in some cases that portentous, overwritten style horribly familiar from small-town guidebooks.

Yet as the BBC's 2010 series Story of England eloquently demonstrated, taking a local perspective is the best way of getting people to engage with the past, if it's creatively handled. Its device of getting ordinary residents of Kibworth, Leicestershire to read out the words of their long-dead predecessors was almost as startling and effective, in its way, as Peter Watkins' groundbreaking 1964 documentary, Culloden -- a film that changed my whole perception of "history" when I first saw it.

None of this would be possible without the local archives' rich and detailed resource of material on the lives of ordinary people. Of the 300 or so organisations in England and Wales which keep substantial archives, a large proportion are made up by county archives and record offices: one for each county, and in many cases further city archives and local studies centres, a few integrated with libraries, but many being separate institutions. There are 16 such archives in London alone; this is a huge and valuable body of material.

We shouldn't take these resources for granted. Along with all local-authority run services, the county and local authority archives are now also under threat in the current financial climate.

The retrenchment starts at the very top: back in July 2010, Jeremy Hunt announced that the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, among other bodies, would be cut. It is already transferring some of its "expertise" to the Arts Council, itself facing cuts in its budget -- a puzzling conflation of history with the arts that places both at a disadvantage. Worryingly, no announcement has yet been made with regard to its support for the less-visible archive services.

Several councils have already drawn up proposals such as reducing the opening hours of their services and making staff redundant. One local authority, Devon, proposed a cut of 30 per cent in funding to its archives -- equivalent to seven full-time staff posts -- only partially relenting, and promising a public consultation on any cuts, after pressure from academics and local history groups.

Buckingham is proposing an £80,000 cut: more possible redundancies. Hammersmith and Fulham is taking the step of suspending access to its reading room, with a fee to be introduced for written requests. The list goes on.

Archive services are, unfortunately, a soft target. By nature they take up a lot of building space, space whose conditions have to be carefully controlled; many functions can only be run highly qualified professional staff, not volunteers; they are constantly expanding. They are too specialist to fit well alongside the coffee shops, internet access and other add-ons that have helped keep my local libraries going.

A fair proportion of their users are students or retired: all these things will place them low down on the priority list of councils struggling to plan for front-loaded cuts. But the high number of older visitors also, in a way, points towards the universality of this sort of history. It seems we all become more interested in it as we get older, probably because as time passes and people and landmarks once familiar to us disappear, it's easier to appreciate that the same process has always occurred: if you haven't yet had that surprising first moment of thinking "I remember when all this was fields", trust me, you soon will.

This is social history in its purest and most intimate form. We should all support keeping it accessible and -- importantly -- free to use, if only in recognition that, in time, all of us will be reduced to a few lines and documents in such an archive.

More than ever, the archive services need someone to speak up for them. David Cameron is fond of deploying the idea of Britain's "heritage": well, it is all here, in deeds, letters and maps, as much as in stately homes and churches, and all free for anyone to study. It would be tragic if any of these resources themselves were to pass into history.

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Commons Confidential: Dave's picnic with Dacre

Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

Sulking David Cameron can’t forgive the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, for his role in his downfall. The unrelenting hostility of the self-appointed voice of Middle England to the Remain cause felt pivotal to the defeat. So, what a glorious coincidence it was that they found themselves picnicking a couple of motors apart before England beat Scotland at Twickenham. My snout recalled Cameron studiously peering in the opposite direction. On Dacre’s face was the smile of an assassin. Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

The good news is that since Jeremy Corbyn let Theresa May off the Budget hook at Prime Minister’s Questions, most of his MPs no longer hate him. The bad news is that many now openly express their pity. It is whispered that Corbyn’s office made it clear that he didn’t wish to sit next to Tony Blair at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial in London. His desire for distance was probably reciprocated, as Comrade Corbyn wanted Brigadier Blair to be charged with war crimes. Fighting old battles is easier than beating the Tories.

Brexit is a ticket to travel. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is lifting its three-trip cap on funded journeys to Europe for MPs. The idea of paying for as many cross-Channel visits as a politician can enjoy reminds me of Denis MacShane. Under the old limits, he ended up in the clink for fiddling accounts to fund his Continental missionary work. If the new rule was applied retrospectively, perhaps the former Labour minister should be entitled to get his seat back and compensation?

The word in Ukip is that Paul Nuttall, OBE VC KG – the ridiculed former Premier League professional footballer and England 1966 World Cup winner – has cold feet after his Stoke mauling about standing in a by-election in Leigh (assuming that Andy Burnham is elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May). The electorate already knows his Walter Mitty act too well.

A senior Labour MP, who demanded anonymity, revealed that she had received a letter after Leicester’s Keith Vaz paid men to entertain him. Vaz had posed as Jim the washing machine man. Why, asked the complainant, wasn’t this second job listed in the register of members’ interests? She’s avoiding writing a reply.

Years ago, this column unearthed and ridiculed the early journalism of George Osborne, who must be the least qualified newspaper editor in history. The cabinet lackey Ben “Selwyn” Gummer’s feeble intervention in the Osborne debate has put him on our radar. We are now watching him and will be reporting back. My snouts are already unearthing interesting information.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution