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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser