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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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