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Gordon Pentland

It takes some considerable effort to remember Theresa May’s time as prime minister. Her two governments ran from the resignation of David Cameron immediately after the political earthquake of the Brexit referendum in 2016, to May’s own tearful resignation in the summer of 2019 as the aftershocks swallowed her minority government. The distending effects of the past three years of UK (and world) politics have already made the May era a kind of historical curiosity. The consequent danger is that we look back to her stint as prime minister as the last gasp of sensible politics avant le déluge.

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Two of my favourite images in Stuart Ward’s important new book reproduce black-and-white photographs. One captures the life-sized butter sculpture of the prince of Wales and his favourite Canadian horse, the star exhibit of the 1924 Empire Exhibition at Wembley. The other shows a group of protesters in London in 1973 contesting European Economic Community restrictions on imports of Commonwealth cane sugar from the West Indies and Queensland. Most of the faces in the picture are obscured, but the body language of a man to the left of the frame, slumped over his hand-rendered ‘Beat Beet. Keep Cane’ placard, communicates depression and dejection.

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In this week’s ABR Podcast, Gordon Pentland examines the theatrical impulses of contemporary British politics. He argues that these performative elements are an attempt to capture widespread nostalgia for the British past. Gordon Pentland is Professor of History at Monash University and a specialist on the political history of Britain since the late eighteenth century. ‘Parlour games: Britain and the anaesthesia of nostalgia’ is published in the May issue of ABR. ... (read more)

It is a truism that all politics is performance. Successful leaders are frequently adept in the manipulation and deployment of scripts, props, stages, and costumes. To their credit, British politicians have worked exceedingly hard over the past year and more to explore the full range of theatrical genres. The vaudevillian moral vacuum of Boris Johnson’s government was reprised in recent weeks as Johnson put on a command performance, all wispy blond hair and faux indignation, for the Commons Privileges Committee. The unbelievable farce that ended his time at 10 Downing Street gave way swiftly to the burlesque-cum-tragicomedy of Liz Truss and her chancellor’s calamitous (not to say ironic) ‘mini’ budget. We seem to have arrived, in the efforts of Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer to out-gravitas one another, at a sustained attempt to revive the long-lost tradition of the morality play.

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I was sorely tempted to judge this book by its cover. The ‘Scotland’ of the title is large, bold, and confident. The subtitle ‘The Global History 1603 to the Present’ is there in diminuendo, unassuming and easy to miss. This encapsulates the volume’s central tension: how is it possible to write the global history of a single nation? How can the emphasis of the first project on boundaryless movement, circulation, and exchange be made to play nicely with the second genre’s preoccupation with distinctiveness, peculiarities, and place?

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Jeremy Bentham and Australia edited by Tim Causer, Margot Finn, and Philip Schofield & Panopticon versus New South Wales and Other Writings on Australia edited by Tim Causer and Philip Schofield

December 2022, no. 449

In the centenary of Jeremy Bentham’s death in 1932, there was widespread and somewhat macabre interest in the Australian press in the commemorative dinner at University College London, at which Bentham’s famous auto-icon made an appearance as the guest of honour. Some of the more serious commentary sought to educate readers about this ‘human bridge between the thought of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ and more especially about his relationship to Australia. New South Wales was established as an experimental penal colony just as Bentham (1748–1832) was reaching the height of his powers, and could hardly fail to play a dynamic and critical role within his thinking on crime and punishment. Given the origins and nature of the colonies that became Australia’s states, they could not but bear some imprint from the house-philosopher of the Victorian British state, making Bentham, in Judith Brett’s assessment, Australia’s ‘foundational thinker’. 

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