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Response to Review no. 737

Any book review from an authority as eminent in his subject as Professor Belchem is on the city of Liverpool must be welcomed and taken seriously even if it is, as in this case, quite critical of the volume in question. There is certainly much in his assessment to consider, and his comments and suggestions on the individual chapters are in parts constructive, and offer some guidance on omissions and where recent literature perhaps needed to be considered. That said, there were a number of arguments in the review which we feel cannot go uncontested. Some were concerned with the aims and content of the book, but several appear to raise wider and more controversial questions on how the discipline of history should be carried forward.

First, early in his review Professor Belchem questions the very notion of conference proceedings as providing a platform for publication. He seems to attack them for rarely producing publications of ‘impact and esteem’. We feel that the choice of these words has an unfortunate resonance with the demands (and strait jacket) of the Research Assessment Exercise, and almost seems to suggest that such volumes are unlikely to score well in it. This, we feel, is to grossly underestimate the value of this approach for bringing to the fore aspects of subjects which have received insufficient attention, and to raise issues for debate. It also suggests that such volumes are either not based on original research or that they are not cohesive. Given the growing importance of collaborative work between historians and the increasing stress on interdisciplinarity, such a negative attitude to conference originated publications is rather shortsighted. We all need such flexible ways to share our ideas in a changing environment.

Secondly, we feel that our aims seem to have been fundamentally misunderstood by the reviewer. As we clearly state in our introduction (p. 9) we had two main aims: to offer some reassessment of Liverpool’s role in the empire, and to explore aspects of the impact of its colonial connections on the city. Professor Belchem appears to be implicitly against such an imperial approach. This is rather strange given that much of the new cultural history (of which he is obviously a supporter) has been central in generating new approaches to imperial history. Certainly we see this volume both as an addition to this new historiography, and as a corrective to it, as there is currently little economic history in the ‘new’ imperial history.

Thirdly, nowhere do we claim that the contributions take a consistent line on the nature of Liverpool’s relationship with empire – to have done so would have been unrealistic given the diverse views and priorities of the 12 scholars who contributed to the volume. Rather the aim was to bring the very subject of imperialism itself to the fore and to provide a platform for the rich and varied work being conducted in this field and as a foundation and inspiration for further enquiry. Neither are we, as we make clear on page 12, seeking to impose ‘the hegemony of imperialism’ on the study of Liverpool (hence the question mark at the end of the title).We merely seek to re-orient the debate about the city to redress the neglect of Liverpool’s relations with what is, after all, an unavoidable and central phenomenon in British history.

Fourthly, we do not accept that this is a ‘random bunch of (rapidly dating) conference papers’. We can appreciate that to those not fully acquainted with the sheer vastness of British imperialism, both as a subject and in terms of the variety of approaches to it, such a diversity of papers might appear to lack a common theme. However, we maintain that every chapter displays engagement with what are current issues in the study of British imperialism – from business organisations and strategy, the historical significance of popular literature and historical artefacts, to the question of Liverpool’s ‘diasporic’ nature. Of course the chapters are rapidly dating. Time stops no more for works of history than it does for people, but we felt that the slightly pejorative reference to the chapters written by colleagues as ‘papers’ actually contradicted the quite complimentary tone of some of the comments about individual chapters. Indeed, Professor Belchem contradicts himself in another way. He argues that we present imperial, global and economic history as mutually exclusive categories. Rather, we have argued the opposite, as Professor Belchem himself notes in quoting Haggerty: ‘Imperial networks were but one aspect of a complex and diverse global imperial profile’ and Webster’s comment that Liverpool developed ‘new markets and networks, imperial and otherwise’. Certainly we have demonstrated that contemporaries did not think in such a compartmentalised way and took opportunities wherever and whenever they could. This is implied in Kingdon’s and van den Bersselaar’s comment that the Liverpool collection of artefacts ‘represented trading interests more than it did empire’, which is quoted in Professor Belchem’s review. We also felt that the claim that Stephanie Decker’s and Murray Steele’s chapters do not reflect ‘any specific imperial particularism’ overlooks the fact that cultural manifestations of imperialism tended by their nature to fuse the various themes Professor Belchem identifies (patriotism, Atlanticism, civic identity). We are not convinced that it is possible to isolate the ‘imperial’ aspects of these phenomena from their accompanying ideological themes in the way he suggests, without diminishing the quality of analysis.

Fifth, some specific comments about methodology also gave cause for concern. Professor Belchem calls relying on traditional sources such as census statistics and Parliamentary Papers ‘a backward historiographical step’. The impression that this had more to do with preferences rather than quality was reinforced by the description of the cultural history chapters as ‘a refreshing change from conventional economic history’. We cannot agree that we should eschew ‘traditional’ quantitative and nominative sources, or indeed that economic history is simply old fashioned as was implied. Indeed economic history is one area in which interaction with other disciplines, especially economics and sociology, is particularly strong. One could hardly describe the sources used for economic history as unproblematic. Furthermore, in the wake of last year’s tumultuous global economic events, the need for hard-edged economic historical analysis should be in greater demand than ever.

Last, but not least, we feel we have to challenge Professor Belchem’s assertion that our work ‘does little to rehabilitate Liverpool’s adverse image and reputation’ whilst allowing us to embrace Liverpudlian ‘self pity’. As we make clear in our introduction, we are not at all sure that Liverpool’s reputation is really as bad as Professor Belchem believes. Its leading position in popular culture and the excellent record of the city’s representatives in defending its reputation both attest to the high esteem in which it is held, even when controversies erupt. Indeed, Liverpool’s recent success as European Capital of Culture is testament to its international popularity. Furthermore, while our focus on the city’s imperial past does indeed raise questions about the moral record of some of the its leaders, it also stresses their importance in the determination of national and imperial policy as well as the role of individuals in building up empire. As Professor Belchem notes, much excellent work has been conducted recently on Liverpool’s role in the slave trade. Surely this is all part of the same body of work? Confronting Liverpool’s, and indeed other cities’ role in Britain’s imperial past, however uncomfortable, is surely the main obligation which history owes them. The job of historians is to face the past and unravel it – not to apologise for it, or to hide it. We feel that the chapters in this volume face this uncomfortable past without self pity, and indeed far from apologising for Liverpool’s past, challenge historians to look at it in a new way.