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Published onMay 31, 2023

Law, Crime and History

Volume 11, issue 1 (2023): i-vi

© The Author(s) 2023

ISSN: 2045-9238


Iain Channing

University of Plymouth

In the 12 months since our last edition, we have witnessed several events that have been labelled as ‘historic’ moments in time. From a British perspective, this is particularly true with the funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II on 19th September 2022, and the Coronation of King Charles III on 6th May 2023. While the world watched the British demonstrations of pageantry on both occasions, archive film from the funeral of King George VI and the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952 were also broadcast, helping to establish a feeling of continuity. It invoked a sense of tradition that connected the present to the past in very tangible ways. During the television coverage of both important events, we were constantly reminded that we were watching ‘history in the making’ or witnessing ‘historic events’. Simultaneously, such concepts also require us to make a connection to the future and consider those that will one day see these events as ‘history’. Furthermore, the weaving in of archival video footage also encouraged reflection during the live coverage, acknowledging that it will one day be shown to future generations in a similar context, for a similar purpose. As such, these moments embed themselves, to some degree, within our collective memory.

In many ways, such traditional ceremonies can help create or consolidate a sense of collective identity – there was a fervour of patriotism and royalist support detected in the mood of the nation during the coronation. Roads were closed to host street parties and flags and bunting flew high and proud. At its peak, an estimated 20 million people watched the television coverage of the coronation and tens of thousands lined the streets to catch glimpses of the event themselves.1 But, the strength of this collective identity was challenged by those opposed to the coronation and the system of a constitutional Monarchy. The most visible materialisation of this sentiment is arguably the arrests of Republican activists by the police under new controversial Public Order powers. While this could easily be attributed to be the attitude of radical outliers, opinion polls also reflected that support for the monarchy amongst the general populous is at an all-time low. British Social Attitudes Survey data suggests that those who see the Monarchy as ‘very important’ dropped from 38% in 2022, to just 29% this year - perhaps an indication that the populations royalist sympathies were significantly attached to the respect and loyalty felt towards Queen Elizabeth II. With the growing apathy towards the Royal family becoming increasingly apparent, moments like the coronation force us to unify the tenses of past, present and future – reflecting on its legacy, while also anticipating how it may need to adapt to social change.

The Monarchy in Britain has a long history, and the coronation ceremony itself was steeped in tradition – for example, with the centrepiece being the Coronation Chair in St George’s Chapel which dates back to 1296 when the Stone of Scone was brought to Westminster Abbey from Scotland and then incorporated into the oaken chair that was made in 1300-1301.2 The continued use of this material piece of history leads us to question the more abstracted concept of ‘tradition’ and how it relates not just to our past, but also to our future. For many of us, such questioning may remind us of Eric Hobsbawm’s insight into how tradition is ‘invented’ by the state (or those in power) as a way to help ‘maintain or even establish the obedience, loyalty and cooperation of its subjects or members, or its own legitimacy in their eyes.’3 Without demonstrating either loyalist or republican sentiment, the legitimacy of the Royal family in the eyes of the general public relies on balancing tradition with reform during times of social and cultural change. As such, despite deep traditions, the future of the monarchy relies on adapting in ways to maintain the cooperation and the loyalty of the public.

The concept of tradition also prompts us to think about some of the more noticeable breaks from the past we have witnessed in recent times. For historians in particular, the need to be attentive to present debates about the historical monuments that are exhibited in public spaces is clear. Historical monuments create a link to the past and purport to tell us something about our history. But, as Robert Bevan warns us, a critical examination of the architecture and the monuments in Western cities obscure the facts about our history, and ignores the achievements of women, the Black experience, or the lives of LGBTQ+ people. The result is the invention of nationalist tradition, and a telling of the history of our cities through the eyes of wealthy men.4 In Bristol, the felling of the statue of Edward Corston stands as an important event itself, representing a new generation that is willing to take direct action to remove monuments from public places that continue to celebrate those who engaged and profited from slavery. Others are more reactionary, believing that such monuments are still part of our history and to remove them would be ‘rewriting’ history.5 Yet, in a response to such calls, the historian Charlotte Lydia Riley reminded us that, rewriting history is exactly what historians do, ‘(w)e are constantly engaged in a process of re-evaluating the past and reinterpreting stories that we thought we knew.’6

This points to the fragility and fluidity of historical narratives and, as historical theorist Keith Jenkins pointed out, if it was possible to know history once and for all ‘then there would be no need for any more history to be written, for what would be the point of countless historians saying it all over again in the same way?’7 We must also acknowledge that our relationship with the past is very dependent on the present. In reference to memory, the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs noted that ‘the past is not preserved but is reconstructed on the basis of the present’.8 Our public monuments then are the very embodiment of the past made present. If the values embodied or displayed in our monuments to the past are out-dated, distasteful, or even provocative, then they only serve to disrupt and haunt the present in unsettling ways. Removing statues therefore does not change the past but forces us to re-evaluate our relationship with it and compels us to confront the darker side of our history. The act of removing something prompts the act of explaining why it is being removed. Furthermore, this act also prompts questions about the future. What or who should be put in their place? Which historical figures and events should be celebrated in the present? And how will future generations judge us for these decisions?

It is with an eye on the present that we commence this journal. In the first paper by Roberto Catello, the accusation that criminologists are too focused on the present, to the detriment of engaging fruitfully with the past, is examined. By highlighting the two main critiques of presentism in criminology – that criminologists tend to pay insufficient interest to its own past, and to the historical study crime – Catello highlights a number of challenges and paradoxes facing criminologists who try to resist the lure of presentism. For instance, when a criminologist resists presentism by meaningfully engaging with the past, they may then suffer the critique of historians for being presentist. Discussions and debates on the role of the past in contemporary criminology, such as the one offered by Catello here, ensure that the future of historical criminology more broadly will continue to move forward and garner further interest. Our next article demonstrates the depth and breadth of this journal as it takes us back to ancient Rome, as Rebecca Shaw examines the consequences of the Augustan Marriage Legislation (18BC). Using narrative theory, Shaw demonstrates how the law created character roles and set out expected standards of behaviour – particularly of women. These ‘invented’ roles created an expectation of an ‘ideal woman’, a standard which was only achievable by very few. Ultimately, being categorised under the other character roles highlighted in this article would often have led to the criminalisation of those that could not live up to such values expressed in Augustus’ Marriage Laws.

It is from ancient Rome that we then travel to mid-19th century Australia. In a thought-provoking article on taking depositions at Molong, Paula Jane Byrne examines how legal power operated in the central western town of Molong in Wiradjuri country. The paper highlights the inconsistencies of how the law operated and demonstrates how the actors within the criminal justice system, such as the magistrates and constables, often overstepped their allotted role. Through thorough analysis of case law and newspaper reportage, Byrne argues that the magistrates were often over-zealous in their approach in pursuit of accuracy, rather than ignorant or arrogant in their attitudes. Our final paper draws us back closer to the present by examining the London Interbank Office Rate (Libor) which was first published in 1986. William Calathes and Matthew G Yeager apply a critical criminological perspective in an analysis of criminal fraud in the worldwide financial markets. In a stimulating paper on the Libor rate scandals, we are forced to re-think about the concepts of crime and harm in relation to the crimes of the powerful and the role of public control and state regulation.

In the second half of the journal, we are proud to publish three more transcriptions from our witness seminar series. The witness seminars in this issue focus on local policing in Plymouth in past and present contexts. Firstly, we were privileged to host a seminar featuring seven former policewomen (as they were known during their service) from Plymouth whose service dated back to the 1950s. Such seminars have important value for local history and the preservation of the stories and experiences of people who may otherwise have been lost. We hope that they will be utilised as oral history sources by teachers, lecturers and researchers as they reveal important qualitative detail about the past. The data goes beyond the sensational recordings of newspapers and the high profile to reveal nuances of the everyday lives and experiences of people that may not otherwise be recorded for future generations. In the seminar on the Plymouth Policewomen’s Department, the attitudes and experiences of seven former policewomen includes discussions that range from issues relating to the typical roles and operational duties they performed, to the training, uniform, and relationships with the public. They reveal how being female in an occupation that was almost exclusively male at the time of their service, came with certain challenges but also provided opportunity and circumstances to make real impact themselves.

The following two witness seminars focus on the policing of Devonport. Once a town in its own right, Devonport was amalgamated with Plymouth and East Stonehouse in 1914 to form the unified town of Plymouth. Synonymous with the Royal Dockyard, today Devonport has the second highest score for deprivation within Plymouth’s 39 neighbourhoods. Anti-social behaviour, poverty, and life expectancy also fall under the city average by a clear margin.9 Devonport, in past and present contexts, has always presented clear challenges for policing. In the first of these seminars, serving and former police officers and PCSOs share their experiences and challenges when policing the neighbourhood. Topics such as police and community relations, the behaviour of naval personal, drug dealing, and the night-time economy are all raised. In the second seminar on Devonport, the panel is made up of representatives from third sector organisations with a stake in the community responses to everyday crime or social enterprise more broadly. These include Hamoaze House (a local charity that offers rehabilitation facilities for families affected by the problematic use of drugs and/or alcohol), Shekinah Mission (a local charity that provides opportunities for people who are experiencing all forms of homelessness and other challenges), Real Ideas Organisation (support for individuals and communities in finding solutions to social problems), the Salvation Army (an evangelical Christian church who helps support poverty and homelessness in the community), and the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre (holds collection and hosts interactive experiences related to the relationships in Devonport between the Royal Navy and the people).

Through the variety of research articles and witness seminars presented in this issue, the connection between past, present and future is made explicit. They demonstrate the need for critical approaches that connect disciplines, such as law and criminology, to methods of historical thinking. Academic research and practitioners within criminal justice settings need to challenge the immovability of traditions, identify continuing social harms, challenge the traditions that only intensify inequality, and strive for social justice.

Finally, I would just like to thank all the contributors and the peer reviewers. We hope all you enjoy this issue.

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