Q&A with 2019 Thesis Prize Winner Dr James Southern

Dr James Southern won the 2019 Michael L. Dockrill Thesis Prize for his thesis entitled ‘Our people’: Recruitment to the British Diplomatic Service, 1945-1995 completed in the School of History, Queen Mary University of London. In this Q&A, he shares what inspired him to pursue his research, his findings and his current position as a Historical Adviser to the UK government.

This article was written by British International History Group
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Q: What is your thesis about and why did you choose the topic?

My thesis is a cultural history of recruitment to the British Diplomatic Service, 1945-1997. I applied (successfully) for a Collaborative Doctoral Award with QMUL and the FCO in 2014, and was given a very broad remit to study ‘Diversity, Difference and Generational Change in the British Diplomatic Service’. I chose to focus on recruitment because I quickly became fascinated by the cultural boundaries that separated the Foreign Office and its staff from the outside world. Recruitment was the gateway through which the types of people who were ‘allowed’ to represent Britain overseas were carefully controlled and vetting, according to shifting definitions and criteria.

Q: What did you learn the most about researching this topic in practical as well as academic terms, that might be of use to other PhD students?

One of the conditions of my funding was that I was a de facto member of staff at the FCO. I had security clearance and was able to work from FCO offices and meet with staff. I found this incredibly useful, not only in the sense of being able to immerse myself in the institution I was studying, but, more importantly, in the sense of being able to see very clearly why my research was important, and how it might makes contributions beyond the purely intellectual.

Q: Your thesis is on identity politics. How do you think that studying “identity” in the context of foreign policy can help the wider study of modern international history? “

Identity” is one of those terms for which there is no clear definition, and which is used far too liberally to mean many different things. I tried in my thesis to tell a story about a group of different manifestations of identity – race, class, gender, sexuality – interacted with shifting definitions of what it meant to be “British”, “talented”, or “a good diplomat” in twentieth-century Britain. It is in this domain, where policymakers and diplomats construct their own definitions of who they are, what they are doing, how they are doing it, and for whom, that I think the most fruitful investigations lie.

Q: How does your thesis fit in with your current research plans?

I now work as a Historical Adviser to the UK government, so getting to grips with government archives and understanding how government works in a practical sense has been invaluable in terms of my career. I hope to develop a broader project which goes beyond diplomacy and looks at the Civil Service in general, so my thesis – focussing as it did on one particular department – leads nicely into that.

Q: You are an historian who works very much at the heart of government, working for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and now for the Home Office. How do you think that the professional context of your work has benefited from your academic work, and vice versa?

There’s a lot of discussion these days about the connections between academics and policymakers, which I welcome but often find frustrating. In principle it’s an admirable notion, but in practice I find that much is lost in translation between nuanced pieces of scholarship and fast-paced Whitehall policymaking. I’ve tried in my various roles to create a space for an alternative way of connecting history with policymaking, using my experience as a Civil Servant to channel my academic knowledge in an enduring and productive way. Of course, there is the danger that I end up representing the worst of both worlds: out of touch with research and not involved deeply enough with policymaking to make a difference.

Q: What are the main methodological challenges you face in your research?

The biggest challenge in writing an institutional history of an institution like the Foreign Office is that it falls methodologically between two stools: it isn’t quite diplomatic history, but it isn’t quite cultural history either. I tried not to make claims about social, cultural or international history that were unsupportable, and ended up making my strongest arguments about the value of institutional history itself, and the light that I believe it sheds on a whole range of historical problems.