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‘Why Change Happens’: Report of the workshop

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H&P and Friends of the Earth hosted a conference entitled ‘Why change happens: what we can learn from the past’, on 3 June 2015 at King’s College London, bringing together campaigners and historians. 


Roundtable discussions followed each panel, and produced the following tentative conclusions:

  • Ownership of change (by individuals, social groups or coalitions) is a key factor which can determine the pace and depth of change
  • Campaigning has multiple modes; it must both prepare the ground for possible future change, and capture the moment when change is sparked by external or unpredictable catalysts
  • Success is dependent on the three V’s: Values, visuals and viability. Pragmatic detail and good communications strategies are as important as the overall ethical message 

Theme 1: How ‘norms’ change

Conference delegates discussed how ‘norms’ change over time. Several discussion groups noted that historical change is complex and contested: no simple or linear model exists. But they agreed that campaigners can harness specific insights from historical examples. For example, several groups discussed the importance of winning over public opinion, and the attempts to win public support by early nineteenth-century campaigners to abolish the slave trade. The importance of weight of numbers was noted. Participants also discussed the power of a moral or emotional argument, and the importance of depicting this clearly and ideally in a single message (one group termed this the ‘Lynton Crosby’ approach to campaigning). It was suggested that campaigners should aim to frame the debate in their own terms, using hard-hitting wording and images. The potential value or need to offer concessions to those affected negatively by change was also discussed; for example, slave owners were compensated financially in return for agreeing to abolish slavery.

Several groups argued for the importance of building a powerful argument for change and a broad coalition of support, so that when a catalyst occurs – which can be unforeseen – the conditions exist to capitalise on it. Historically, this has sometimes occurred over generations, with campaigners developing the right conditions for meaningful change which a subsequent generation has harnessed when the ‘time is right’ or when public opinion shifts.

Theme 2: Participation in change

The second discussion focused on public participation in movements for change. Several discussion groups agreed that while the support of charismatic or influential individuals can often propel a campaign forward, it is the numerical bulk that facilitates pressure for change. One group described this idea as ‘people as an asset, not people with assets’. Grassroots mobilisation for change can start outside the political or parliamentary sphere, but ultimately needs to break into it for long-lasting legal change. The support of politicians or leading public figures can rapidly accelerate this. However, one group warned that many historical campaigns, such as Chartism, became too introspective and collapsed amidst infighting.

Participants again highlighted the utility of powerful images or ideas. The campaign to abolish the slave trade used striking imagery to capture the attentions of a faraway audience – some participants highlighted the charity ALS’s ‘ice bucket challenge’ as an example of contemporary visual campaigning that succeeded in raising awareness. Participants commented that technology has widened access to participation in movements for change; some NGOs now only operate online, and use these platforms to access younger and international audiences instantly. Participants also discussed the impact of an organisation’s name – for example, in the Netherlands, Friends of the Earth is called ‘Environmental Defence’ – alongside the fact that different groups of people may have varying ideas of what ‘participation’ means, and the ways in which this can affect how campaign groups work.

Theme 3: The rise, fall and rise of cities

Who is the city for? This question recurred in both historians’ papers and subsequent discussions. Several participants emphasised the importance of localism, with the aim of shaping cities so that they work for the communities within them. Participants emphasised that cities should act as sites of a ‘democratic conversation’ for all residents (including both adults and children), providing an inclusionary and shared, rather than an exclusionary, urban space. Participants highlighted the advantages in establishing decentralised, localised decision-making processes based on specific local interests and needs, such as city-specific public transport or a ‘congestion charge’. Some also suggested the continuing need for centralised oversight of city governance, in attempt to avoid, for example, the recent electoral fraud by the Mayor of Tower Hamlets.

Environmental issues are global, but several groups highlighted that these are also local issues, which can be tackled at a local level, based on a community’s decisions and needs. For example, Brighton is well known as a ‘green’ city in its high concentration of support for environmental measures. Participants discussed issues of urban pollution, transport congestion and pedestrian access, suggesting that because such problems are amplified in cities, they are better positioned to harness or mobilise public opinion to tackle them. Careful and coordinated urban planning can be effective in tackling such problems. Additionally, urban spaces can work together to share ideas, such as through borough or town twinning. However, some changes – such as laws requiring seatbelt use or the smoking ban – were seen as more effective when developed from the ‘top down’ from government, subsequently triggering broader changes in public attitudes.

Theme 4: Conditions for rapid change

The day’s final discussion focused on whether significant external events such as war, hunger, new technology are necessary for rapid change, or whether conditions and catalysts for change can be manufactured or manipulated.

Participants generally agreed that significant external events are powerful triggers for change. Several groups emphasised the necessity of such triggers to sway public opinion and to gather significant media attention. Discussants also highlighted the power of rapid economic change as a trigger; one group pointed out that the Arab Spring, like the 1590s food riots discussed by Brodie Waddell, began with spikes in food prices. War was repeatedly mentioned, as participants pointed to the rapid social change after both the First and Second World Wars, diverging from David Edgerton’s paper discounting the influence of war on post-war change.

Nonetheless, several discussion groups highlighted that campaigners need to create the conditions for change and provide alternative solutions, which an external factor can then accelerate; for example, the First World War helped the women’s suffrage movement in Britain. George Monbiot concluded the conference by remarking that our contemporary environmental crises have no historical precedents. Conference delegates agreed that while history can never provide a blueprint for change, it can provide signposts and help us to understand the contexts and triggers through which rapid and sustainable change occurs.

The sold-out conference was organised by Paul Readman (King’s College London), Lucy Delap (Cambridge), Simon Szreter (Cambridge), and Mike Childs/Joanna Watson (Friends of the Earth), and supported by King’s College London History Department and the Cambridge Political Economy Society Trust Fund.

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