For my History MA, I recently wrote an essay on the topic of how 19th century imperial powers relied on collaboration with indigenous populations in order to administer their colonies. I am interested in collaboration – in the sense of ‘working together’ – because, however much we do or don’t like it, we are all interdependent. As babies, we depend on parents or guardians to feed, protect and nurture us. As members of ‘settled’ communities, rather than nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, however much anyone wants to live by themselves without intervention from others, we are forced to depend on others to provide us with food and other products and services essential for life, as we cannot just go and forage for survival.
I am interested in exploring the limits of interdependence and independence. Why should we, for example, pay taxes to fund services that we disagree with? Is there a point at which those appointed or elected to represent us cease to act with our best interests at heart? What are our options in these cases? Can we ever be truly independent? Can we ever be free?
These are some of the questions that led me to resume my study of history. Why? Because I heard and read about people in various elections and political campaigns talking about issues and rights, and realised that my knowledge was often superficial. I wanted to know more about how we got to where we are now, to understand the journey, the questions and decisions people were faced with, the mistakes they made and how we can learn from them. When asked to suggest a topic for research, I suggested Magna Carta, because I had only read about it recently after seeing it invoked frequently for one cause or another. Originally, I imagined looking at the events leading up to the issue of this document in 1215, but my own historical journey has led to me focusing on its influence 700 years later in the 20th century, which was a surprise to me.
Now, as many current government and administrative institutions, structures and processes are being questioned, we can get so caught up in the moment, imagining present circumstances to be unique, that we forget that this has always happened. What was useful once stops working. People become, or feel they have become, disenfranchised and believe that their leaders, appointed to govern responsibly for their benefit, have ceased to do so. People do not always welcome change, but it is inevitable. If change is necessary, it will force itself on people, making them choose future paths.
Living interdependently, people collaborate with each other. If people become discontented with institutions, will they limit their engagement and co-operation? If their withdrawal from participation in community life grows, what effect does this self-imposed isolation have on individuals and communities?
These questions can be both fascinating and frightening. Many of us have been fortunate to live through what can be seen as relatively settled times and disruption can appear threatening: results could vary from war at one extreme to peaceful reform at the other.
But, providing we do not destroy ourselves with the powerful arsenals at our disposal, perhaps what appear to us as major crises will become footnotes in history books of the future? Who can tell?