History Workshop 21, Speaking for Ourselves?, took place at Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Polytechnic between 20 and 22 November 1987. Social/cultural events such as a ‘socialist cabaret’ and a boat ride on the River Tyne were held in addition to the programme of workshops. The choice of theme reflected the interest within the Workshop movement in history as a means to understand the experiences of ordinary people.
Unlike previous Workshops, Workshop 21 had no plenary sessions. Instead, the Workshop simply consisted of the usual parallel thematic sessions, running throughout the weekend. The 18 themes included ‘The Pen and the People’, ‘Putting a Stop to Charity: The History of Disability’, ‘Anarchism’, ‘Melting Pot or Rainbow?’, ‘Local Radio: The Voice of the People’, ‘Beyond Nostalgia? Film Photography and the Working Classes’, ‘Ireland’, ‘Community Publishing’, ‘The History of Working Class Theatre and Music Hall’, ‘Technology and Labour’, ‘Radical Perspectives of Science and Medicine’, ‘Co-operation – Theory and Practice’, ‘Approaches to History Teaching in Schools’, ‘Feminism and Novels Between the Wars’, ‘Regional Writing’, ‘Housing and Planning: The Working Class Experience of Modernisation’, and ‘Class and Conflict’. A theme on ‘Women’s Voices’ was planned, but was cancelled due to ‘organisational difficulties’, although feminist scholarship was represented elsewhere in the programme. Papers included Bakunin’s View of Revolution, On Being Bilingual, Irish Women as Lonely Migrants, and Virginia Woolf and Feminism.
Many of the discussions at this Workshop reflected the increasing interest among participants in the history of minority groups. Studies of race and migration were becoming increasingly significant parts of History Workshop schedules, reflecting contemporary trends. The decline in the study of traditional Marxist and labour history can be traced in this increased focus on identities and categories related to factors other than class.
The decline in traditional labour history was also represented in a shift in emphasis in the study of the working class experience. Workshops at this time saw an increasing interest in the cultural aspects of working class life rather than material factors such as working conditions. Factors such as popular writing, the radio, and nostalgia were the subjects of a number of papers given during a succession of History Workshops. History Workshop had always included a strong cultural dimension in its programmes, but the importance attached to cultural considerations increased during the 1980s. These growing interests also reflected the shifting trends in the study of history outside the Workshop, with interest in cultural artefacts and assumptions increasing due to the growing influence of post-modernism on the study of history.
By the time of this Workshop, History Workshops had become important, elaborate, and well-attended events. The practice of an itinerant Workshop, organised by a collective in a different location each year, continued until the Workshops were discontinued in the mid-1990s. However, during Workshop 21, a History Workshop Conference Trust was set up so that there was a level of continuity and national organisation. To an extent, this replaced some of the organisational continuity which had been lost when the Workshop left Ruskin, ensuring some strategic oversight of the process of scheduling and organising the annual Workshops.