Author: Alan James
NB: these observations are memory-based. Others who were about at the time, or know about it, may be able to correct my recollections.
BISA was a professionalized Bailey Conference. The latter had been founded decades earlier by Charles Manning (LSE) and named in memory of an inter-War teacher of International Relations at the School. But it was no more than an occasional and at least for a long while a by-invitation, non-residential conference. IR also made a (very subordinate) appearance at the annual conferences of the Political Studies Association, which had been established in 1950, but few of our people attended. At this time, of course, there were not that many of them. But by the 1970s the teaching of IR had expanded somewhat, and taken off from its early LSE-Oxford-Aberystwyth axis. Also by this time the entrepreneurial Alastair Buchan (who in 1958 had been the inspiration behind the founding of the Institute for Strategic Studies, which he then led for a decade) had been appointed to the Oxford chair. Abetted by the lively Philip Reynolds, who had moved from Aberystwyth to Lancaster (and was soon to become the latter’s VC), they felt it was time that IR had its own association, along the lines of the one which had been set up in the United States in the late 50s – the ISA.
Initially the format of the annual BISA conferences followed that of the Bailey Conference: a series of plenary lectures, followed by questions and comments. But very soon the familiar panel format was adopted, spurred by the growth in membership and the growth, too, in the number of those who wished, for more reasons than one, to be ‘on the conference programme’. But the growth was relatively slow.
The membership situation was, for financial reasons, of particular concern to the publishers of our Journal. This led to a crisis meeting in the early 80s between them, myself (Chair), and Frances Pinter (Treasurer). Fortunately they agreed to carry on. The relatively static membership figure at this time also explains why I, unlike other chairmen, held the office for four years. Nothing to do with my execution of it!
Naturally, this situation had an impact on the numbers attending our conferences. Thus it was not until one held in the late 70s at Keele that we were able to congratulate ourselves on having broken the 50 barrier. A specific disappointment about attendances at the early conferences was that it proved very hard to attract those who were not ‘straight’ IR teachers. At the very start the intention had been to interest international historians and international lawyers in BISA, as was seen in the co-option to the committee of well-known members of these disciplines. But this did not work as hoped, and indeed was for a long time a continuing regret. Another notable feature of the early conferences was that attendance was almost exclusively from the UK.
Maybe this was why, after about half a dozen years, the idea was mooted that someone – and it proved to be me, then Chair – should visit various Indian universities in the hope of building up what were virtually non-existent relations, attracting the interest of relevant teachers in BISA, and generally encouraging the spread of the IR gospel. In the event I could not go, and after a short while the matter lapsed. It was probably just as well, given the highly optimistic nature of the assignment.
A much more immediate foreign issue was the relationship between BISA and the ISA. Not long after BISA’s establishment there was a correspondence with that organization which became rather edgy, as the ISA seemed to be suggesting a sort of formal pecking order, with themselves on top. Unsurprisingly BISA took exception to this notion, and the matter was dropped. Perhaps there was a connection between this and the fact that in the late 70s a joint meeting of the two bodies was held in London, and there was talk of such an event being repeated. It did not happen. But what did happen was that about this time quite a few BISA members began attending the ISA’s annual conventions – a development which was possibly encouraged by the attractive locations in which they were often held and the increasing ease of international travel. Informal links between the two bodies also grew in consequence of ISA sometimes co-opting a senior BISA member to its executive committee or council. But I fancy this soon became a reflection of the member’s standing in the academic community rather than – as may originally have been the case – a gesture towards the lesser association.
Happily, such teething troubles have long since passed, and BISA flourishes mightily. May it long be so.