Why history matters in policy

By Anthony Seldon

August 3, 2022

Old Parliament House
Governments have a wealth of history to draw on, so why don’t they do so? (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Whitehall draws heavily on the expertise of scientists, lawyers, economists and statisticians — and could do so even more.

But why do ministers and officials largely shun historians? History is an older discipline than economics, and much of science, law, statistics, and yes, economics, is of course history.

Why on earth would decision-makers not want to take account of how similar episodes in history played out when pondering what is currently on their agenda?

After all, as individuals we cannot but draw on past experience when making fresh decisions. So too do corporations and charities. Why not government?

This puzzling gap has concerned me all my professional life. With Peter Hennessy, I set up the Institute of Contemporary British History in 1986 to bring together the makers and the students of recent history.

In 2010, with the encouragement of Jeremy Heywood, then permanent secretary at No.10, and with colleagues Andrew Blick and Jon Davis, we instigated a series of lunchtime history talks. It seemed wrong for those at the very apex of national decision-making to have so little knowledge of the recent past.

Three years ago, I became chair of the new National Archives Trust, whose mission is to spread awareness of the unrivalled documents at Kew far and wide across the nation, including amongst today’s decision makers.

History makes its presence felt in at least two overlapping ways in Whitehall. The first concerns the preservation of documents, their publication in edited volumes, and the production of official histories.

The second is more utilitarian, the deliberate consideration of historical precedent to inform today’s decisions. The three blogs will be predominantly concerned with the latter type.

Norman Brook, third cabinet secretary (1947-62) believed more engagement with historians would save time and money. He was right. Many of his 10 successors, perhaps all, believed the same, but have been unable to do much to implant history in policy deliberation.

It is intuitively true, if ultimately unprovable, that decisions informed by history will be sounder than those which ignore it. The series of poor decisions in Whitehall discussed by Ivor Crewe and Tony King in their book The Blunders of our Governments (2013) rarely considered historical precedent.

History-informed policy can be more cognisant of international context, can result in less jerky and capricious policy making, and evaluate better what has worked in the past.

History is not a good in itself: it must be rigorously evaluated and applied, precisely why professional historians are needed. A sense of shared history can further build ‘esprit de corps’ within departments, helping instil pride and loyalty.

Any institution that has no sense of where it has come from is adrift.

Lack of time and opportunity is a core reason given why history is not more utilised. Crises can blow up out of a blue sky demanding instant response, such as flooding, animal or human disease, or an outbreak of violence.

But all disasters can be anticipated, and a playlist of historical precedent prepared ‘in case’. Artificial intelligence could be better used in this.

The short electoral cycle militates against long-term thinking and consideration of history, as does the rapid churn of ministers, officials and even departments, all of which shrink institutional memory.

Between 1990–2022, Britain had 14 Health and Home secretaries, 15 Education and Defence secretaries, and 18 Welfare secretaries.

Recently, prime ministers have been younger — Tony Blair and David Cameron were amongst the youngest in history. They arrive with little previous experience of government: the past five prime ministers served in three departments, the five before them in 23, and five before that in 38.

Catherine Haddon has recently highlighted the decline of institutional memory.

With no institutional mechanism embedded, history awareness depends utterly on the enthusiasm of key leaders, who come and go.

Permanent secretaries like Nick Macpherson in the Treasury, Peter Ricketts and Simon McDonald in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and Simon Case, the Cabinet secretary, are utterly critical.

But there is still too much of a focus on the first type of history, not the second.

Consideration of precedent will make for a more reflective and less reactive environment in which options can be weighed.

This article is reproduced from Apolitical.


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