Cambridge academic Professor Simon Szreter on two decades of the pioneering network for historians

Why would professional historians not want their knowledge and expertise to be understood by policymakers, politicians and advisers? Why would any of the latter want to live and make their decisions in ignorance of history?

Historians research and teach all aspects of how our nations and how other nations – and their various communities – have come to understand their mutual political and cultural relationships in the world today. Historians also study how our economies, sciences and environments have changed so dramatically over time and come to be in the problematic shape that we find them today. This is all extremely valuable knowledge, much of it every bit as relevant for those involved in public policymaking as the ideas, theories, models and findings of economists, psychologists, medical and epidemiological scientists, sociologists, anthropologists or even psephologists.

History has benefitted over the centuries since the Enlightenment from the preparedness of its practitioners to engage increasingly with the history of anybody and anything. The most recent and obvious widening of its remit has been the movement since the mid-20th century to embrace ‘history from below’, prefigured by the Annales School in French historiography, which has led to working-class histories, oral histories, women’s and gender histories, subaltern studies, black history, queer history, public and popular history.

However, paradoxically, as historical practitioners became more catholic in their research programmes and larger in numbers, the profession became more insular in one important respect, which was its retreat from engagement with public policy. After Word War II there were commissioned official histories and some departments of state acquired in-house historians – notably the Foreign Office – but any kind of continuous dialogue between the history profession and public policymakers shrank to a dwindle of occasional appointments on Royal Commissions and the like.

It was this state of almost complete disconnect between history and public policy for much of the last half of the 20th century, while professional history departments were flourishing and many new specialist journals, associations and conferences coming into being, which provided the context for the launch of the initiative titled History & Policy.

There were three initiating founders (myself, Professor Pat Thane and Dr Alastair Reid), with Professor Martin Daunton providing institutional support in Cambridge; and Professor Virginia Berridge joined us soon after. The internet was a crucial new resource as we knew that yet another peer-reviewed journal was not what was needed. We aimed initially for a combination of topical seminars addressed to non-historians and the opportunity for historians to publish these presentations and also other short and accessible pieces with a rapid turnround on a public-facing website.

History & Policy was founded 20 years ago and launched at a half-day conference at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), a member institution at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. Six historians presented contrasting papers on the general theme of taxation in relation to national government, local government and the health service to an audience of about 60 people. I recall quite clearly that our first concern was whether we could convince a critical mass of fellow historians to come out of their ‘ivory towers’ and participate in the venture over the coming years.

Ritual objections from elders in the profession included the hoary old one that there were no ‘lessons’ of history and the notion that one might be in mortal danger of contaminating one’s scholarly objectivity; and the related notion – already under challenge from the new ‘contemporary history’ – that ‘history’ could never aspire to quite reach the present, which was allocated to the lesser pursuit of ‘mere’ journalism – the first drafters of history.

We were pleased to find that within a short time more than 100 colleagues had signed up to our new network and website, Over the intervening years since 2002, hundreds of professional historians have actively contributed, either by authoring one of the 230 policy papers (4,000 words) or the 300 opinion pieces (1,000 words) now available on the website or by participating in the many workshops, conferences and seminars that have been organised.

One of the most successful and effective dialogues that has been sustained has been with several government departments, notably including the two senior departments of the Treasury and the Home Office, where Dr Duncan Needham (Cambridge University) and Dr Chris Williams (Open University) have each co-organised with civil servant liaisons an annual series of well-received lunchtime seminars for officials.

It always made sense for an organisation seeking to engage with public policy to have an organising base in London as well as a website. Thanks to the vision of the former IHR director, Professor Jo Fox, History & Policy has returned to its original home. Having produced a record number of policy papers during the initial pandemic lockdown in 2020 and also managing to put on a full programme of seminars at the Treasury during 2021, History & Policy is looking forward once again to increase its activities – Covid-19 permitting – during 2022, the year of its 20th anniversary.

Simon Szreter is professor of history and public policy at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge. He is co-founder and editorial director of History & Policy, an international network connecting historians and policymakers based at the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research. He is co-author with Hilary Cooper of After the Virus. Lessons from the Past for A Better Future (CUP, 2021).                                                     


Image: ‘The Conversation’, Arnold Lakhovsky / Wikimedia Commons