Should historians talk to government? Professor of British and Commonwealth history, Philip Murphy, introduces the tensions underlying the relationship between historians and politicians.
As an academic discipline, history can be thought of as something between a game and a work of art. Imagined as a game, each historical argument represents a move, challenging other players to respond with moves of their own. The validity of any move depends on adherence to a set of professionally recognised rules, largely governing the treatment and presentation of evidence.
This notion of history stresses the provisional nature of any conclusion and the essentially collective character of the historical enterprise. Yet we can also think of history as an art form. We admire something like Keith Thomas’s Religion and Decline of Magic not because we imagine it to be definitive but because the central thesis is so intellectually satisfying. It is, in a sense, ‘beautiful’ in the same way a work of art or a piece of music can be beautiful.
Neither conception places great significance on the idea that history is ‘useful’. When we engage with government, however, it is largely to make precisely that case. In a country in which academic research is largely sustained by public funding, doing so is nothing less than a practical necessity.
Yet as Professor Simon Szreter argues (‘History and Policy’ and the communication challenge), it almost goes without saying that contemporary policy challenges can only be tackled effectively if we understand how they have evolved over time. It was this imperative which led him and his colleagues to found the international network History & Policy, based at the Institute of Historical Research, 20 years ago. And as Dr Alix Green (Talking to government – is there an alternative?) notes, since history is ‘one of the currencies of policy debate’, it is incumbent on professional historians ‘to shape and inform that process’.
A long-standing example of this engagement is the ‘official’ or ‘authorised’ history, produced by an historian or team of historians often given privileged access to sources not publicly available. Its purpose is to point to the ‘lessons’ that can be learned from a particular episode or the development of a policy or arm of government.
Yet as Professor Patrick Salmon (The trust and shifting sands between historians and government) notes, the form itself has long been viewed with scepticism by professional historians like Herbert Butterfield. In drawing on material not available to others it deviates from one of the essential ‘rules of the game’: that our colleagues should be able to assess for themselves the evidence on which we base our arguments. Beyond that, there is the danger of censorship or – more insidiously – of self-censorship, as proximity to power scrambles our professional judgement. In any case, as Patrick Salmon suggests, although the threat of government departments losing their collective memory is greater than ever, the pace of official decision-making leaves civil servants with little time or inclination to absorb conventional historical outputs.
An even more fundamental problem, perhaps, is that politicians often see the value of history in terms of forging core beliefs and notions of identity that bind society together. From this perspective, academic history represents not so much a source of enlightenment as a disruptive threat to politically convenient national myths. The danger then, as Dr Charlotte Lydia Riley (How politicians only listen to what they want to hear) notes, is that however willing historians are to talk, politicians will only listen to the voices they want to hear.
Professor Philip Murphy is director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) and of History & Policy, which is based at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR). Both institutions are part of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. He is also joint editor of the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History.