Should historians talk to government? It’s tempting to turn this question around and ask instead whether government should talk to historians, writes Dr Charlotte Lydia Riley.
Priya Satia, in her brilliant Time’s Monster, has made a compelling case that governments used to draw enthusiastically on historical knowledge when it seemed to make a case in favour of imperial expansion. Once historians started to write more critical histories of the British empire, politicians lost interest. Recently, the British government has not shown itself to be especially receptive to input from historians: whether on the Windrush Scandal, the National Trust slavery report controversy, or countless other culture wars skirmishes, historians and their research have frequently been dismissed in favour of seemingly wilfully ahistorical approaches to commemoration and the past.
So, on one hand, it is easy to see why historians might feel governments could pay a little more attention to their work and their perspectives. On the other hand though, historians have to think carefully about what governments might want from these conversations. Academics are often under pressure to prove that their work has ‘impact’ beyond the academy. Beyond this REF-inspired cynicism (REF being research excellence framework), historians working on topics with contemporary policy implications might decide that rather than spend their mornings shouting at the Today programme, they should talk directly to the people making decisions and explain why they need to better understand the past. But it is important to be clear-eyed about what governments really want from historians.
When politicians invoke lessons from history, it is usually to illustrate that their ideas are correct; when governments talk to historians, they want evidence in support of the things that they already believe. As the recent decision by the Home Office to rescind an invitation to Priyamvada Gopal because of her criticism of the home secretary makes clear, governments are not especially interested in hearing critical historical voices.
Historians should be wary of lending their names and their expertise to government. There was recently a movement by a group of well-meaning historians to demand that the historical narratives in the Life in the UK test be made more accurate, more reflective of current understanding about British imperial history, the slave trade and other contentious topics. But should historians really be working with government to finesse a tool of border violence? Do we want the new improved Life in the UK test to come approved by the historical profession? Perhaps, rather than speaking to government, we could think more about how to speak with those who have less power, but more impetus to bring about social and cultural change. If history is a tool, perhaps we don’t want to put it in the hands of politicians.
Dr Charlotte Lydia Riley is a feminist historian of 20th-century Britain at the University of Southampton, with particular focus on decolonisation and how this has shaped British society and culture. She is the editor of The free speech wars: How did we get here and why does it matter (MUP, 2021).