Should historians talk to government? An apparently straightforward question that’s actually far from it – unpacking the position ‘not talking to government’ gets us started, writes Dr Alix Green, reader in history at the University of Essex.
The simplest argument for ‘not talking to government’ would look something like this: we no longer insist, as a discipline, on the importance of understanding the past, beyond satisfying scholarly curiosity and enlarging academic knowledge. History doesn’t matter that much after all, and we needn’t talk about it – except among ourselves. But I doubt many historians today would subscribe to this isolationist position.
But then we’re faced with trying to define how and where history does, indeed, matter, because that leads us to the key question of who. Unless we’re claiming an entitlement to decide who deserves to hear from us, the answer to the ‘who’ question is necessarily expansive, inclining to inclusion. There may be specific organisations, institutions or constituencies with which we choose not to engage, based on our personal and political commitments, ethics and values – but I’m not sure any general category, such as ‘government’, could be ruled out in principle if we want to stand behind the notion that history matters.
The other problem is the category itself: what do we mean by ‘government’? My hunch is that when historians express concern or distaste about ‘talking to government’ they’re imagining the prime minister, ministers or, perhaps, their special advisers, on the other side of the table. Boris Johnson’s administration has certainly given us many good reasons to withhold our time and effort as complicity – but ‘government’ is a much bigger and more complex project.
It’s Whitehall departments, non-ministerial departments, executive agencies and non-departmental government bodies; it’s the devolved administrations and local authorities. Civil servants do most of the research, policy development, commissioning and implementation work and, in my experience, there is genuine interest in academic insight – if we’re open to dialogue.
We can certainly register our objections to government policy, individually and collectively, from the outside. We can protest, write open letters and submit evidence to inquiries – and support others to do so – as well as fund campaigns on issues we care about. But that vital work doesn’t preclude us having conversations that connect our expertise as historians more directly to the problems officials are grappling with inside government.
It’s not for everyone – our discipline is vitally diverse in its perspectives and practices – but it could be for more of us than at present. History matters. It is one of the currencies of policy debate, one that has an enduring exchange value in wider public discourse. Plus, government is going to ‘talk history’ anyway, so surely, as historians, we have to persist in efforts to try to shape and inform that process, not least because there are sometimes real-life consequences – violence, deprivation and discrimination – of policies promoted and popularised using historical appeals.
To refuse to speak to government is itself a political act, so perhaps the question isn’t whether we should but ‘what’s the alternative?’
Dr Alix Green is Reader in History at the University of Essex. She is the author of History, Policy and Public Purpose: Historians and Historical Thinking in Government (Palgrave, 2016)