Courses and learning to compress complex stories are promising aids to communication for government and historians, writes Professor Patrick Salmon.

How close should academic historians get to government? ‘Very close indeed,’ their universities would probably say, with eyes glued on impact success in the next REF (research excellence framework). ‘Keep well clear,’ the distinguished historian and philosopher of history, Herbert Butterfield would have replied.

In a famous article on ‘Official history: its pitfalls and its criteria’ (1949, republished 1951), Butterfield launched a fierce attack on the uses of history by all governments (and Britain’s in particular). None, he believed, wanted the public to know ‘all the truth’. All had a ‘secret drawer’ where they kept hidden the knowledge they really wished to conceal. Historians who worked for government could never be sure that they had seen all the relevant documents; while the readers of official history, who could not consult the documents at all, had to take on trust what the official historians told them.

Moving on 70 years, a modern-day Butterfield might have different reasons for distrusting government. In the era of freedom of information and the 20-year rule, there are still ‘secret drawers’ from which documents have to be dragged into the light of day – the ‘migrated’ colonial archives formerly held by what is now the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), for example – while ministers engage in culture wars about Britain’s national identity or its imperial past.

But there are also problems with bringing history to bear on the way policy is made. Formal record-keeping is a lost art. Not long ago a civil servant dealing with a new issue would have asked the registry clerk for ‘the file’, and a stack of papers, bound together with treasury tags, would soon have landed on their desk. Now there are no clerks, no tags, no files: simply a mass of unstructured digital data.

Then there is the rapid turnover of staff throughout the civil service. Few officials spend more than two or three years in a job, often much less. Ministers come and go even more frequently. Policy issues have to be readdressed and lessons relearned. Continuity and coherence are fractured. Finally, busy officials are always short of time. They need information to be served up quickly and succinctly.

Together, these problems have undermined efforts to embed historical advice in policymaking, whether they come from academic or official historians. History & Policy has published hundreds of policy papers, many of them brilliant, relevant and easily accessible. But how many civil servants actually read them? At the FCDO, the in-house historians have organised many successful ‘learning from history’ workshops bringing together academic experts with current policymakers. But how long does the impact last? Until they move on to the next job? Or until the next crisis absorbs all their attention, which might be the next afternoon.

The FCDO has come up with a couple of ideas that might actually work. One is the International (formerly Diplomatic) Academy, which offers a small number of history courses, for example on Britain’s colonial legacy. Some of these courses are tied to career progression. Over time, as more courses are offered and more people take them, they may develop a broader awareness of the historical dimension of the UK’s position in the world.

But for those needing instant answers the FCDO historians have provided a solution. ‘Historipedia’, subtitled ‘History Hints for Diplomats’, aims to be a more reliable guide than Google or Wikipedia, tailored to issues that crop up regularly in the UK’s relations with other states. These are ones that the historians know well but may be entirely new to desk officers. Examples include the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Chinese Opium Wars, the Iranian Revolution and the Katyn Massacre. Each entry on the FCDO intranet is no more than a page long, bookended by a brief explanation of its current relevance and some suggestions for further reading. Feedback from colleagues has been positive.

Compressing a complex story without distortion is hard work for us – but academic historians may have to do something like this if they really want to make an impact on how government thinks about history.

Professor Patrick Salmon is chief historian at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. He was formerly professor of international history at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a foreign member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. His latest book is The Control of the Past: Herbert Butterfield and the Pitfalls of Official History (University of London Press, 2021).


Image: Statue of Edward Colston with blindfold before it was taken down by protestors (Bristol 6 May 2020) / Shutterstock