By Professor Philip Murphy, Director of History & Policy
Intellectually, we are all aware of the pitfalls of using history to guide policy and political strategy. The past doesn’t repeat itself and historians thrive on dispute and debate, making it almost impossible for policy-makers to look to them for consistent and unambiguous ‘lessons’ for the future. Historians, too, are wary about playing this game. The Tudor court might, for example, provide clues to how we should interpret the power struggles within Downing Street today; but the danger is that instead of the past illuminating the present, we end up with an anachronistic reading of the past. If we present Thomas Cromwell as a sixteenth century version of Dominic Cummings, we risk misunderstanding them both.
There is, however, a severely practical reason why historians should attempt to overcome these obstacles – and their own scruples. History is intrinsic to politics and policy-making. Assumptions about the past drive almost every element of the process. If professional historians shun public engagement they will simply leave the field to ‘cowboys’ – and the world of politics is a veritable Dodge City of cowboy historians. If Conservative peer Lord Moylan is remembered at all by future generations it will probably be as the person who, in April 2021, confidently Tweeted: ‘A free South Vietnam would not exist today without US intervention in the 60s/70s’. While we might smile and move on from this particular episode, the current contest to be the next leader of the Conservative party demonstrates why accuracy matters.
Both of the remaining candidates to succeed Boris Johnson – Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – have sought to portray themselves as the next Margaret Thatcher, with everything from Sunak’s campaign launch in Grantham to Truss’s pussy bow blouses designed to invoke the spirit of the former premier. The Observer even invited some of the surviving members of the Thatcher Cabinets to speculate on whether their former boss would have supported Truss’s plans for tax cuts. While one might dismiss this as ‘Ouija Board History’, it brings into play a more serious debate about the past. Prospective party leaders would do well to ponder the Thatcher years – not only her record in government but her political longevity. The Conservatives have been in power, either alone or as the dominant partner in a coalition, for 47 of the last 77 years. Yet of Conservative leaders since the Second World War, only Thatcher (who won in 1979, 1983 and 1987) has led the party to victory with a working majority in more than one general election. Under her nearest rival, David Cameron, the Tories won a majority in 2015. But despite ejecting Gordon Brown from Downing Street in the 2010, Cameron was only able to govern for the next five years with the support of the Liberal Democrats. All of this might indeed suggest that Thatcher is the former premier to emulate. But it perhaps also demonstrates – as Johnson recently discovered to his cost – that the electoral success of the Tories lies in part in their ruthless capacity to despatch leaders who have passed their sell-by date. Johnson, of course, tried to cast himself as a latter-day Winston Churchill. Yet in a cruel twist of fate, insofar as he resembled the great man at all, it was not as the heroic wartime leader but as Churchill in his second premiership from 1951-55, barely capable of exercising the levers of power and with ambitious rivals in Cabinet snapping at his heels, impatient for him to be gone.
Aside from this political cosplay, there is a more profound sense in which history matters. The UK lacks a written constitution. Hence, precedent – that is to say history – is crucial in defining what constitutes acceptable political behaviour. In 2019, in a pamphlet for the Constitution Society, Peter Hennessy, one of the godfathers of British contemporary history, and Andrew Blick, a former director of History & Policy, warned of the fragility of the current system in the face of a new style of politics: ‘We have long assumed that those who rise to high office will be “good chaps”, knowing what the unwritten rules are and wanting to adhere to them, even if doing so might frustrate the attainment of their policy objectives, party political goals, or personal ambitions.’ The fact that the ‘rules’ are opaque and implicit makes it easy to misrepresent them. In January this year, the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, tried to persuade mutinous Tory MPs that if they ousted prime minister Boris Johnson they would trigger a general election. There was remarkably little evidence to support this notion either from the recent past or from constitutional theory, and once Johnson announced his intention to step down the idea seemed mysteriously to vanish from Rees-Mogg’s mind. But it was a powerful reminder of the need for authoritative historical voices. And they may be required even more urgently as the leadership contest develops. A constitutional nightmare scenario, raised in an article by Christopher Hope in the Daily Telegraph, is that Johnson might seek to rescind his resignation and cling on to power in explicit defiance of all rules and conventions. In that case, the guardians of what Hennessy has described as the ‘Hidden Wiring’ of Britain’s political system – senior officials in Whitehall and the Palace – will be keenly soliciting advice from constitutional historians. And those historians are likely to draw on precedents not only from the UK but elsewhere in the world, where the ‘Westminster model’ of parliamentary democracy has taken root. Whether we reach that stage or not, engagement by historians in the political process is not a diversion from their proper role but a vitally important public duty, one that History & Policy is committed to encouraging.