Peter Riddell: When you are in a hole, history can show the exit

Roundup: Talking About History

We have been here before. Almost every event has a precedent, never exact, but often revealing. Politicians and the media, however, often behave as if everything is new, risking a repeat of past mistakes.

Demonstrating the relevance of history is the goal of the History and Policy website, a collaboration of Cambridge University, the Institute of Historical Research and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This involves a network of historians and 60 short briefing papers on topics such as climate change and national identity.

What history can contribute was the theme of a lively symposium in the Churchill Museum in London on Wednesday. Professor David Reynolds argued that historians could help via case studies from the past, such as by providing a larger sense of process, beyond the short-termism of normal politics; and thinking in time. The right question, he said, was not “What’s the problem?”, but “What’s the story?” – meaning: “How did we get into this mess?” Tracing the way in may help to point the way out.

Professor Reynolds, a diplomatic historian, gave some pertinent examples: “Beware nods and winks” – Tony Blair’s sometimes self-deluding hopes after his meetings with George Bush; “Watch your stereotypes” – Baroness Thatcher’s view of the Germans; “Cultivate teamwork” – like Ronald Reagan and George Shultz; and “Play it long” – John Major and Mr Blair’s successful efforts in Northern Ireland.

Professor Pat Thane, a social historian, stressed recurring challenges and arguments: for example, debates over means testing or targeting go back well before the Beveridge report of 1942, and those on the children of single mothers to the Poor Law in the late 16th century. Both Peter Lilley, the Social Security Security in the Major years and Baroness (Patricia) Hollis, a junior minister in that department after 1997, complained about the lack of past or international experience available to them.

Professor David Cannadine argued that Whitehall departments should have historical advisers and that the Government should have a chief historical adviser. This would go well beyond safeguarding records. It would be especially valuable in areas such as constitutional reform, where debates about the Union and Home Rule have long antecedents....

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