Why every government department needs a resident historian

The errors of the past years might have been avoided

May 01, 2020
Photo: David Cliff/NurPhoto/PA Images
Photo: David Cliff/NurPhoto/PA Images

When coronavirus broke on British shores this February, the government did what governments always do—it looked forwards, not backwards to history. Scientists matter, but so too do historians. In June 2016, when Theresa May became prime minister, she had one major task to fulfil: Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU). She consulted no historians, nor spoke at length to any officials who had a deep understanding of the EU. Result: three years later, Britain was still in the EU, and the country was more deeply divided than for many decades.

Every Whitehall department, including No 10, should have an active historian advising ministers on historical precedent. Had such a figure existed in the Department of Health earlier this year, lessons learnt from 1918-19 pandemic, which killed 200,000 Britons and 50m worldwide, would have been put into immediate effect. The historian would have alerted ministers to lessons learnt from the more recent pandemics, including Sars in 2002 and Ebola in 2013. History matters. It can avoid repetitions of past mistakes, can provide context, understanding and nuance, and allow for a clearer appreciation of the sensibilities of key players in major decisions.

Some Whitehall departments have historical sections, but not No 10, where it is most needed, and where they do exist, they are timid. The Foreign Office has the largest, run by a “Chief Historian,” which provides historical background when required, assists historians with their research, and produces books bringing together annotated documents on key topics. But, surprisingly and wrongly, it steers clear of offering policy advice. The part of Whitehall whose historical section is most policy-orientated is the navy within the Ministry of Defence. 

The Cabinet Office’s historical section keeps a beady eye on publications by those who have signed the official secrets act, and polices the propriety and ethics of what appears in print. It oversees the government official history series, and the release of official documents. But it does little to offer historical advice, or encourage it across the civil service at a time when, with rapid movement of officials, institutional memory is becoming weak. The Treasury did have a flourishing historical section, but it fell victim to cuts after the financial crisis in 1976. Most Whitehall departments though, like No 10, have little time for history. 

The professionalisation of government in the latter 19th century saw a determination to commission the writing of “official histories” of key episodes. The one on the First World War ran to an incredible 109 volumes. This was trumped by the official histories of the Second World War, with the first volume published in 1949 and the final one in 1993. It is far from clear that contemporary politicians absorbed any lessons learnt, or even read the volumes. Official histories continue to be written up to the present day, with the expense a regular concern of the Treasury and of parliament. But to what value? 

As if to compensate for the lack of historical thinking in contemporary decision-making, governments set up official enquiries, the most ponderous and egregious of which was the Chilcot Inquiry into British involvement in the Iraq War, which took over seven years, found little new and which hardly anyone read in its entire 2.6m words. The cost ran to several millions of pounds which could have been much better directed to historical work where it would have born value.

Errors meanwhile are being needlessly made by politicians and officials month by month, because no one knows the relevant history. Various studies have appeared about this phenomenon of avoidable error, few better than Ivor Crewe and Anthony King’s The Blunders of our Governments (2013).

Historians in No 10 would help the prime minister and his staff, always operating under ferocious pressure, factor in lessons learnt from the past. Many hundreds of books will be written about Britain’s shambolic exit from the EU, and on its response to coronavirus, and inevitably there will be official enquiries too. The one lasting legacy that would make a positive difference however would be something else. Britain should in their wake establish the office of “chief historian,” with equal rank to the government’s chief scientist, chief medical officer, chief economist, chief statistician and more.

The chief historian would oversee the steady supply of accurate historical information to the prime minister and his key advisers, with the power and confidence to challenge them, especially when history suggests they are taking the wrong decisions. They would also oversee a network of historians in each department across Whitehall. Boris Johnson has brought the brilliant historian John Bew into No 10. Let’s hope this is a harbinger. 

History matters as much as economics, statistics, and, yes, even science. Events of the last few months and years show this conclusively.