14 March 2013

History is of huge value to government and the current government is no different – almost every policy area in which it is involved has historical analogies that can be brought to bear, including those of the last government.

The government has a potential treasure trove of previous experience at its disposal if it chooses to use it – whether on the role of the Cabinet Office in trying to improve efficiency (Thatcher), ministerial v Treasury relations over public spending cuts (see past governments ad nauseum), or the implications of military intervention abroad (see most of the last half century).

This is why Lord Butler of Brockwell’s suggestion in Civil Service World that each department have its own official historical adviser is so interesting.

The value of history to governments in recent years has been worrying. Under the previous government the rise of email, impact of FOI and apparent decline in the status of Document Record Officers has left academic historians extremely worried about the state of government records (crucial to how it uses its own history, let alone whether the rest of us can find out what really happened). Under the current government funding has been cut to the Cabinet Office’s Official History programme. (If either party wants to examine future UK nuclear weapons policy, it would do well to start with revisiting the 1970s Chevaline Programme, currently the topic of an Official History).

Institutional memory is also too often troublingly deficient: in the run up to the 2010 election, the Institute for Government found few officials with experience of handling a change of government, and even fewer officials or politicians with any understanding of how the UK had previously coped with a hung parliament result. On other topics knowledge is only very general when it is the details that matter, such as with the 1975 pre-referendum ‘re-negotiation’ of UK European membership, on which awareness seems hazy.

But there are some causes for optimism. The Foreign Office, though now apparently unique in hosting an historical section, has seen that body’s status elevated under the current Foreign Secretary. A number of departments now work with the History and Policy initiative (which connects professional historians with policymakers) to commission research or put on seminars and the No.10 website every month invites a professional historian to contribute an article. Likewise, the Institute for Government’s policy success re-unions were hugely popular, not only with the audience but with the number of willing panel members to come along to reminisce.

Having historical advisers in departments would increase the visibility of history in a very positive way, but the value and success of any such role would depend on the remit given to them and how it interacted with other senior adviser roles. As Lord Butler pointed out, no single adviser could provide the ‘historical background to every problem which a department has to manage’, though they could help ‘put the policy-makers in contact with a source of such expertise’.

In fact, what departments need is not just the knowledge, but help finding the best ways to apply that knowledge. Those working in government are usually fascinated by historical aspects of the work they are doing and want to learn more, but they have limited time to spend on it and need to know how they can use it directly.

Successive governments have failed to learn lessons from history about how to reform the civil service but the current government has an opportunity to do this differently. Better historical advice in departments could also be a means to address department’s understanding of their institutional history.

Finding ways in which history can be incorporated into the way the department works and how it can be applied both directly to policy or indirectly into wider departmental learning is as important as being the ‘go to’ expert. At any rate, if government does want to take up the idea of how to appoint and use historical advisers and is unsure how best to do so, there are bound to be some historical analogies to which it can turn.


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