Leader: The value of past masters

Historians separate fact from fiction, keeping politicians honest and clearing the way for better thinking

October 15, 2009

When Prime Minister John Major made his "back to basics" speech at the 1993 Conservative Party conference, it was an attempt to launch a moral campaign evoking the "traditional" values of a mysterious bygone era when everything was rosy, when we had respect for the family and the law.

Unfortunately for Mr Major, history left him with egg on his face, not only because of the wave of sleaze that subsequently engulfed his party, but also thanks to the later revelation of his affair with fellow Tory Edwina Currie.

History is often invoked to justify a political decision or a particular stance. In this year's Dimbleby Lecture, the Prince of Wales likened his own green credentials to those of his predecessor, Henry VIII, praising the Tudor for passing the "first piece of green legislation". The king, he said, stopped shipbuilders chopping down trees, conveniently glossing over the fact that he didn't seem to mind chopping off the heads of a couple of his wives. The cruel tyrant was, as The Sun put it, an eco-friendly "tree-hugger" - except he wasn't: he protected the forests only so that he could hunt and kill deer.

The past, then, is a slippery thing and we have to get the facts straight if it is to be relevant to the present. Unsurprisingly, there is widespread disagreement in the academy about "the lessons of history". Can studying history teach tolerance, put our problems in a new perspective or make us more aware of the sensitivities of others? Should it shore up or deconstruct the narratives that are said to make up "the national story"?

Our citizenship tests for foreigners include a large dollop of history. But is this helpful? Stefan Berger, professor of modern German and comparative European history at the University of Manchester, thinks not, because "in even the most inclusive national histories, a 'them' is necessary in order to define an 'us'; an 'other' who can easily become an enemy".

Many academic historians are too modest to make big claims for the value of their work. But in our cover story this week, we celebrate their vital role: exposing the ridiculous and often dangerous historical illiteracy of pundits and policymakers. In a feature produced with the History and Policy group, a partnership between the University of Cambridge and the University of London, and inspired by Ben Goldacre's celebrated "Bad Science" column, a team of historians savage a number of striking examples of "Bad History".

When governments put forward proposals that have already been tried and failed, suggest we need to return to an imaginary golden age or propose absurd role models for us to emulate, it is historians who can and do put them right. "Bad history can lead to bad policy analysis and to bad policy," explains Pat Thane, Leverhulme professor of contemporary British history at the Centre for Contemporary British History, University of London.

By exploding non-solutions, our universities' historians clear the way for better thinking. If they did nothing else - and they obviously do many, many other things - they would already perform a crucial public service.

But perhaps the best lesson from history for politicians and policymakers comes from another Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who famously said: "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it."


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