Time for your history lesson, prime minister

September 13, 2002

History must set out its stall to policy-makers to persuade political advisers that it is perilous to neglect the past or to rely on Timewatch when you are trying to influence the future. Karen Gold reports on the History and Policy group

Would Tony Blair be better able to plot the future of the war against terror if he had the history of attempts to quell terrorism at his fingertips? Would the BSE crisis have been averted if modern politicians had known of the Victorians' unsuccessful attempts to defer cattle slaughter in their 40-year epidemic of bovine tuberculosis?

History must set out its stall to policy-makers, argues a group of historians from Cambridge and London that hopes to persuade think-tanks, civil servants and political advisers that it is perilous to neglect the past when you are trying to influence the future.

"There is a new constituency in our society, a kind of fifth estate," says Simon Szreter, history lecturer at St John's College, Cambridge. "This world of policy wonks and think-tanks has a penumbra around ministers, and what we are saying is that it's not good enough for such a powerful group to rely on (television programmes such as) Timewatch and Simon Schama for its view of history."

At best, those who belong to the new breed of policy advisers have a short-term and often outdated view of history, says Pat Thane of the Institute of Contemporary British History who, with Szreter and Alistair Reid of Girton College, Cambridge, has founded this new History and Policy group. At worst they know none at all: "At the very least we can add a new dimension to people's thinking. In some cases, we may also help them avoid reinventing the wheel."

To do this, they are setting up a series of seminars on hot political topics, and a website where historians can publish short (2,000 to 3,000-word) articles summarising research that they believe has a bearing on policy. The first seminar, on taxation, took place at the ICBH. Towards the end of the year, they will run monthly - subjects are expected to include pensions, family structure and work-life balance.

The website now contains nine articles, covering the history of 20th-century tax policy, health funding policy, pensions, trade unions, local government, the lessons the developed world can teach the developing world, medical rights and agriculture (on facing page is a summary of the parallels between the BSE crisis and the problem of bovine turberculosis in the late 19th century).

As the site expands - articles are approved by an editorial board including Thane and Martin Daunton, professor of economic history at Cambridge - Szreter expects more contributions from historians working outside the modern period and British home policy. "History is always a dialogue between the present and the past, and it doesn't matter which period you are working in: Alexander the Great, or medieval plague or the barbarians at the walls of Rome."

Historians in Germany and the US - the latter particularly frustrated by their apparent inability to penetrate policy-making discussions - are already interested in contributing. Not all historians want to be heard by policy-makers, Thane says, but many do: "There is certainly a substantial number of historians who think that history should not be polluted by contact with the present. But I think there is a growing number who do not think that way."

And will the policy wonks listen? Attendance at the first seminar on taxation policy was high: historians presented papers that were then discussed by academics close to political decision-makers, including Tony Travers and Julian Le Grand from the London School of Economics. The audience included representatives from the think-tank Demos and the Treasury.

"Not all policy-makers know what they want to do," Szreter says. "Of course they will be most attracted by finding what they want to hear already. But if they take the time to read a paper on the website, they are unlikely to find that it simply confirms all of their prejudices. I hope they may find that they get further and better ideas about how to do what they are trying to do, and sometimes new ideas as well."

Ideally, History and Policy will become part of the political landscape: journalists and advisers will check the website regularly; lunchtime seminars might be held in government departments or the Cabinet Office. If it is ignored, history may need its own lobbyist to join the close-knit circle in which policy-makers move, Szreter adds.

For now, the initiative lies with historians who believe they have something to say that needs to be heard. "It doesn't need to be brand-new research. But if you read the paper and listen to the radio, and you can see an issue has become important - but you can also see that the way it is being dealt with is fallacious in terms of the historical references that are being made - then instead of sitting in your room and moaning about it, convert your thoughts into a 2,000-3,000-word policy paper and get it on our website, where hopefully it will start to come to people's notice."

Web address: http://www.historyandpolicy.org


"Girls come to you to learn; boys have to be driven," said one witness to England's Schools' Inquiry Commission - not in the late 20th century, but in 1868.

"People are posing the question today about why boys are underachieving in a way that assumes that boys have always done well," says Michele Cohen, a professor at Richmond, the American International University in London.

But she has uncovered evidence that boys' learning has been outpaced by girls for at least 200 years. John Locke wrote of gentlemen who "cannot so much as tell a story"; Defoe of young men "ignorant of their Mother Tongue".

In the 19th cen-tury, she argues, male slowness and inarticulacy came to be seen as a sign of potential and deep thought, rather than for what it was: academic failure. At the same time, reasons were found to dismiss girls' superior performance: their linguistic fluency was mere "chattering"; their diligence was inferior to boys' "healthy idleness".

Modern policy analysts who argue that failing boys are disadvantaged by the curriculum, or teaching styles, or the success of girls, are falling into a centuries-old habit of pro-male excuses, Cohen says: "My message is: poor boys, nobody has looked seriously at why they fail and it hasn't served them well."


Victorian veterinarians called for government action on an epidemic of bovine tuberculosis from the 1870s, but it took the medical profession until the mid-1880s to accept that the cattle disease was dangerous to humans, and years more for the government to act.

Sound familiar? It should, argues Keir Waddington, research fellow in history and archaeology at Cardiff University, because it is the same trajectory as that followed by mad-cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in the 1980s and 1990s. Just as the modern public was repeatedly assured that eating beef was safe, while experts disagreed about the science and the risk, so the Victorians put off treating bovine TB as a public-health problem even when almost all medical and veterinary opinion agreed that it was.

Pressure from farmers and butchers prevented wholesale slaughter of infected herds and disposal of contaminated meat, Waddington says. The poor were blamed for not cooking meat properly, just as the onus has been put recently on consumers to cook food infected with salmonella "properly".

Waddington says the lessons to be learnt are the dangers of delay while waiting for the science to be "correct" and "the long-term costs to human lives that can result from excessive sensitivity to the short-term costs for vested interests".

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