History in making

July 7, 1995

The television series House of Cards - which confronted viewers with the image of Ian Richardson turning a picture of Margaret Thatcher face down with the words "Some day even the greatest reign must reach its end" just as the Conservative convulsions of November 1990 peaked - retains the prize for happy timing.

But next week's Institute for Contemporary British History conference on Britain's 50 years since the end of the second world war (previewed in an eight-page supplement to this issue of The THES) coming as it does hot on the heels of this week's fit of flailing introspection in the Conservative Party is a fair challenger. If we are all the prisoners of history, then recent history has the strongest hold of all. And politicians, dealing from day to day with the consequences of that history, have more reason than most to regard it with respect.

Although even in contemporary historical terms a comparative youth at the age of nine, the success of the ICBH in encouraging interest in its field is testified to by the range and quality of speakers at the conference. If no academic event ever quite succeeds in capturing everyone who is anybody in its field, this one comes closer than most. And not only the "big names" who make up our supplement, but also many of the brightest and best of the rising generation of historians - names that will in ten or 15 years' time mean as much as Peter Hennessy, Ben Pimlott or Jose Harris do today.

But encouraging the new and the imaginative has been something of an ICBH hallmark. Many still question the validity of its underlying premise - that the most recent events are capable of legitimate historical study. They argue that the contemporary or oral source is still too close to the events under discussion, still too committed to be a reliable source. But this is to assume that older, largely written, evidence is more objective. Antiquity and print are no guarantee of objectivity. The interviewee recounting his time in government must certainly be treated warily, with an eye to his personal preoccupations, context and agenda. But these are merely the basic tests to be applied to any source of any vintage.

They have in particular through the "witness seminar" - bringing together participants in events like the Battle of Cable Street or the Campaign for Social Democracy - shown an ability to recreate those events in the minds and memories of participants, creating vivid stories for listeners and recreating the states of mind, relationships, hopes and fears that existed at the time.

No doubt the Conservative leadership election of 1995 will in time be perfect material. Whether it will be particularly edifying is another matter. What seems likely to emerge is something recalling a particularly vivid witness seminar on the Social Democratic Party, held to commemorate the tenth anniversary in 1992 of the party's foundation: "All about political manoevring -none of them seemed to have any real political ideas at all," complained one spectator broadly well-disposed to the SDP.

There are issues worth considering, many of them covered by the ICBH conference contributors. The relationship between government, finance and industry, that between taxation and level of services, the role of the state and the balance between planning and the market all deserve more serious treatment than the mix of soundbite, xenophobic rhetoric and taxation Dutch auction currently passing for debate in the Conservative Party.

Messrs Seldon and Hennessy's brainchild has done an enormous amount to illuminate the former "twilight zone". The braindead zone of current political discourse is badly in need of a similar stimulus.

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