Rookie ministers steered away from 'bad history'

May 13, 2010

Politicians have been urged to draw on the expertise of academic historians to avoid policies guided by "bad history".

The History and Policy group, which brings historical insights to bear on current policy issues, has posted an online paper to help the next government get to grips with the most urgent items of the day.

Its aim is to "point today's policymakers in the direction of useful precedents and steer them away from 'bad history' based on golden ages and historical myths".

It suggests, for example, that it is time to give up "the widespread and misleading rhetoric about the unprecedented nature of current economic problems".

Debate on the credit crunch has focused on just a few parallels, notably the Great Depression, it says.

But what if there were equally useful lessons to be drawn from the fierce public sector cuts of 1922, known as the "Geddes Axe", or even "the catastrophic collapse of Australian banks in the 1890s"?

The paper also states that "any initiatives to 'restore' or 'renew' democracy" need to keep in mind that "the majority of British adults have never been 'activists' and trust in politicians has always been low". Proposals are likely to succeed only if they are "set in this context, and not rooted in romantic perceptions of the past", it adds.

Similar points apply right across the policy spectrum, say the paper's authors, Alastair J. Reid, Fellow in history at Girton College, Cambridge, and Mel Porter, external relations manager for the History and Policy group.

Plans to reform the NHS, for example, need to address the origins and impact of "the artificial - and highly contentious - division between healthcare and social care", they add. And climate change policies would benefit from better understanding of "previous efforts to make rapid changes in public behaviour" and their outcomes.

In setting out their stall to the government, the authors conclude that historians will, "like the myriad other voices attempting to be heard, find themselves sometimes ignored, criticised or rebuffed". But they assert that rookie ministers have much to learn from their efforts to "illuminate and tackle today's policy questions".

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