Every department should have a historical adviser, argues Lord Butler of Brockwell

Written by Civil Service World on 13 March 2013 in Analysis
Analysis

On February 21, a seminar was held in the Foreign Office to mark the publication of a book by the head of the FCO Historical Section, Gill Bennett, called ‘Six Moments of Crisis’. The book discusses six major foreign policy decisions taken since the Second World War. These were the decision to send British troops to Korea in 1950; the Suez invasion; the first application to join the European Economic Community; the withdrawal of British forces from East of Suez; the expulsion of 109 Soviet diplomats; and the sending of the Task Force to recover the Falklands.

Gill Bennett’s book focuses on the ministerial meetings at which these decisions were taken. She describes the historical context of the decisions and the pressures under which the government was working in each case. She then lists the participants in the crucial meetings, and the responsibilities and personal histories influencing the attitudes which they brought to the meetings.

The seminar was attended by serving and former senior officials, academic historians, a former foreign secretary, and other serving and former senior politicians. It produced a lively discussion, as was to be expected. None of those present had participated directly in the decisions described in the book. But the decisions had been made in the lifetimes of most of those present, who had known personally many of the decision-makers.

Two conclusions emerged strongly from the seminar. The first was the value of collective discussion. None of the decisions described would have been taken without the assent, and in some cases the leadership, of the prime minister of the day. But each of the other ministerial participants brought their own views based on their personal responsibilities and backgrounds. Their acquiescence couldn’t be taken for granted, and in some cases deft chairmanship by the prime minister was necessary to guide ministers to a conclusion which the PM thought right.

In most cases, sound decisions would not have been taken without the individual contributions of those around the table. These drew attention to aspects which needed to be catered for, flanks which needed to be guarded, and support which needed to be gathered. The discussion reinforced my belief that one of the merits of cabinet government is that the best decisions are taken by bringing to bear as much as possible of the knowledge, experience, and perspectives available within government.

The second conclusion which the seminar led me to was the relevance and value of historical knowledge to those who have to take major decisions in government. Everybody present at the seminar agreed that history can never dictate decisions, because the factors are never the same. History never repeats itself exactly. There are always new currents flowing and new influences at work. But policy-makers need to be aware of history.

A historical episode which was referred to at the seminar – though it was not one of the subjects of Gill Bennett’s book – was the events leading up to the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union in 1975. The prime minister, Harold Wilson, was faced with a situation in which he had three principal objectives: he wanted Britain’s membership of Europe to be maintained; he wanted the terms of our membership to be improved in certain respects; and he wanted his deeply divided party to be held together. The comparison with the dilemma prime minister Cameron faces today is obvious. It is true that Harold Wilson did not have a UK Independence Party snapping at his heels, but it would be curious if our prime minister did not want to inform himself about how Harold Wilson managed a similar set of problems. In another area, critics legitimately wonder how much those who took decisions about intervention in Iraq really knew about the history of those troubled regions.

It is said that, under budgetary pressures, all departments except the Foreign Office have disbanded their historical sections. If so, that is deeply regrettable and departments need to put in place alternative means of access to advice on the history of both departmental policy and the national institutions with which they deal. I believe that each department should appoint a historical adviser, not to advise on the historical background to every problem which a department has to manage – no single person could have the expertise to do that – but to put the policy-makers in contact with a source of such expertise.

Five years ago, I attended the launch of History and Policy, an organisation designed to connect historians, policy-makers and the media. On its website, it claims to be the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of almost 400 historians with a broad range of expertise. That would be the sort of resource which a department’s historical adviser could tap. Those who take major policy decisions in ignorance of relevant history are like a driver who commits to some manoeuvre in the road without looking into the rear mirror.

Lord Butler of Brockwell was cabinet secretary and head of the home civil service from 1988 to 1998.

See also: Experts back Butler in call for historical advisers; and it's not enough to learn from history.

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