Experts back Butler in call to appoint historical advisers
Whitehall experts have backed former cabinet secretary Lord Butler in calling for all departments to appoint historical advisers, CSW can reveal.
Writing in this issue of CSW, Butler says: “I believe that each department should appoint a historical adviser, not to advise on the historical background to every problem with which a department has to deal – no single person could have the expertise to do that – but to put the policymakers in contact with a source of such expertise.”
Since the tight spending review, many departments have dismantled their historical units. But Whitehall historian Lord Hennessy told CSW on Monday that “if just once or twice in a Parliament, on a big piece of policymaking, an element of historical context had prevented seriously flawed clauses from ending up in legislation, these historical advisers would be paid for several times over.” He added that “a historian can inject an element of humility when the politicians are singing themselves lullabies.”
Meanwhile, noted historian Sir David Cannadine – currently teaching at Princeton – also backed Lord Butler’s proposal, saying “most government ministers live very intensely in the present. They often don’t know much about the history of their department when they weren’t in charge of it. They aren’t allowed to see the papers of their predecessors, and live in some historical vacuum.”
Butler told CSW that historical advice would be particularly useful when considering civil service reform, noting that “a lot of what has been proposed in the government’s latest programme for reform was actually done in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was head of the civil service.”
Dr Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government commented that “successive governments have failed to learn the lessons from history about how to achieve civil service reforms, and the current government has an opportunity to do this differently. Better historical advice in departments could also be a means to address their understanding of their institutional history.”
Hennessy also said that historical advice should be used to inform public expenditure reductions, noting that “the announcements on state spending at the dispatch box very rarely pan out as intended”.
He added that “there’s always an element of wishful thinking. For example, I really don’t think that the Territorial Army can be boosted to compensate for cuts in regular Army people. The past would suggest that this is going to be very difficult”.
Butler – who conducted a review of the intelligence around the Iraq war in 2004 – writes that “critics legitimately wonder how much those who took decisions about intervention in Iraq really knew about the history of those troubled regions.” And Foreign Office (FCO) chief historian Professor Patrick Salmon told CSW that “people should have known more about the complexities of Iraq – Tony Blair said that recently himself – and they should have known more about Afghanistan.”
However, the FCO has been praised for investing in its historical unit and research analysts under the coalition government. “I’ve seen the future and it works, and it’s the Foreign and Commonwealth Office,” Hennessy said.
Asked to comment, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Improving policy development is a fundamental part of the Civil Service Reform Plan, which seeks to link more closely policy-making to implementation. Open policy-making will be the default, drawing on a wide range of views and expertise from inside and outside the civil service”.
Joshua Chambers is Civil Service World's Deputy and Online Editor.