By Andrew Southam

27 Jul 2022

Tough times often prompt politicians to seek lessons from the past. Andrew Southam explores government’s use of historians

Many historians have served their country as soldiers, politicians, civil servants or statesmen. Current business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng is a trained historian who’s published on the British Empire.

Yet historians advising governments are a different matter. Despite infrequent calls to incorporate them into policymaking, only a few have helped past governments.

Victorian-born historian James Headlam-Morley led Britain’s first world war Political Intelligence Department, helped draft the Versailles peace treaty and advised the government on foreign policy. Versailles probably had the largest pool of historians ever to influence policy.

Archaeologist-turned-British Army officer and Foreign Office staff member Thomas Edward “Lawrence of Arabia” Lawrence proved his support for the Arab cause by strolling around in their traditional costume.

International affairs historian Arnold Toynbee played his role as a Near East adviser and then became Chatham House’s first director of studies. During the second world war, government funded him to explain why peace had failed and suggest ways to make a better post-war future. Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe ended his ideas for a “Danubian” solution.

In 1945, Prof Sir Charles Webster, diplomatic historian and expert on Castlereagh, helped draft the United Nations charter.

US president John F Kennedy appointed history expert and public intellectual Arthur Schlesinger Jr as his “court” historian in 1961. Schlesinger’s opposition wasn’t enough to stop the Bay of Pigs venture that same year. And the bow-tied and bespectacled professor had to adjust quickly to Kennedy informality – which once saw him thrown fully clothed into a swimming pool at a family party.

Some British government departments had their own historians when the 1958 Public Records Act required them to create archives. The UK Atomic Energy Authority employed Margaret Gowing as in-house historian. She later became an Oxford professor of science history.

Cutbacks changed things, however. The Treasury Historical Society closed in 1976 with the impact felt 30 years later: there were few recession-experienced mandarins able to advise chancellor Alistair Darling during the 2008 economic crash.

“Are the Germans dangerous?” Margaret Thatcher famously asked in spring 1990. Wary of German reunification from her wartime childhood, one Sunday she held a Chequers brainstorming session with leading historians for answers.

Prominent among them was colourful Oxford professor Norman Stone, who served as her speech writer and adviser on European affairs. He tried persuading her of German merits, saying that West Germany was not a powerhouse and had to take on “12 enormous Liverpools … in a tatty cardboard box, with a great red ribbon round it, marked ‘From Russia with love’”.

The session described German characteristics as “angst”, “aggressiveness”, “anxiety”, “assertiveness”, “bullying”, “egotism”, “inferiority complex”, and “sentimentality”. But it nonetheless recognised the benefits of a united Germany and that “we should be nice” to them.

Details of the session leaked out, making history itself. German newspapers feigned outrage. Participants claimed the conversation was more optimistic than suggested. Six years later Norman thought Thatcher’s instincts were right and that there were “more grounds for worrying about Germany than we allowed for”.

When Labour returned to power in 1997, foreign secretary Robin Cook commissioned Foreign and Commonwealth Office chief historian Gill Bennett to solve Britain’s foremost conspiracy, the fall of Ramsay MacDonald’s 1924 Labour government.

This intrigue involving emigres, diplomats and spies included so-called “Ace of Spies” Samuel Riley. It arose from the Zinoviev letter, a supposed message from the fledgling Russian Bolshevik government encouraging revolution by Britain’s working-class, which was leaked to the Daily Mail.

Bennett found the letter was probably forged, the culprit a likely White Russian spy, the leaker unclear and that there wasn’t an establishment conspiracy against the Labour Party.

Another historian, Sir Martin Gilbert, was called on to explain a later dark episode as one of five Chilcot inquiry experts probing the UK’s involvement in the Iraq War. Gilbert, the eminent biographer of Churchill, was knighted for his 80 historical works and his Middle East advice to John Major. He died in 2015, aged 78, a year before the report came out.

Soon to depart PM Boris Johnson has brought in Northern Irish history professor John Bew to advise the Downing Street policy unit. Bew, the youngest holder of the Congressional Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and a Clement Attlee biographer, previously advised Johnson on Brexit negotiations and applied a “grand design” to the Integrated Review of security and defence.

More historians are becoming involved. London and Cambridge Universities’ history policy network connecting historians to policymakers is a decade old. Even television’s favourite historian, British Harvard professor Niall Ferguson, has established his own consultancy giving top corporations historical perspectives on contemporary events.

Arnold Toynbee said there were limits to using historians as “our knowledge of the variables will never be complete enough”. But they are probably more informed than most. As Winston Churchill once said: “The farther back you look, the farther forward you can see.”

Andrew Southam is a freelance history correspondent and writer


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