Andrew Blick studied government and history as an undergraduate at the LSE and completed his PhD at Queen Mary University of London, on the history of special advisers, focussing on the period from 1964-70, when they were first used by British ministers.
He then spent eight years working for think tanks, in the UK Parliament and undertaking consultancy work for various UK and international organisations, including parliamentary select committees, the United Nations and the European Commission, before being appointed Lecturer in Politics and Contemporary History at King’s College London in 2013 and Director of History & Policy in September 2015.
This case study suggests that there is no clear distinction between contemporary history and contemporary politics; the skills acquired in one field are eminently transferable to the other; and a greater understanding of history can improve the scope and quality of political debate.
Shortly before starting work on his PhD in 1999, Blick was offered an internship in the Prime Minister’s Office at No. 10 Downing Street:
‘It was incredibly useful to get first hand knowledge of how these things operated. There was a lot of interest in special advisers being used by the Blair government at the time, so I thought it would be interesting to look at when special advisers were first used in the 1960s, to better understand how they were being used in the present.’
Blick was interested in politics from an early age:
‘I was interested in civil service history and constitutional history, but all the time I was also interested in politics. I had narrowed down my research area to something to do with the civil service and the constitution and then it became apparent that there was a lot of interest in this particular type of civil servant – the special adviser. I think that a lot of people who want to study contemporary history are interested in contemporary politics; you can’t make a clean separation between the two.’
Blick believes that if current trends towards outsourcing policy development to think tanks and other organisations outside government continue, it will be increasingly possible for historians to combine an academic career with active involvement in politics. If political scientists, economists and business people can do this already, he asks, why not historians?
‘I am interested in what is now called applied history. I always wanted to work in both environments and I think it is entirely possible to do so. You can work in both fields at the same time. You don’t have to but you can.’
After finishing his PhD, Blick worked for Graham Allen, MP for Nottingham North, and for a number of think tanks involved in democratic assessment.
‘I was a member of a political party but I wasn’t heavily active. I got my first internship via an MP who I knew locally through the party. Most people in Parliament have some sort of political affiliation. Even the people who don’t work for politicians – all of them vote and they vote in a certain direction. Once you get into a job like that you get drawn into policy formation; you get to see the workings of the constitution, how does Parliament actually operate. And often people go on and work in public affairs or think tanks and they are then a step removed from party politics, even though they may still be party members.’
Although he wasn’t using his historical knowledge directly, he found that the skills he had learnt while working on his PhD - undertaking research, using sources, finding and evaluating information - were very transferable.
‘Historians have to apply certain methodological standards, looking at different sides of the argument, looking at the breadth of literature that’s out there, analysing the evidence required in certain ways that think tanks may not. That’s not to say that all think tanks are bad or imbalanced, but there is certain degree of rigour you expect from historians. That doesn’t mean that it is completely impartial. We all have prejudices of some kind and it’s not just the answers you give but the questions you choose to ask in the first place. No one is completely impartial.’
From 2004, when working for think tanks such as Democratic Audit UK and the Federal Trust, Blick researched and submitted written and oral evidence to parliamentary select committees, including the House of Commons Public Administration and Foreign Affairs select committees, and the House of Lords Constitution Committee.
In 2010 he started working on a project for the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, on whether there should be a written constitution. The chair of the committee, Graham Allen, asked him to find academic support for the project:
‘Some of the people I got on board were from King’s and I obtained funding from various sources, so that brought me into closer contact with people at King’s.’
This was the first select committee to examine the issue of a written constitution:
‘Academics have helped select committees, they often do, either acting as advisers or providing evidence submissions, but this was the first time a commission was given to a team of academics to provide ongoing support for an extended period, in this case for five years.’
Although the committee commissioned the work, they did not pay for it. Funding came from the Nuffield Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.
Blick’s role was do some of the commissioned work, including drafting two research papers for the committee, and also to pull the project together, using the relationships he had built with policy makers and others over the years:
‘It’s what’s called networking isn’t it? You come across people in various different forums and you talk to them and you build up your contacts in that way. Any contact may be useful years later, and that’s an important part of the task.’
As most of his policy engagement work is ongoing, Blick finds that one project often leads to another.
‘Some people stay in the same research area for ever. I haven’t done that but some people do, and you can make a career and network out of it if you want to. I could have probably carried on writing on special advisers for ever, but I chose not to.’
Working on high-profile issues, such as special advisers and the UK constitution, and submitting evidence to select committees, led to requests from the media to talk on constitutional issues such as Scottish independence and the role of the Prime Minister. He has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, global news networks including CNN, and mainstream programmes including The One Show, and Paul O’Grady on Radio 2.
‘If journalists look at select committee reports and see you are cited they may well phone you, or email you to try and get comments from you. That means you might get called back by a future parliamentary select committee or asked by a think tank to write some research. It snowballs like that.’
A crucial question for academic historians interested in history and policy is how best to demonstrate the impact of their research. All evidence submitted to a parliamentary select committee is published, in a volume of evidence, and selected items may be cited in the final report. Historians can read the conclusions the committee has drawn, which can help them understand better the impact of the original research. The report, however, will be only one of many factors influencing policy makers:
‘How do we ever know if action has been taken? No one can answer that. That’s why political scientists spend so much time analysing it. There is never a definitive answer to how a particular decision got taken. There are always lots of different inputs, individuals and variables, and there are as many different accounts of how it happened as there are people involved. You make a reasonable assumption that the report had some part to play, but beyond that – there is no cast iron way of knowing.’
Blick was appointed Director of History & Policy in September 2015. He believes that historians can open up a debate in a way that cannot be done without history, for example through identifying the starting point of the debate and so providing more evidence than would be available from analysing only the current situation. In addition, many civil servants are history graduates and many MPs and politicians are fascinated by history, so they are open to historical arguments and understanding the significance of historical precedents:
‘The contribution we make is to improve the quality, the scope of the debate, rather than necessarily determining a particular outcome. Historians shouldn’t be looking to clinch a particular argument. We are there to improve the quality of debate, and the reference points, rather than steer the debate in a particular direction.’
Based on his experience, Blick suggests that:
Andrew Blick is Lecturer in Politics and Contemporary History at Kings College London, and Director of History & Policy.
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