Catherine Haddon

‘Resident historian’ at the Institute for Government

‘Resident historian’ at the Institute for Government

This case study shows how a better understanding of history has contributed to the work of the Institute for Government, a privately funded think-tank, which acts as a bridge between academia, the media, politicians, civil servants and the general public, examining and improving the machinery of government.

Dr Catherine Haddon contributed to History & Policy’s Policy and Engagement Training in History and the Social Sciences session, March 2016. She studied history as an undergraduate at Reading University before enrolling for an MA at Queen Mary University of London, supervised by Peter Hennessy, and completing a PhD on British nuclear intelligence in the early Cold War period. After working as a contract researcher and part-time university lecturer, she joined the Institute for Government in 2008, working initially on a project to explore how politicians and civil servants should prepare for a possible change of government. She is now a Fellow at the Institute, leading the Whitehall History project. Over the past five years her role has expanded to that of ‘resident historian’, bringing her historical knowledge and skills to various projects.

‘I realised over time that being introduced to people as the ‘resident historian’ at the Institute for Government was a role to embrace and not to play down. It helps the media, it helps with some of the people we engage with, and it helps with colleagues that they see my role in this way. Showcasing a historian working in this kind of role brings value to an organisation beyond producing reports or doing particular pieces of work.’

Preparing for a change of government

In the run-up to the 2010 general election Peter Riddell, who was then an assistant editor at The Times and a Fellow of the Institute for Government, realised that there was a strong likelihood that the election could result in a new government. As the previous change of government had been in 1997, he felt that institutional memory in the Civil Service and its understanding of the way to prepare for a new government might need to be strengthened. It would therefore be useful to consult some of the original files on how preparations for a possible change of government had been handled in the past.

‘You had two periods of very long government, 1979 to 1997 and 1997 to 2010. So there were very few civil servants who had experienced two changes of government. And even fewer who had been in key positions at the centre, near to the Prime Minister or Secretaries of State.

So this project required thinking about government over a long period of time. How do political parties prepare their leading frontbenchers to be ministers, and how does the Civil Service prepare for what will happen when you’ve got a new government suddenly coming in?’

Haddon worked closely with Riddell, exploring what happened in 1997 and 1979, and also in 1964, when Harold Wilson first became Prime Minister after thirteen years of Conservative rule, and in 1974, when there was a hung parliament and a minority government supported by the so-called ‘Lib-Lab pact’. Issues she examined and researched included pre-election contacts between opposition politicians and civil servants, and constitutional questions relating to hung parliaments and minority governments:

‘How do we explain these to people when we haven’t had a hung parliament since 1974? So it was exploring the history but also understanding complex constitutional matters, thinking about how that is relevant to what is happening at the moment, and also how to transmit it to a wider audience, to the Civil Service and political parties, and also the media and the public.

We produced a very long document; it’s effectively a book. What we were trying to do was write a publication that was both readable but also set out the issues very clearly. We had all the material at our fingertips because we had worked through it. The publication was our foundation, our rock. You need to make sure you have crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s. You have to know your research base very thoroughly and producing a written document is a very good way of doing that.’

In late 2009 and early 2010 Riddell and Haddon gave presentations to civil servants in government departments, spoke to politicians, and also gave presentations to the City, because at that time there was concern about how the financial markets would react to a hung parliament. They spoke to the media and organised public events, to try to reach as many interested parties as possible. A historical perspective was an invaluable part of their presentations:

‘We were not trying to transmit the whole of the history. We were telling our audiences the key things they needed to know and using the history as evidence. Examples were very important, because as people are trying to understand complex administrative processes and constitutional issues, it is useful to give them examples or anecdotes that bring it to life.’

‘Resident historian’ at the Institute

Rather than return to academia, Haddon decided to stay at the Institute for Government, and build on the success of the project to help the Civil Service prepare for a change of government:

‘The Institute won ‘think tank of the year’ the following year, partly as a result of the work we had done in the run-up to the 2010 election. We got very good responses back from all involved and the amount of media coverage was proving that they knew we were one of the experts to come to on these issues. It helped put the Institute on the map.’

In addition to working on her own projects, she increasingly found that her colleagues appreciated her background as a historian, and the skills she could bring to their projects:

‘When they were coming to new debates about the role of the Cabinet Office, or questions about joining up different departments, or whatever it was, I was able to chip in with an understanding of the historical reason why it is the way it is today. You need to understand that in order to improve it.

My role over time became much more about being the historian in the Institute, rather than just being a historian by background who happened to work in the Institute.’

Although all researchers at the Institute need to have some general understanding of the history of the topic they are working on, Haddon believes that the ability to evaluate sources and evidence, while not unique to history, is enhanced by working and practising as a historian:

‘The topic of our past: that’s completely democratic; we should all share and embrace that. But history isn’t just, ‘oh we’ve done all this before’. It’s understanding what motivates people, what is the background, what is the evidence base for why we are where we are today, and how is this useful to taking the issue forward. The more you do of that the better skilled you are at doing it, in the same way as you are in any other discipline.’

While history can bring a greater depth of understanding to issues, through analysing causality, personal motivation and human relationships, it is also valuable in bringing them to life, while still maintaining the academic rigour of taking account of individual bias, evaluating the quality of the evidence and how much weight to place upon it.

‘As human beings we use science, we use statistics, we do experiments to try and analyse a problem, and yet at the same time, when we are communicating with each other we bring in our own anecdotes and our own experience to bear on it. I think history is an extension of that.’

The value of history for policy makers

A major focus for the Institute has been the use and application of evidence-based policy making, encouraging policy makers to be rigorous in their use of evidence and ensure they have access to the best sources.

‘The Institute’s been very interested in the question of how to improve the quality of policy making and the use of evidence in government.’

History, in Haddon’s view, should not be separated from other disciplines, but should contribute to a policy maker’s understanding of the background to a topic, and the availability, relevance and appropriate weight to be given to different sources of evidence.

While academic historians can work on improved methods of communication, and the Research Councils can generate incentives for historians and other academics to provide the benefit of their knowledge and research to government – all of which Haddon calls the ‘supply side’ of knowledge provision – the Institute is also interested in the mechanisms by which government seeks it out – the ‘demand side’:

‘We got together people working on different policy areas, foreign policy, humanitarian aid, the Treasury, social cohesion and so forth, thinking about the different ways in which not just historians but arts and humanities scholars more generally have engaged with Whitehall. And from the officials’ point of view we looked at different ways they have sought this out and what would be most useful to them.’

The results were published by the Institute for Government in January 2015 as a booklet with the title: What is the Value of History in Policymaking? However, Haddon does not expect instant results.

‘You don’t necessarily achieve change overnight. It’s often about plugging away at the same issue, reminding them that we said this a few months ago, a few weeks ago, last year, whenever it might be. The publication was a flag in the sand. It’s always sitting there as the backstop. It was less a campaign to get these changes to happen; more a guide to help support longer term change. It’s a work in progress.’

One of the most difficult problems identified in the discussion groups was how to systematize and improve the process by which government departments seek out information from academia.

‘Where is that port of call that people, when they want to find something, can go to look for it? Because at the moment, unless you can get in contact with History & Policy, unless you know how to use the Research Councils’ databases of research projects, or look for particular publications and projects, the only way to search is to go round individual university web sites.

For History & Policy I think it is a very interesting question, because H&P has such a good network of historians and has done so much work on bringing them to Whitehall through publications, such as policy papers and opinion pieces, or through seminars and lectures. But that still leaves the question of where does Whitehall or where do government officials go to search, when they are looking for something?’


Based on her experience working as the ‘resident historian’ at the Institute for Government, Haddon offers the following suggestions for historians seeking to have an impact on public policy:  

  • Historians need to be flexible when they engage with government, the media or the general public and draw on their knowledge and expertise across the board.

‘My experience here has taught me that academic expertise isn’t just the specific piece of research you are working on at the moment, it’s the body of knowledge you have built up, the body of experience that you have built up.’

  • You need to use different kinds of communication tools to engage with different audiences.

‘So many academics are fantastic communicators across a number of different forms of media. Some are excellent lecturers, some are so impressive on Twitter, making it work in a way that is really pushing forward research and getting evidence into public debates. The bedrock of doing deeper publications, books and peer review is just as important to provide the necessary rigour, but it can lead to quite an insular debate.’

  • Historians should learn to work as part of a team with academics from other disciplines.

‘I engage as much with political scientists as I do with historians. And I work with economists as much as I do with either. We all work better when we are all working together a bit more.’

Further Reading

What is the Value of History in Policymaking?

Related Policy Papers

Related Opinion Articles

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  • Catherine Haddon is a Fellow of the Institute for Government and the Institute's resident historian.

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