Duncan Needham

Director of the Centre for Financial History at Darwin College, Cambridge

Innovative H&P events in Whitehall 

Duncan Needham studied government and history as an undergraduate at the LSE. He then spent 14 years in the City, with a year at business school, before enrolling for an MPhil (and then a PhD) at Cambridge University in 2008. His interest in his research topic stemmed from a conversation several years earlier with a friend and colleague at an investment bank.

‘We had taken a reasonably large position in the market, reflecting a particular view on the German banking sector. I made an off-hand comment suggesting that banks don’t go bust because they always get bailed out by governments. My head of research went rather pale and said ‘You might want to look at the secondary banking crisis of 1974-75, when eight small British banks went bust.’

Despite being a trader in bank credit (bonds and credit derivatives) at a large investment bank, Needham had not heard of this crisis and found his lack of knowledge rather embarrassing. Very little had been written on the subject before the official history of the Bank of England appeared in 2010. When the global banking crisis hit in Summer 2007, culminating in Lehman Brothers failing in September 2008, Needham thought it would be a good time to take a break from the City and take up the offer of a place at Cambridge. He wanted to study the 1974-75 crisis in more detail, as he thought there could be some interesting parallels.

His interest in this episode led to further research on monetary policy, and the shift in Britain from a Keynesian macro-economic approach in the 1960s and 1970s, to the flirtation with monetarism during Margaret Thatcher’s first government in the early 1980s. Needham is now a Research Fellow of Darwin College, Lecturer in the Faculty of History, and Director of the Centre for Financial History at Cambridge.

This case study describes his experiences presenting, facilitating and organising H&P seminars and workshops for government departments, in particular the Treasury. It offers practical advice for historians wishing to develop their public engagement work, while continuing with research, teaching, and other university commitments.

The appeal of crises

Needham’s public engagement work started when he was invited to speak at an H&P seminar series for the Treasury. H&P was looking for historians who had researched previous periods of austerity and public spending reductions.

‘I had just written a chapter on the 1976 ‘IMF crisis’ and a chapter on the 1981 budget and they wanted someone to come and talk to the Treasury about those two episodes.’

‘I found it immensely rewarding. I was told to talk for 20 minutes with three other people. I was very impressed by the quality of questioning from the audience. It’s hugely important that the chair leaves a bit of time for Q&A because that is generally the most interesting part of the discussion.’

A new event format

When H&P contacted Needham about the Treasury’s interest in large public sector infrastructure projects that had gone wrong, he immediately thought of Maplin, the late 1960s-early 1970s plan to build a third airport for London on reclaimed land in Essex, on the Thames estuary.

‘It was referred to as Heathograd-on-Thames during that last fluorescent period of high Keynesianism when Edward Heath was Prime Minister. Robert Blake, the historian, had this wonderful phrase referring to the Heath government’s ‘last Keynesian fling’.’

As Rachel King, H&P’s convenor in the Treasury, explained in a filmed interview for H&P, while civil servants found historical seminars interesting and engaging, she thought they should engage more deeply and more critically with the evidence, and be encouraged to use the ideas they had gained from in their future work. That would require a new type of event.

Needham worked with H&P staff and King to develop and trial a new interactive workshop focused on London’s third airport. He had not researched Maplin before, but was willing to spend some time studying the Treasury files at the National Archives in Kew.

‘It probably took three weeks work, over a Christmas vacation. Like all these things, once you start picking away at it, it starts becoming much more interesting than you first thought.’

The workshop, run in February 2014 (see box), was a great success. It was attended by civil servants from the Cabinet Office and the Department of Transport, as well as from the Treasury. Needham was asked to run a second workshop for staff at the Airports Commission, the body chaired by Sir Howard Davies, which was investigating options for increasing airport capacity in London, including new or extended runways at Heathrow and Gatwick airports. (The Airports Commission final report was published on 1 July 2015).

Needham was struck by the similarities between the debate on London’s third airport in the 1960s and 70s, and current airport capacity issues, in particular the decisions to appoint two bodies of experts to investigate: the Roskill Commission in 1968-71, and the Davies Commission in 2012-15.

‘If you map the Roskill Commission onto the Davies airport commission, it is almost spooky: the decision process, appointing a member of ‘the great and good’ to deal with the issue in a calm, non-political manner. I went through all the discussions about how the Roskill Commission had reached its conclusions … and how Heath had just dismissed it, in a two paragraph letter just before Christmas 1970.’

The workshop highlighted the lack of institutional memory in some government departments. Needham sees this as an opportunity for historians to use their research and teaching skills, and work with policy makers to discuss the relevance of historical precedents to current issues.  

Needham found that civil servants appreciated seeing the original documents from the archives, such as a letter from Edward Heath giving his instant reaction to the Roskill Commission report. The historical perspective allowed them to see the whole picture, something they did not have in their daily work.

‘The officials loved being engaged - even for 40 minutes - with the primary source material.  For instance,  a letter from the Prime Minister in 1970 instantly dismissing the findings of what was then the most expensive public enquiry in British history. I hadn’t fully appreciated how officials would never have seen the whole picture at the time. In 1971 the Treasury would never have seen the Cabinet Office documents, or the Department of the Environment’s. The historian who comes back 40 years later can see all the little pieces, that the individuals at the time couldn’t see for themselves.’

Convening H&P’s seminar series for the Treasury

Following the success of the airports workshop, Needham took on the role of convenor for H&P events at the Treasury, including seminar series and occasional workshops. The first series he organised explored the Treasury’s institutional relationships - with the Bank of England, the IMF, Europe, the Cabinet Office, and Parliament and politicians.

‘You send out an email and say ‘Dear historian, would you like to come and talk at the Treasury in the Churchill Room in front of an extremely intelligent and well-educated audience who really care about what you are going to say.’ Most people say yes.’

‘I spent 14 years out of academia. When you have spent a number of years running a business within a large organisation, you learn to take the initiative and be entrepreneurial.’

He found that organising the seminars was an excellent way to build contacts and meet interesting people.

‘You asked what’s in it for me? Coming to an event, where you get to hear the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England talking about financial regulation and Europe. Maybe that is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine. How else does a junior academic get to blast off an email to the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England who replies saying: ‘yes sure I’ll do it’. Unless I had Treasury and H&P backing I couldn’t just write to him and say ‘would you like to come and talk.’

‘Academics are under increasing pressure to show relevance and impact. Historians who come and speak at the Treasury in the H&P series will all put a line on their CV to that effect.’  


Needham offers the following suggestions for historians who believe that their work could be useful to government policy makers:

  • The high turnover of staff and lack of institutional memory in some civil service departments has created an opportunity for historians to fill the gap, in many policy areas where historical precedents exist for current policy issues.
  • The workshop format is a useful way to deepen engagement and involve participants in thinking about the relevance of history to current policy.
  • Historians can play a useful role as workshop facilitators and through coordinating seminar series, as well as through sharing their knowledge and presenting the results of their research.
  • Convening a seminar series for government, with H&P support, is straightforward. H&P historians invited to present at seminars are generally very willing to do so.
  • Networking is important. Organising seminars depends on finding the right people to present on the selected topics. It can also help historians meet people who can contribute to their own research interests.

Maplin: the battle over London’s third airport in the 1970s

Pilot workshop, HMT, by Duncan Needham February 2014

We had about 20 people in the room when we ran the first workshop at the Treasury, with civil servants from a variety of backgrounds. We divided them into four groups and said: ‘It is 1971. Group no. 1, you are the Treasury; group no. 2, you are the Cabinet Office; group no. 3 you are the Board of Trade; and group no. 4, you are the Department of the Environment.’

We then gave them four pieces of primary source evidence. One was a Treasury report on the Roskill Commission. This is the Treasury’s instant reaction. This huge report has come out. Here is a two pager by a Treasury official. Go away and read it. Piece of evidence no. 2 was a letter from the Prime Minister, Edward Heath. This is his reaction saying: ‘we are not going to do this.’ And then a letter from the head of the Civil Aviation Authority, and so on. Four pieces of fairly short primary source evidence that they could read in 5 minutes: instant reaction from the Treasury, instant reaction from No. 10, instant reaction from the head of the Civil Aviation Authority, who actually had to run the airport, setting out their views.

We gave the same pieces of evidence to all four groups and said: ‘You all have the same bits of evidence, what do you recommend to your different ministers?’

Now I knew the answers because I had been through the archive but, and this was where the workshop really caught fire, each group came up with exactly the right answer. They came up with exactly what their department had told their minister, which was completely different in each case.

The Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office did not want a politically contentious airport in Cublington in Buckinghamshire, as the Roskill Commission had recommended, halfway between London and Birmingham. The Department for Environment, Peter Walker, and his junior Michael Heseltine at the time, two big grand projet guys, both wanted a massive grand projet in the Thames, so they were in favour of Maplin, the airport in the Thames estuary. The Department of Transport said: we just want our airport; we care less about where it is, get it built. The Treasury, as you can imagine, wanted the cheapest option.

All the groups came up with the right answer. It was great. And it was an immense relief to me, as I was standing at the front, slightly nervous about what they were all going to say, and they all came up with the right answer. And they all felt engaged as well, because each person in the group had to read a piece of primary source evidence.

In the second session we gave them four more pieces of primary source evidence: new forecasts about traffic capacity at the airport and more of the political and economic background. For all these reasons, everyone came to the conclusion that London’s third airport wasn’t going to be built anytime soon. And it was fascinating.

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  • Duncan Needham is Research Fellow and Director of the Centre for Financial History at Darwin College Cambridge, and Lecturer in the Faculty of History. His research focuses on economic history and monetary policy in Britain in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. In April 2015 he was awarded the Economic History Society's Thirsk-Feinstein prize for the best doctoral dissertation in economic or social history, for his work on ‘UK monetary policy from devaluation to Mrs Thatcher’.

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