Why History matters in Government

Sir Anthony Seldon examined how history has often been marginalised from the policy-making process, and how some of the poorest decisions in Whitehall have been informed by historical illiteracy. He looked at the reasons why recordkeeping, institutional memory and evaluation of historical precedent have all been in decline, and attempted to answer the question – if history matters, how can it have practical value and not just remain an academic subject?

SpeakerSir Anthony Seldon (former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham)


  • Dr Andrew Blick (King’s College London, former director of History & Policy)
  • Dr Juanita Cox (Research Fellow at the School of Advanced Study investigating The Windrush scandal in a trans-national and Commonwealth context
  • Dr Duncan Needham (Darwin College, Cambridge, Director of the Centre for Financial History)
  • Prof Sally Sheard (Executive Dean, Institute of Population Health, University of Liverpool)
  • Prof Simon Szreter (St John’s College, Cambridge, co-founder of History & Policy)

Chair: Professor Philip Murphy (Director of History & Policy, IHR)


Round Table Discussion on Russia’s War Against Ukraine in Historical Perspective

On the 21 March 202, History & Policy hosted a special online seminar on Russian foreign policy towards Ukraine in a historical perspective. Experts from across the world will considered some of the following questions:

  1. How might long-term readings of Russian history, epitomised by George F. Kennan’s characterisation of the ‘natural outlook’ of the Russian people in his 1946 telegram, offer us insight into the current crisis? Are there indeed perennial elements to Russia’s strategic outlook and foreign policy?  
  2. To what extent do parallels between the current war in Ukraine, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Cold War clampdowns in Czechoslovakia and Hungary further our understanding of the potential outcomes of this conflict?  
  3. How does the current international response to the conflict compare to previous reactions to Soviet expansionism, which have ranged from official condemnation to proxy warfare, and what does this suggest about the efficacy of the current scheme of sanctions and humanitarian and lethal aid? 
  4. To what extent has the history of the region become part of public diplomacy and ‘information warfare’ in the Ukraine crisis?  


  • Dr Nikolay Anguelov (Associate Professor, Department of Public Policy, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth)
  • Prof Marta Dyczok (University of Western Ontario, specialist in international politics and history, with a focus on East Central Europe and Eurasia, and specifically Ukraine)
  • Prof Jamil Hasanli (Azerbaijani historian, author, and politician. Visiting fellow at the Institute of Historical Research)
  • Prof Roger E. Kanet (Professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Miami)

Please consider donating to Save the Children.


History and Institutional Memory: Official, Authorised and Internal Histories in Perspective

Histories commissioned by government, either for general publication or for purely internal use, have long been seen as an important means of capturing ‘institutional memory’ and learning from the past. Yet as the Chief Historian of the FCDO, Patrick Salmon notes in a recent open-access monograph (see below), professional historians have sometimes viewed the genre with considerable scepticism. This round table discussion examines the nature of official, authorised and internal histories from the perspectives of those who have been involved in producing and using them within Whitehall, and of historians who have written about them. The issues it seeks to explore include:

  • The opportunities and risks of working closely with government to generate historical accounts
  • The extent to which authorised and in-house histories diverge from conventional works of academic history
  • The philosophical and methodological issues raised by the attempt to ‘learn lessons from history’
  • The future of this field of history in the twenty-first century


  • Patrick Salmon, Chief Historian at the FCDO. Author of The Control of the Past: Herbert Butterfield and the Pitfalls of Official History (IHR, 2021)
  • Helen McCarthy, Professor of Modern and Contemporary British History at the University of Cambridge. Author of Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat (Bloomsbury 2014)
  • Rachel King, Deputy Principal Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary (FCDO)
  • Simon J Ball, Professor of International History and Politics, University of Leeds. Author of, Secret History: Writing the Rise of Britain's Intelligence Services (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2020)
  • Michael Goodman, Professor of Intelligence and International Affairs, Head of the Department of War Studies and Dean of Research Impact at King's College London. Author of The Official History of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Volume I: From the Approach of the Second World War to the Suez Crisis (Routledge, 2014).

The session was chaired by Professor Philip Murphy, Director of History & Policy


Think Tanks and the Value of History: A Transatlantic Perspective

This online round table discussion organised by History & Policy at the Institute of Historical Research brings together experts from both sides of the Atlantic to consider the value of history to policy-makers and think tanks. Taking as its starting point the policy paper ‘Historians and Think Tanks: Lessons from the U.S. Marketplace of Ideas’ it will compare the ways in which think tanks in Europe and the USA draw on historical experience and expertise, and consider the extent to which a knowledge of History really is an asset for policy-makers. The discussion will examine whether and how the knowledge of academic historians could be utilised more effectively by government and consider the potential for greater transatlantic collaboration in this area. 

Confirmed speakers:

  • James G. McGann is Director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program and a Senior Fellow at the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. McGann has served as a consultant and advisor to the World Bank; the United Nations; the Asian Development Bank; the United States Agency for International Development; the Soros, Rockefeller, MacArthur, Hewlett and Gates foundation.
  • Catherine Haddon is the Institute for Government’s principal historian and leads the Institute’s work on changes of government, ministers and the workings of the constitution. She also leads the Institute’s professional development programme for ministers and opposition parties.
  • Calder Walton is Assistant Director of the Belfer Center's Applied History Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. Calder's research is broadly concerned with intelligence history, grand strategy, and international relations. His research has a particular focus on policy-relevant historical lessons for governments and intelligence communities today.
  • Gill Bennett (Senior Associate Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). She was chief historian of the Foreign Office from 1995-2005, and senior editor of its official history of British foreign policy, Documents on British Policy Overseas.)

Recovering from the Pandemic - A workshop on The Future for Employment and Skills

On the 27th October 2021 History & Policy hosted an online event: Recovering from the Pandemic - A workshop on The Future for Employment and Skills. The workshop was organised by the History and Policy Trade Union and Employment Forum, a group of senior trades unionists and academics, and is sponsored by History & Policy at the Institute for Historical Research. 

As we chart our way out of the current crisis what are the lessons of history? How can we build a fairer and stronger economy better able to withstand future shocks, not least from climate change? How can we overcome labour shortages and ensure that everyone has the chance to gain the skills we need? How can we help those hardest hit by the pandemic: women, the low paid and unskilled? We hear from the General Secretary of the UK’s largest Trade Union, from a leading historian, from an expert on Labour Law, from a leading Employer representative, from the TUC and from the Labour Party shadow minister for FE and skills.

Professor Claire Langhamer (Director of the Institute of Historical Research)

Chair: Professor Philip Murphy (Director of History & Policy, Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study)

  • Christina McAnea (General Secretary of Unison)
  • David Edgerton (Professor of Modern British History, Kings College London)
  • Toby Perkins (Shadow Minister for Further Education and Skills) 

Chair: Sarah Veale (CBE, former Head of Equality and Employment Rights at the TUC)

  • Vicky Philips (Head of Employment Rights, Thompsons Solicitors)
  • Janet Williamson (Senior Policy Officer, Economic and Social Affairs Dept, TUC) 
  • Neil Carberry (Chief Executive, Recruitment and Employment Confederation)

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About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

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