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New History & Policy Case Studies on the FCDO and the Treasury

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Two case studies on how history has been used as an aid to policy making in UK government departments are published today on the H&P web site. Their author, Dr Christopher Knowles, Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London, describes the background to their production and highlights some of their findings.

The two case studies, on the use and application of history at HM Treasury and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office originated in a project I started as Archives By-Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge in the Easter Term, 2018.

The case studies are designed to illustrate some of the diverse ways that historical evidence and historical approaches have been used by civil servants, in different roles and at different levels.  For example:

  • What have civil servants learned from historical precedents for current issues to understand better ‘how did we get to where we are now’ and ‘why are we here’?
  • How have they made use of historical methods to assess evidence and provide fair and effective challenge to proposals presented to them?
  • Can asking ‘what happened last time’ reveal important factors that are not obvious if similar issues are approached from first principles?

Academic historians are increasingly looking for ways in which to present their work to a broader audience outside academia. These case studies are designed to promote discussion and help to facilitate a dialogue between academic historians and civil servants. They are not intended as a guide to best practice or as a model for others to follow. They are based on interviews I conducted with selected individuals in 2018 and 2019 and are not necessarily typical of the use of history in other departments or by other officials within the two departments discussed.

The text of the case studies, including direct quotations, has been reviewed for accuracy and approved by the individuals interviewed, but this does not imply official endorsement or official approval by the departments. Opinions expressed reflect my understanding of the information provided to me during the interviews. All errors, omissions, or any misunderstandings are my responsibility, not those interviewed or their departments.

Many people have helped me with this project, notably the former and serving officials who I interviewed for the case studies. All have been very generous with their time, both during the interviews, and subsequently reviewing earlier drafts of the case studies. I am especially grateful to those who provided the initial introductions – Professor Patrick Salmon, Chief Historian at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Lord Nicholas Macpherson, former Permanent Secretary at HM Treasury and Mario Pisani, Co-chair of the Treasury History Network. I would also like to thank the director of the Churchill Archives Centre, Allen Packwood, and his colleague, Andrew Riley, for their invaluable help and encouragement.

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