H&P founder, Professor Simon Szreter, gave evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee’s inquiry into civil service skills. He emphasized the importance of historical training and good record keeping in government departments, which increasingly lack knowledge about their recent history – what has been tried in the past and with what effect. PASC is considering the skills and capabilities the civil service needs to ensure good governance for both current and future governments.
Szreter said that history, traditionally the prime discipline for statesmanship, had lost out to the social sciences in recent times.
Thinking historically right up to at least the premiership of Churchill was something that all governments and their civil servants were deeply involved in, reflecting about and thinking about their own place in British history, as they were thinking about policies.
Governments needed to reappraise the role of history in policy making and regard it as of equal importance to other disciplines, Szreter said.
A lot of these other disciplines tend to have theories or schools of thought they believe have the answer. Historians never ask, what is the problem? They ask, what is the story and how we have got to where we are?
Historical case studies could show why past policies had worked or failed because they revealed the many, complex factors involved. That coherent picture was not easily apparent in current policies, Szreter said.
Citing H&P’s work with departments such as the Treasury, Professor Szreter highlighted two workshops that involved civil servants considering documentary evidence to understand how and why decisions were taken – in this case over Maplin, London’s proposed third airport in the 1970s – a parallel to recent proposals for ‘Boris Island.’
These experimental workshops, led by Dr Duncan Needham of Cambridge University, were organised at the invitation of the Airports Commission and Treasury, and reflected the importance placed on historical understanding by the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, Sir Nicholas Macpherson.
Listen to Simon Szreter’s evidence: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=16254
Read Duncan Needham’s policy paper: http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/maplin-the-treasury-and-londons-third-airport-in-the-1970s
H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.
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