Policy Papers

History and policy at work in the Treasury, 1957-76

Peter J. Beck |

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Executive Summary

  • Between 1957 and 1976 the Treasury offers an illuminating case study of the actual use of history in the British policymaking process.
  • Senior staff recognised the need for a 'departmental memory' to help them learn from similar situations in the past, reducing the risk of short-termism and the re-invention of the wheel.
  • Some divisions created 'seeded files' of selected documents to enable the rapid location of key papers.
  • Divisions also commissioned coherent background accounts from information previously scattered across a wide range of files or held in the heads of older individuals.
  • However, the impact of this historical work was limited by its restriction to the Treasury's officials: it was not available to other departments or even to their own ministers.
  • Moreover, civil servants, who tended to doubt the present-day relevance of history, were often too busy to read additional material and generally did not like to hear about past failures.
  • On the other hand, historians wanted to write careful and comprehensive accounts, which often took too long to prepare and were overtaken by events.
  • Some divergence between the professional values of historians and government officials is inevitable, but if history is to make an impact on policy it should be freely-circulated, keep an eye out for the positive as well as the negative and, above all, be concise and well-timed.


Drawing upon papers published on the History and Policy website, in February 2006 John Tosh discussed issues pertaining to history's contribution to public policy. In particular, history offers policymakers a broader perspective on today's problems, even if - to quote Tosh - 'one of the most likely casualties of this kind of extended perspective is the belief in the new'. In this vein, the History and Policy website, though responding to the way in which the historical dimension has been marginalised, indeed more frequently ignored, by today's policymakers, merely reflects the re-discovery of history's potential in public policymaking.

Like today, the period between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s saw historians arguing the case for and against the use of history in public policy. Unsurprisingly, many historians followed Geoffrey Elton in urging historians to ignore the dread mantle of relevance and 'set their faces against the necessarily ignorant demands of "society" ... for immediate applicability'. Alan Bullock, Margaret Gowing, W. Keith Hancock and Michael Lee were among those prominent in espousing an alternative view, whose visibility was enhanced by Peter Hennessy's reports in The Times.

Harnessing his experience as editor of the civil series of the British official histories on the Second World War, Hancock acknowledged the policy realities:

The good historian knows too much about past events to expect that they will ever repeat themselves mechanically ... He does not regard recorded history as a lesson book that contains all the answers. He does expect to find in it questions that are likely to be worth asking both now and in the future.

Lecturing at Aspen in 1976, Bullock echoed Hancock's caution. Rather than providing policymakers with answers to present-day problems, history was capable of offering guidance about what had been tried in the past, what had worked or failed, and why.

Two years later, when reporting Margaret Gowing's 1978 Rede Lecture for The Times, Hennessy headlined her strong attack on British policymakers for 'neglecting history'. Despite reflecting primarily upon her role as an official historian, Gowing used the opportunity to criticise British policymakers:

But why, if the status and usefulness of historical knowledge are high, is there so little of it in central and local government? Since the machinery of government is reorganised so often and ministers, civil servants and policies are so ephemeral, surely a collective memory is required? Surely government needs to understand the complex roots of policies and problems? Surely analysis of past experience should be fed back into the system? ... who can do this except historians?

In part, Gowing's critique was prompted by regret at the recent closure of the Treasury Historical Section (THS). Its story illuminates central issues addressed by the History and Policy website, but viewed primarily from the position of policymakers and historians working in government, rather than historians working in academia.

The 1957 Whitehall 'funding experience' initiative

In brief, this Treasury initiative built upon the foundation provided by the official wartime histories. Looking back in 1955 to the Second World War, when he had served as Cabinet Secretary, Edward Bridges, the Permanent Secretary of the Treasury and Head of the Civil Service (1945-56), recalled how the lack of any civil (as opposed to military) histories covering the First World War rendered it difficult to discuss 'promptly and authoritatively' what had been done previously to tackle similar wartime questions. As a result, the early 1940s saw the commissioning of official histories 'bottling the experience for our own future use'. Initially, the histories were intended for confidential official use in the event of another war, but the advent of peace resulted in the decision for publication targeting a much broader audience with history's 'first word' about Britain's response to the challenge of war.

During the mid-1950s the virtual completion of the wartime civil series led to the secondment of Gowing, who had been supporting Hancock's editorial responsibilities, to the Treasury. In November 1957 she completed her first two Treasury Historical Memoranda covering The Treasury and Acts of God and The Festival Pleasure Gardens. Impressed by the perceived utility of Gowing's pioneering work, in December 1957 Sir Norman Brook, the Joint Permanent Secretary of the Treasury and Head of the Civil Service (1956-62) - he was also the Cabinet Secretary - launched a policy initiative urging Whitehall to follow his department's lead.

Brook sought to retain the fundamental principle underlying the wartime official histories, that is to 'fund experience for government use' [author's emphasis] as 'an aid to current administration'. For Brook, historical narratives covering 'particular episodes of policy or administration which have been of particular significance in a department's work' provided a departmental memory, a welcome sense of historical perspective for current issues, and informed lessons based on past performance. He acknowledged departmental concerns about costs and staffing, but anticipated that in the long term the resulting simplification and speeding up of policymaking through using history would save time and money!

The Treasury moves forward with history

In 1962 A. Woods, the head of the Cabinet Office's Historical Section, reported that, excepting the Treasury, most Whitehall departments had done little or nothing to act upon Brook's proposal. Writing in 1966 Peter Kemp, the Head of the Naval Historical Branch, complained that the defence departments preferred to write about past wars for the sake of the historical record rather than as a policy resource, even to the extent that their historical sections complained about the disruption caused by day-to-day demands! Nor did things change subsequently, as reaffirmed in 1969 when the Treasury's post-Fulton Report survey concluded that 'we can fairly safely take it that our Historians are unique'. Admittedly, peacetime official histories were introduced in 1966, but this series was targeted through publication primarily at an external audience outside of Whitehall, not policymakers.

Within the Treasury contrasting interests, alongside varying workloads and staffing pressures, meant that individual divisions responded with varying degrees of enthusiasm to the Establishment Officer's promptings to implement its joint Permanent Secretary's initiative. For several divisions, 'funding experience' was seen as irrelevant.

Within the Treasury, Richard Clarke (Third Secretary: 1955-62; Second Secretary: 1962-66), the head of HOPS (Home and Overseas Planning Staff) - his son, Charles, held ministerial office under Tony Blair - soon emerged as an influential high-level supporter favouring the introduction of a historical dimension into the department's everyday work: 'It is important to get these [past] episodes properly recorded ... so that when new problems come up, we can search for pointers'. In time, he anticipated that HOPS would possess a policy resource recording 'accumulated experience' and proving 'invaluable when the same or similar problems recur'. At first, HOPS's historical work prioritised 'seeded files', which comprised selected leading documents on topics (e.g. Free Trade Area negotiations, 1956-58) judged of practical use for current work and future reference. Relieved of the need to cart around bulky files, busy officials were often able to find the crucial papers, what Clarke called 'the needles in the haystacks', more quickly.

The Treasury history on wages policy

HOPS continued with 'seeded files', but in 1960 moved on to the next stage, that is the production of more extensive histories of selected topics beginning with the government and wages since 1945. Throughout Clarke stressed the history's functional purpose in 'funding experience' to provide 'a permanent record within the Treasury ... ready for whatever use may be required'. From this perspective, he saw the project as 'very relevant' to the Treasury's current preoccupations and potentially 'extremely useful' in the future 'if and when the Government begins to develop an active wages policy': 'It might be useful to bring to bear the experience of the previous fifteen years'.

James Ogilvy-Webb, a Principal switched by Clarke from administrative duties, took some eighteen months to bring the project to completion through a three-volume 100,000-word-plus history based primarily upon Treasury files and oral testimony drawn from key actors in the events. In July 1962 copies of The Government and Wages, 1945-1960 were sent to Treasury divisions involved in wages policy. Like other Treasury histories, access was carefully restricted. As Clarke ruled, 'it is not proper to show the material to Ministers' because of the use of papers covering more than one government. Furthermore, the volumes were 'for Treasury eyes alone', since they contained material 'that it would be tactless (to say the least) and irrelevant to circulate elsewhere'.

Clarke's fundamental belief in the intrinsic value of 'funding experience' meant that he saw the history as far more than a departmental reference resource. Rather he presented the final product as offering Whitehall an excellent example of the case for using history to learn from past experience. Hence, Clarke instructed Ogilvy-Webb to prepare an abridged sanitised version for wider circulation. Moreover, he wrote a foreword by way of articulating the merits of such histories in recording a departmental memory. Clarke pointed also to the lessons to be learned, such as the Treasury's incomplete appreciation of economic theory and the fundamental difficulties of resolving the wages problem. Repeatedly, when reading the history, Clarke confessed a sense of déjà vu:

The purpose of having a narrative prepared was to throw light on the present problem; and this has proved well worthwhile. One gets a powerful impression throughout the narrative of "having been there before" -- situations, reactions, ideas, decisions. It is indeed rather sobering to see how many times the ground has been traversed [author's emphasis].

Prefaced by Clarke's foreword, the shorter history was printed as a 34-page Treasury Historical Memorandum (THM) for circulation within the Treasury as well as to the Permanent Secretaries Group on Wages.

When sending Brook a copy of this THM by way of updating him about HOPS' response to his 1957 'funding experience' initiative, Clarke observed that the history, even in its draft form, had already proved its utility. Admittedly, the history would have been even more useful if available earlier, but 'we did ... derive considerable use from it during the policy discussions last autumn':

All of us in Whitehall are ill-informed about these wage problems ... and we need to build up an expertise now that incomes policy is a recognised part of Government activity; and I would put these narratives and post-mortems pretty high in developing it.

For Clarke, the history filled 'a real need'. In particular, it furnished 'indispensable background' formerly scattered across a wide range of files, informed 'a lot of people (many of whom often feel out of their depth)', offered a 'real starting point for the next developments', outlined analogous cases, and provided a corrective 'to avoid misleading posterity'. Unsurprisingly, he instructed Ogilvy-Webb to move on to his next project, a history of planning between 1945 and 1951.

The Treasury Historical Section

As mentioned above, 'funding experience' made varying impacts across the Treasury. Whereas HOPS, like the Overseas Finance division, moved ahead relatively quickly, most divisions made nil or minimal returns. Inaction, rooted in a deep-rooted scepticism about the present-day relevance of history, was encouraged by the pressures of everyday work, and particularly by what the 1968 Fulton Report described as the civil-service culture of clearing the in-tray at the expense of a more measured and informed approach to policymaking.

Nevertheless, certain divisions, most notably the PE (Public Enterprises) division headed by Peter Vinter, followed Clarke's lead. In particular, the PE division benefited from the services of Barbara Granger-Taylor, one of the small number of historians recruited after 1963 in order to progress such work. Thus, during her PE placement Granger-Taylor produced THMs on aircraft purchasing (1965) and the 1961 White Paper on Nationalised Industries (1966). Even so, use remained a perennial problem. As a result, in 1965 the THS was set up within the Establishment Officer's Branch in order to provide a more effective organising framework. Ogilvy-Webb was attached to the THS, and formally made Head Historian in 1975.

Problems and positive outcomes

However, things did not improve following the THS-centred re-launch in 1965. By the early 1970s the department's historical activities, though still presented in some quarters as having potential utility, were viewed increasingly by most Treasury officials as a problem. Senior staff strongly supportive of 'funding experience' work had either retired, like Brook, or moved to another department, like Clarke and Vinter. Continuing debates about ways of bridging the divide between historians and divisions - the THS's growing sense of isolation was accentuated by its location outside the main Treasury building - reflected the fundamental difficulties arising from the reluctance of divisional officials to read, let alone to use, THMs.

Writing in 1978 Hennessy complained that 'The Treasury ... had an excellent historical section until the retirement of Mr. James Ogilvy-Webb in 1976 was used as a pretext for closing it down as part of a general economy drive'. Admittedly pressures for staffing economies, like Ogilvy-Webb's scheduled retirement, were relevant, but the THS's closure resulted primarily from the failure of senior staff to accept that histories were making a useful contribution to everyday work. Moreover, the 1974-75 Treasury Management Review raised serious question marks about the THS's utility. As Douglas Wass, the Permanent Secretary (1974-83), concluded, there seemed little risk of closure exerting a detrimental impact upon current business. Lacking the status of a front-line task, historical work proved vulnerable to spending cutbacks.

Despite the THS's demise, Brook's initiative had fared much better in the Treasury than elsewhere in Whitehall. Over the course of two decades its historians built up what Ogilvy-Webb praised as a 'pretty rich tapestry' comprising 30 printed THMs, 22 unprinted histories, a history of the THS, and numerous 'seeded files'.

Treasury historians, albeit easily dismissed as performing an ivory-tower type role, were presented by Brook, Clarke and Vinter, among others, as making a positive contribution to the department's work. Their histories, together with 'seeded files', served as working tools for busy officials. By-passing voluminous files and unhelpful filing systems, they offered direct access to relevant past experience. In particular, the historians maintained in operational terms the institutional memory for the benefit of policymakers, whose mobility within both the Treasury and Whitehall meant that their mindsets tended to be both limited and partial. As Clarke observed, without such histories 'the "accumulated experience" of the Department is almost literally reduced to what is in the memories of people on the jobs'. At times, this meant that on many issues - to quote Anthony Rawlinson, a Treasury colleague - 'our ignorance is surprisingly comprehensive!'. A broader historical perspective, it was argued, acted also as a buttress against short-termism and constant re-invention of the wheel.

Bridging the gulf between historians and divisions

Throughout there remained the fundamental problem of actually slotting histories into the departmental machine. Even after the Treasury had been actively 'funding experience' for nearly two decades, senior officials, whose reservations were reaffirmed by the 1974-75 Treasury Management Review, were expressing concern that histories remained largely unread, let alone used to inform and improve policy and methods.

Of course, policymakers possessed a very different agenda to historians. Preoccupied with current and future matters, history's backward-looking character meant that its relevance was seldom immediately apparent. Whereas Clarke extolled the 'considerable topical interest' of THMs, most Treasury staff proved far more circumspect. Reviewing his experience of working in both the Air Ministry and the Treasury, M. Stuart offered a typically negative view when opining that 'History is (for me, at least) a fascinating subject, but seldom of direct practical significance for current administration'. Or, as Leo Pliatzky observed, 'we are so stretched trying to cope with the history that is now being made' that staff lacked time to consult Treasury histories. Moreover, as David Henderson complained in his 1977 BBC Radio broadcasts, officials were extremely sensitive about post-mortems; thus, the fact that most histories were commissioned to examine past failures proved a further constraint upon their attractiveness.

Despite their policy-specific role, THMs were invariably stamped to the effect that they could not be shown to ministers. Inevitably, this restriction represented an extra impediment to their usefulness, even if there was no bar on the content, including the lessons, being filtered to ministers through official advice about specific policies and methods. For Ogilvy-Webb, THMs, even those including executive summaries, offered too much of a challenge to 'the digestion of administrators'. For Treasury historians, a lengthy history was deemed essential to provide comprehensive coverage, while saving busy officials time and effort. But for officials, voluminous histories proved a challenging read as well as an unwelcome distraction from more pressing business. Use was in part also a function of perceived contemporary relevance. Acknowledging the lengthy period taken to complete many histories, Clarke pressed the need for histories to become available in a timely manner in order to play a meaningful role in the policymaking process. Things moved on while any project was in progress, thereby posing the risk that any history, when completed, had been overtaken by events.

Treasury history as 'history'

Responding to fears that an applied role threatened the quality of History and Policy papers as 'history', Tosh presented the work as an example of 'practical historicism'. Contributors, he claimed, were historians first in the sense that their work conformed to the fundamental canons of historical thinking, and policy advisers second. In this vein, the enduring divide between Treasury policymakers and historians reflected the disputed boundary line about their respective roles. As John Hunt stressed when working at the Treasury prior to becoming Cabinet Secretary in 1973, Treasury historians were employed to write histories 'and not to advise on future policy'. Histories, it was emphasised, must be focused, policy-relevant and potentially useful, but policy-neutral in the sense of allowing policymakers to decide whether or not to act upon the information provided therein.

Within the Treasury, one enduring issue concerned the perceived conflict between what was described - to quote James Collier, the Deputy Establishment Officer - as 'history qua history and history qua funding':

The purpose of funding experience is not to write something which will stand up as an objective and complete picture of an administrative situation, but to guide current generations of Treasury administrators in how to carry out Treasury policy.

As Jack Rampton, the head of the Social Services division, admitted, each THM possessed an overt purpose:

Its main usefulness is not so much to provide a record of the past as to enable us to learn for the future - especially from the way in which policy issues were handled and the extent to which officials were able to make a proper analysis of the facts and arguments on which decisions were based.

For these reasons, THMs were specifically required to be produced and written in what academic historians would regard as an unscholarly manner. Forced to rely largely upon Treasury files and oral testimony, Treasury historians were strictly instructed not to consult the files of other departments, even when working on inter-departmental topics. For these reasons, Gowing preferred to describe her THMs as ' "policy evaluation" rather than straight history'. Consequently, it proves difficult, even unfair, to attempt any evaluation of the quality of THMs as 'history', since they never claimed this status in the first place. Rather they should be treated very much as products of their time, handicapped by a deliberately limited research base, and hence representing merely interim one-sided assessments of the Treasury's past experience.


Naturally, the THS's closure, alongside history's failure to impact meaningfully upon the Treasury's policymaking process, disappointed supporters of Brook's 1957 'funding experience' initiative. Writing an editorial for Public Administration in 1976, Michael Lee regretted recent retreats:

The demise of the Treasury Historical Section is not a good augury ... The pace of administrative work in the higher echelons of the civil service militates against an historical understanding. "Water under the bridge" is a phrase used all too often.

Henceforth, the Treasury's limited historical work proved largely reactive, marginal and ad hoc. It was not proactive, integral and routine in the way envisaged by Brook. Admittedly, the Treasury participated in the peacetime official histories series introduced in 1966 - Leslie Pressnell was commissioned to write External Economic Policy since the War (1986) - but volumes were targeted primarily at an external audience.

In her 1978 Rede Lecture, Gowing claimed that public policy in Britain, and by implication the state of the country, was all the poorer for the continued neglect of history by ministers and officials. Whether or not this claim was correct remains an open question. What this study of an actual attempt to use history in the policymaking process has established is the difficulty of providing a meaningful common meeting ground between public policy and history in Britain. Although this might not seem a startling conclusion, one should not lose sight of the positives emerging from this episode, especially as Brook and Clarke viewed history as merely one element in a package of resources feeding into the policy process. From this perspective, this case study complements existing histories of the Treasury during these decades, most notably Hugh Pemberton's study of the way in which policy networks based upon pressure groups and think tanks drew in external economic expertise.

This study is part of a research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Further Reading

Beck, Peter J., Using History, Making British Policy: the Treasury and the Foreign Office, 1950-1976 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

Beck, Peter J., 'The lessons of Abadan and Suez for British policymakers in the 1960s', The Historical Journal, 49 (2), 2006, pp.525-47.

Bullock, A. Has History a Future? (Aspen: Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, 1977).

Gowing, Margaret, Reflections on Atomic Energy History: The Rede Lecture 1978 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978).

Henderson, David, 'Two costly British errors', The Listener, 27 Oct.1977, pp.530-1.

Hill, Christopher R. and Beshoff, Pamela (eds.), Two Worlds of International Relations: Academics, Practitioners and the Trade in Ideas (London: Routledge/LSE, 1994).

Lee, J. Michael, 'Public administration and official history', Public Administration, 54, 1976, pp.127-31.

Nailor, Peter, Learning From Precedent in Whitehall (London: ICBH/RIPA, 1991).

Pemberton, Hugh, Policy Learning and British Governance in the 1960s (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

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