Policy Papers

In defence of applied history: the History and Policy website

John Tosh |

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Executive Summary

  • The influence of the History and Policy website depends to a considerable extent on the reputation and credibility of applied history the genre to which it unquestionably belongs.
  • Applied history has generally been regarded by the historical profession as suspect and inferior.
  • A reading of the thirty-six papers posted on the site so far demonstrates that they adhere to the fundamental canons of historical thinking, and that they are best described as practical historicism'.
  • Many of them employ the processual mode which uncontroversially sees historical sequence and development as the way to explain the contemporary world.
  • A surprising number of papers employ the analogical mode, often rejected by historians, but here practised in an open-ended way which respects the gulf between past and present.


Applied history does not stand in good odour with the historical profession. By a longstanding prejudice its practitioners are thought to sacrifice their objectivity as scholars and to flout the accepted norms of historical reasoning. The value of the History & Policy website is that its thirty-six papers report on the practical implications of research which was not conducted for political purposes. The contributors are, without exception, historians first, and policy advisors (or aspirant advisors) second. The proof of that assertion lies in their adherence to the core principles of the discipline. Their concerns are practical, but are realized strictly within the norms of academic procedure. The papers on the website are best described as a contribution to practical historicism'.

Two theoretically distinct modes of reasoning are employed on the website: reasoning by sequence or process, and reasoning by analogy. The first carries the full weight of academic respectability behind it. It asserts that we grasp the nature of things not when they are stationary, but when they are in motion. Traditional historicism maintains that the nature of all social phenomena is revealed by their development over time. Argument by analogy, on the other hand, cuts across that sense of continuous development. It exploits the illumination offered by comparison and contrast. It leapfrogs through time in order to confirm or challenge the conventions of the present. For this reason it is routinely condemned by the more cautious and conservative members of the profession.

Arguing by process

Some of the papers trace the evolution of current policy over a short time-span. This is a well-tried form of applied history, much practised by in-house public historians in the USA. Papers of this kind probably have the most immediate practical application. They include Rodney Lowe on the financing of health care, Noel Whiteside on pensions policy, and Eileen Rubery on public health scares.

But in many cases both politicians and media employ a time-span which is too short to explain the present, and which seriously distorts our understanding. History & Policy includes two telling examples of foreshortened narrative, both of them in relation to the Middle East. According to Ilan Pappe, American policy towards Palestine discounts any history before the Six Day War. But for the Palestinians the defining moment in modern history is not 1967, but 1948, when 250,000 Palestinians were expelled from Israel. Pappe's point is that understanding of the problem is drastically distorted if the base-line is set too recently. On Iraq, Beverley Milton-Edwards unpicks the implications of the comparable assumption that Saddam Hussein's rise to power marked the effective starting point in the modern history of that country. This base-line conveniently ignores Britain's role as the occupying power from 1914 to 1932. Colonial rule, whether exercised directly or through the puppet regime of King Faisal, was only sustainable by the regular use of air strikes. The pre-Baathist perspective makes possible a firmer grasp of both the motives which may have lain behind the coalition offensive, and the likely reaction to it of the key Iraqi interest groups. Each of these papers offers more than a story, but pushing the starting point back beyond its conventional beginning is the indispensable first step to an enhanced public understanding.

Critiquing the new

One of the most likely casualties of this kind of extended perspective is the belief in the new. Historians have traditionally taken a rather smug pride in informing their readers that there is nothing or little - new under the sun. The present international situation gives historians plenty of scope to make arguments of this kind. The war on terror' is said to be waged against an entirely new kind of adversary, and to require unprecedented methods. Christopher Andrew explains how after 9/11 US intelligence measured the novelty of Al-Qaeda by measuring it against the secular terrorism they knew well - groups like the IRA which applied terror in order to persuade rather than destroy. Yet Holy Terror has a much longer history, dating back to the religious wars of early modern Europe: even before 9/11 Andrew was noting a resurgence of traditional and cult-based terrorism'. The pool of experience available to those conducting the 'war on terror' runs much deeper than the intelligence world seems to be aware.

The presumption of novelty can be no less misleading in social and cultural matters. One example is the tabloid press, believed by many to be a characteristic blight of our time. The reason why Adrian Bingham counsels realism in our expectations is that the essential characteristics of these newspapers were set in the early part of the last century: the marginalisation of serious news reporting, the xenophobia and racism, and the obsession with 'celebrity'. The only major improvement that Bingham can point to is the decline of political influence on the part of the tabloids. But the key elements of their cultural impact long pre-dated Murdoch or Maxwell, and are unlikely to fall victim to any reform or regulation.

However it is equally important for historians to be able to recognize the new - notwithstanding their occupational preference for continuity. When an old pattern appears to be giving place to a new one, one way of deciding whether a fundamental shift has occurred is to juxtapose old and new, and to see whether the enabling conditions which accounted for the old pattern still obtain. That is the method adopted by Hera Cook in her wide-ranging survey of sexual and familial change in contemporary Britain. Her paper is a commentary on the demand from the right that the clock be turned back to the strict sexual morality and stable family life 'before the 1960s'. As Cook points out, what sustained that traditional pattern was highly unreliable methods of birth control, combined with low wages for young people, particularly young women. The clock could only be put back if the advances in contraceptive technology could be airbrushed away, and if women could be comprehensively denied equal pay and access to their preferred careers. Since neither of these is within the realm of the possible, it follows that the traditional pattern of family and sexual practice must be treated as obsolete; the enabling conditions which sustained it over several centuries no longer exist. The sexual revolution is a fait accompli, and the task of government is not to attempt its reversal, but to manage it. Hence the title of Cook's paper, 'No turning back'.

Conversely the persistence or recurrence of enabling conditions may give an apparently fading institution more of a future than is immediately apparent. This perspective informs Alastair Reid's examination of the role and prospects of British trade unions. Their exceptionally confined role over the past twenty years has had the effect of obscuring their importance in British society. Reid shows that historically trade unions in Britain have grown and prospered by taking advantage of full employment, and by targeting new categories of worker. His point is that the unions are likely to expand beyond their present attenuated position because those conditions exist once again: employment today is fuller than for a generation, and service workers in the private sector are a likely group to become unionised. On that basis he forecasts a revival of the unions in numbers and strength, contrary to the common assumption of terminal decline.

The notion of enabling conditions also has significant negative implications. What happens when those conditions are consistently frustrated by contrary forces? Ilan Pappe shows that one of the essential enabling conditions of peace in Israel-Palestine is that the Americans recognise the extent of the historic dispossession of the Palestinians. The fact that the Americans show no disposition to do so is the basis of his pessimism.

In cases like these the historian's command of both time and context comes into full play. Attention to sequence and process reveals what is new, or transient, or enduring about the present. It brings out the way in which the origins of most features of the present are deeply embedded in the past - often the distant past - while indicating the unsettling impact of historical contingency.

Arguing by analogy

Leap-frogging in quest of a parallel is the antithesis of the sequential or processual mode. Analogical thinking has come in for some pretty harsh judgements. It is usually condemned as facile and profoundly unhistorical because it negates the gulf which separates our age from all previous ages. Analogy encourages a belief in repetition, when we know that history by definition does not repeat itself. It minimises the play of the contingent. And given the range of possible parallels, it is particularly open to manipulation, both deliberate and unconscious.

One good reason for historians to engage with analogical reasoning is that it is so prevalent in the media and among politicians. In these lay circles it takes the form of seizing on one precedent to justify a particular course of action, and ignoring those that point another way. John Dower attempted just this with regard to the American occupation of Iraq. As the troops moved in, US officials made light of the post-pacification problems by citing the astonishing progress which Japan made under American tutelage after 1945. Drawing on his mastery of recent Japanese history, Dower points out that - unlike in Iraq in 2003 - the Americans in 1945 enjoyed considerable legitimacy in the eyes of the defeated enemy; they were inspired by New Deal idealism; their actions were not distorted by a compelling economic interest; and they were able to transform the defeated ruler into a symbol of continuity between the old order and the new. In fact the Japanese analogy cruelly highlights what was so unpropitious about the American occupation of Iraq. Among the other authors Ha-Joon Chang is particularly telling in his critique of the dominant development myth in the Third World: that the path to modernisation has invariably been by means of free trade and openness to the world market. To hold up the industrialisation of the advanced countries of the West as an example in this respect conveys the exact opposite of what happened, since they depended on the very tariff protection which they are now denying to the less developed countries. Lastly - and closer to home - John Mohan in evaluating the drive to establish foundation hospitals casts a critical eye on the Labour government's appeal to pre-war practice. Hospitals in the 1930s, he points out, were hardly the mutualist, locally-responsive institutions that government spokesmen now claim, and their autonomy was bought at the price of very pronounced inequality of provision between different parts of the country.

The examples are fresh, but the character of this critique is familiar enough. It is an area where traditionalists and more radical scholars can find common ground in defending historical accuracy against ignorant and prejudiced interlopers. What makes the History and Policy website unusual is the number of papers which practise some form of analogical reasoning. I am using the phrase to indicate any use of the past which departs from the sequential mode and sets up a comparison with some episode or set of circumstances in the past. How seriously we should take this exercise depends on how well the parallel respects the historical context of each point in time, and whether it is used to close or open analysis.

The paper which comes closest to the single-track model of repetition derided by the critics is Beverley Milton-Edwards' on Iraq. This is structured round an analogy between the situation faced by the British in Iraq after 1918 and the position of the coalition forces from 2003 onwards. In each case military conquest was followed by a turbulent period of direct rule, quickly replaced by the appearance of local autonomy as the occupiers implemented an exit strategy which would give them continuing power over the country. Milton-Edwards' point is that the authority so obviously exercised by the British from behind the throne stoked up political instability and popular discontent, and that the same is likely to happen to the American-supported republican regime today. Indeed events in the past two years amply confirm her prediction. The period of British ascendancy led to the Baathist revolution of 1958, and ultimately the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein: Milton-Edwards concludes by posing the question of whether the American ascendancy will have comparable consequences. Her argument is not that Iraq is the same country as it was eighty years ago, but that several key elements have persisted. First, the high priority attached by the great powers to controlling Iraq (in the 1920s for imperial communications with India and for the security of Persian oil, and in the 2000s for Iraq's own oil fields which have expanded exponentially since they were first opened in 1927). Secondly, Iraqi antipathy to foreign rule, which makes the position of local collaborating elites particularly untenable. Thirdly, the religious and ethnic tensions which have beset Iraq since the foundation of the state in 1921, and which now frustrate the development of civil society and hold out the threat of civil war. Other factors have of course changed, notably the identity of the occupying power and its choice of collaborators. But Milton-Edwards' forecasting is surely not founded on a superficial parallel, but has been built on a careful analysis of the economic and political realities of Iraq. It just so happens that those realities have had the kind of enduring quality which makes forecasting a worthwhile contribution to policy.

Prescriptive analogy

However most of the papers which use analogy are not making predictions. They settle instead for prescription, with varying degrees of pessimism as to whether their prescriptions will be implemented. And the basis of the prescription is good practice in the past - usually good practice which has been lost sight of in recent changes. Something is being exhumed from oblivion which might guide us to more rational arrangements in the future, but no claim of exclusive wisdom is being made. Rather the idea is to ginger-up policy debate today. Thus Chien-hui Li suggests a reappraisal of the animal rights movement in Britain. The movement is often represented as marginal and detached from the main currents of contemporary thought. But until the nineteenth century animal rights found a strong resonance in Christian views of the creation (practically expressed in support from many abolitionists), and also in Darwinist notions of kinship between animals and humans. John Bew follows a comparable logic in seeking to counter the reductionist polarisation of Northern Ireland politics by invoking an earlier Unionist tradition of creative and outward-looking thinking, and in particular the prominent role of Ulster Presbyterians in the 1798 rebellion. Bew is not suggesting that the world of the nineteenth-century Protestant radicals can be re-created today; but he reminds us that there could be more to Unionism than the embattled sectarian version which predominates in Northern Ireland now.

A case-study: English local government

The most considerable contribution to analogical thinking on the website is in the two papers on English local government by Simon Szreter and Jerry White. Both see a vigorous local democracy as the way forward to accountable and effective local government. But whereas White measures present deficiencies against Herbert Morrison's London County Council in the 1930s, Szreter takes us back to the 'civic gospel' of the mid-Victorian era. This, he says, is the period where New Labour 'will find an extraordinary treasure-chest of parallels and analogies to inspire them.' Szreter's account is built round an analysis of the preconditions of the great age of enlightened municipalism. Firstly, a culture of civic pride and service to the community, initially urged by the churches and then taken up by business leaders like Chamberlain. Secondly, a buoyant electoral base recently expanded by the Second Reform Act in 1867. Thirdly, financial autonomy which allowed city councils to raise rates and take out loans to finance ambitious schemes of material and social improvement. This autonomy was important because it enabled cities to build up programmes finely attuned to local particularities (which in turn stimulated local politics), rather than apply a one-size-fits-all model from Whitehall. The moral Szreter draws is that New Labour could unlock the energies and resourcefulness of local communities by restoring the attractiveness of service in local government, by expanding the actual size of the local electorate (i.e. by addressing low turn-out), and by relinquishing its grip on local government finance.

Jerry White also has his 'golden age' - the Morrison years at County Hall. But he is less concerned to describe local government in its heyday than to account for its decline. Democratic accountability suffered two crippling blows. First, the nationalising drive of the Attlee government targeted not only manufacturing industry and finance, but also welfare provision at local level. Aneurin Bevan pushed through the centralisation of the NHS, including the voluntary hospitals, in the teeth of opposition from local interests and their champions in Cabinet. Thirty years later privatisation under Margaret Thatcher drained away many of the remaining powers of local councils to special-interest bodies, like housing associations and school governing bodies, with only a very partial accountability to the wider community. New Labour speaks with two voices, on the one hand introducing executive mayors and (maybe) regional assemblies; but on the other, intensifying the switch to special-purpose bodies under the banner of 'New Localism'. White makes the telling point that, far from being a novel and progressive solution, these institutions hark back to the plethora of special-purpose bodies (for sewers, public libraries, etc.) which the reform of Victorian local government was designed to streamline and democratise. The 'New Localism' is only the latest element in what has become a very substantial democratic deficit.

Szreter and White together provide an effective critique of contemporary local government. What neither of them do - principally because they lack the necessary space in the website format - is to assess the present-day practicality of their preferred historical models. Thus when Szreter says that 'history gives a resounding yes to the question of whether British society today has the resources to improve itself', the answer can only partly depend on his reading of the mid-Victorian achievement. We also need a clear sense of the play of forces determining political choices today. This means considering whether the enabling conditions which accounted for democratic local government in the past still obtain, and whether its emasculation in the 1980s was more than a surrender to political expediency. White is drawn further into these questions because he highlights the story of decline. His double attribution of responsibility to both Labour in 1945-51 and the Tories during the 1980s is a timely reminder that Labour centralism has posed as great a threat to local democracy as Tory centralism, with the implication that current talk of the 'new localism' should be treated sceptically. But perhaps inevitably in White's abbreviated account, the Labour Party comes over as an enclosed policy-making world, rather than a stage on which wider social and ideological forces are played out.

An evaluation of the analogical mode

Resistance to the analogical mode has turned on two main objections: firstly that analogy contradicts the central principle of historicism, namely the unique character of every succeeding age; and secondly that an analogy tending in one direction can usually be countered by one tending to the opposite, the choice being determined by the prejudices of the writer.

The first objection only applies if what is being asserted is an identity between past and present. But in History & Policy the 'otherness' of the past is respected. Where the past is held up as a model, differences between past and present are acknowledged - as in Szreter's handling of the Christian basis of the civic gospel of Victorian England. Contributors are not claiming that their chosen slice of history is a perfect guide for the present. What they are urging is that we enlarge our sense of possibilities by reclaiming some of the richness of past experience. It is the comparison of things that are not exactly comparable which enables us to draw creatively on the diversity of the past.

The second objection - forcing through a political agenda - would carry weight if the intent of our authors were to use analogy in order to close debate. But their purpose is to open up discussion, to rescue topical debate from a sense of options too narrowly confined within the present. The idea that drawing analogies is a matter of arbitrarily selecting what will suit one's drift from a bewildering range derives from the world of foreign policy, where too much can easily be read into a particular precedent like Munich or Suez. But the contributors to History & Policy deal not with single events but usually with an entire tradition - a mode of thought or practice with a proven track record over time. That makes the selection much less arbitrary and less susceptible to politically-charged selectivity.


In the case of History & Policy the objections which are usually made against applied or 'relevant' history are wide of the mark. The defence amounts to this: on the one hand, arguments from process or sequence are no more than the practical application of how all historians structure their accounts. On the other hand, arguments by analogy are of a rather special kind: they are not employed to close argument and prescribe a specific policy, but to open up the current limits of policy discussion to other perspectives and other values - a procedure which takes the gulf between past and present as a given. Thus the best applied history does not depart from the canons of historical thinking, but rather amounts to a logical extension of the core principles of historicism. On that basis the findings of History & Policy - and other forays into applied history - should be recognised as a serious contribution to debate and should be vigorously disseminated.


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