Policy Papers

Today’s toughest policy problems: how history can help

Mel Porter , Alastair Reid |

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Executive Summary

  • However it is composed, the new UK government will quickly have to grapple with some tough policy challenges in an uncertain political environment and with very limited resources. Ministers and their advisers will need every tool available to make sound and resilient policy decisions.
  • History is currently an under-used resource, but historical research and the input of expert historians could help shed light on current policy problems and the options available to manage them.
  • This paper draws on the ideas and experience of almost 100 contributors to this website; it can point today's policymakers in the direction of useful precedents and steer them away from bad history based on golden ages and historical myths.
  • If the incoming government is prepared to give up the widespread and misleading rhetoric about the unprecedented nature of current economic problems, it will find there are a lot of practical lessons to be learned from the past.
  • Historians' expertise will be crucial to reforming the British electoral and political system; many of the current 'problems' have a much longer pedigree than most people realise.
  • Most modern public services have their heritage in local, rather than national, government. If the new government is serious about reviving local democracy, there are lessons to be learned from the past.
  • Today's most intractable social policy issues, such as pensions and child support, have historic roots, yet policymakers repeatedly fail to understand or learn from the past and remain stuck on an unsuccessful policy merry-go-round.
  • A historical consideration reveals that the major themes in health policy - the NHS, public health and social care - have long been artificially separated and this has closed down the opportunities for effective policymaking.
  • Historians can make a valuable contribution to current policy on climate change, by illuminating long-term trends and providing insights into historical attempts to change consumer behaviour.
  • Since the launch of the 'War on Terror' a wilful blindness to the relevance of history along with the distortion of those parallels that have been recognised, has led to a series of costly mistakes. Only with a more sober and realistic assessment of future foreign policy challenges can this be avoided in future.


Now more than ever, as Britain's policymakers face the challenges of political uncertainty, global recession, climate change, 'lifestyle diseases' and international insecurity, they need the unique perspective that historians can offer. Historians can make major contributions to understanding the key public issues of the day, but are rarely consulted by policymakers or the opinion-formers who influence them, who turn instead to consultants, think-tanks or other academic disciplines. Recent years have seen public policy failures in the UK and abroad that might have been avoided had those involved learned from the experiences of the past.

When we launched the History & Policy (H&P) website in the spring of 2002 we published eight papers by historians, using their knowledge of the past to shed light on the present for the benefit of those discussing and deciding current policy. Today, with the 'impact' agenda in higher education aiming to force even the most retiring inhabitants of ivory towers to consider the relevance of their work to the wider world, this does not seem particularly radical. But eight years ago, 'impact' and 'knowledge exchange' were not the buzzwords they are today. It was no foregone conclusion that historians would be interested in communicating their research to policy audiences, that there would be receptive policy audiences or that H&P could be sustained beyond this initial clutch of papers.

Eight years on, H&P marks the milestone of publishing paper 100, with 95 contributors including Virginia Berridge, David Cesarani, Martin Daunton, David Edgerton, Iain Mclean, David Reynolds, Quentin Skinner and Pat Thane. These 100 papers address themes as diverse as climate change, the credit crunch and child support. Since 2006 H&P has had a full-time external relations office, established with charitable funding, and now supports a network of over 250 historians in the UK and abroad. The website also showcases 28 opinion articles written by historians for H&P and 16 rapid responses to breaking news. Today, H&P remains the UK's only national organisation working to improve public policy through a better understanding of history.

With the appointment of a new government imminent, now is the time to revisit the wealth of ideas and expertise available from H&P's contributors. Our key ambition for H&P has been to provide suggestions, ideas and critiques for today's policymakers, derived from high-quality historical research. Many think tanks, research groups and charities are offering up their own 'manifestos', setting out their stalls for the politicians and their wish-lists for the next government. This paper offers a more reflective perspective, as we bring together some of the highlights of historians' contributions to public policy debate since 2002.

Economy and finance

Public debt and the need for spending cuts have been widely described as 'the elephant in the room' during this election campaign, but there is no doubt that tackling both must be the priority for the incoming government. Since the economic crisis first began to take hold, economists and commentators have looked to the past for analogies, comparisons and, to a lesser extent, lessons. They have generally focused on the best-known economic crises of the past, particularly the Great Depression, but historians have suggested that other periods and episodes are equally, if not more, relevant to the present situation.

A H&P paper by Edmund Rogers reveals a direct, but little-known, precedent to the sub-prime mortgage crisis from which policymakers might learn: the catastrophic collapse of Australian banks in the 1890s in which 40 building societies and mortgage banks failed, seven trading banks shut down and over half of the banks suspended payments to depositors. Then, as now, the crisis was triggered by a global credit-crunch; the economy faltered and borrowers were unable to pay off loans they had taken out with land-finance companies. Australian banks had expanded too rapidly, with too many resources locked up in illiquid, long-term investments such as mortgages. British banks remained remarkably stable, priding themselves on their careful separation between 'real' banking and the mortgage business. Rogers does not propose attempting to restore a 'golden age' of British banking caution and moral responsibility, or disentangling deposit banking from mortgage lending. He argues that the Financial Services Authority must more actively monitor high-street banks' balance sheets and discourage risk-laden business models such as Northern Rock's. Rogers' paper also undermines the Prime Minister's claim to be dealing with "the first globalisation crisis... the first crisis of international banking", and the argument that he could not have foreseen or avoided current events. This is echoed in two H&P opinion articles by David Hall-Matthews, who traces the first 'globalisation crisis' back to 1873.

In contrast to current political rhetoric, the public debt, although high, is not historically unparalleled: far higher peacetime levels have been managed successfully by previous governments. Glen O'Hara's H&P paper explored government policies and their effects in three recent periods of economic crisis: the Wilson government's efforts to right the balance of payments in 1968-70, the Callaghan government's attempts to pay back its borrowing from the International Monetary Fund in 1976-8, and the response of John Major's government to the 1990-2 recession. In all three cases a mix of selective tax rises and spending cuts, against a background of a mood of shared endeavour and compromise within the Cabinet, achieved significant results. Past experience suggests the importance of collective Cabinet responsibility for the whole package of policies to tackle public debt; considered cuts through postponement or abandonment of some programmes, but continued investment in public services overall; and honesty about the need for tax increases. These arguments were endorsed by 19 leading economic historians in the H&P Network in a letter published in the Guardian in March.

Despite being the biggest ever exercise in public spending retrenchment, following a slump in the British economy that was more severe than that of 1929-32, and possibly the worst ever, the 'Geddes Axe' of 1922 has not featured in current public and political debate. H&P co-manager Richard Roberts has recently explored this episode in a new report published by Lombard Street Research. Faced with government expenditure at almost 50% of GDP, while GDP itself was falling by 12%, and the standard rate of income tax rising from 6% to 30%, the Committee on National Expenditure, chaired by Sir Eric Geddes MP, was appointed to identify a hefty 20% cut in spending departments' budgets. The Cabinet eventually endorsed £64 million of Geddes' £100 million target with the military and administrative functions bearing the brunt and the other main target, education, escaping relatively lightly. Highly relevant to any incoming government are the key features that ensured the relative success of this inquiry: the professional status and political independence of the committee members, a quick turnaround between its appointment and its reports being published, and the ability of the Cabinet to compromise when elements of the package - notably on education - proved to be politically unfeasible. Even so, the spending cuts eventually achieved were well below those recommended and the process ultimately proved politically fatal for the government. Geddes shows us that, even with the essential ingredients in place, implementing a similar exercise today will be a severe test of both political acumen and public tolerance. But it also shows that, with proper planning and analysis, significant cuts can be made, relatively quickly.

Democracy and political reform

The party leaders' debates are one of the few innovations of the 2010 election campaign, making Jon Lawrence's H&P paper on the rise and role of election broadcasting now seem prescient. Lawrence illustrated how, over the last century, the television interviewer has come to replace the 'persistent heckler' and argued that broadcasters now have a responsibility to ensure the proper interrogation of politicians. It called for a return, in televised form, to the traditional form of election debates, in which face-to-face contact between politicians and the public on the 'hustings' would be less tightly controlled and more rumbustious. And it warned that election programming with a rigid, inflexible format - of the sort now evident in the leaders' debates - would be unlikely to invigorate the democratic process.

H&P contributors have regularly shown that many current issues in political life have much longer pedigrees than most people realise. Claims that the office of Prime Minister has become omnipotent, presidential and over-staffed in recent years date back at least to Robert Walpole's era in the early-eighteenth century. Moreover, the evidence for such changes - such as increases in the number of prime ministerial aides, low frequency of Cabinet meetings and attempts to micro-manage the media - does not always correlate with the premierships considered to be the least collegiate or most presidential. Similarly, claims that MPs have become less independent can be traced back to the late seventeenth century. While the current lack of trust in politicians following the expenses scandal has been described as a 'crisis' and 'unprecedented', Kevin Jefferys' H&P paper has demolished the myth that there was a previous 'golden age' of political participation in Britain. Although election turnouts have varied greatly, from more than 80% in 1950 and 1951 to less than 60% in 2001, the majority of British adults have never been 'activists' and trust in politicians has always been low. Any initiatives to 'restore' or 'renew' democracy should therefore be set in this context, and not rooted in romantic perceptions of the past.

The same also applies, to a perhaps surprising extent, in areas of public administration which might seem to be quintessentially modern. Tony Cutler shows that attempts to drive up standards in public services by linking funding to performance targets have a pedigree dating back, not to 1997, but to the mid-nineteenth century. The 'Revised Code' for elementary education introduced in 1863 linked government grant payments to schools with children's performance in reading, writing and arithmetic tests. From 1870, parishes' outdoor relief rate was established as a key performance indicator as part of a crusade to spread 'best practice' and reduce paupers' dependency on the state. These historical initiatives raised many of the problems now associated with New Labour's management techniques: 'ownership' and how far public sector organisations are able to control the performance indicators; 'proxies' and whether targets actually support underlying policy objectives; and 'perverse incentives' to play the system in ways that may undermine the policy objectives. In a vital field in which there is a low contemporary evidence base, historical evidence could and should play a greater part in current policy development.

Meanwhile, as all the major parties now compete to demonstrate how far they would devolve power to local communities, historians can remind them just how many public services now directed from the centre were once funded and administered by local government, with a fairly free rein. In H&P's first paper, Simon Szreter revealed the power and autonomy enjoyed by late-Victorian urban governments in a period which witnessed major improvements to infrastructure and living conditions in many of Britain's major towns and cities. Local government became a thorough test bed for policies that were later rolled-out nationwide, such as public housing, free school meals and the notification of infectious diseases. But crucial to achieving this transformation was the ability of local authorities to raise and retain a significant proportion of their own funds, with the largest municipalities having access to long-term loans and powers to levy indirect taxes. In the late-Victorian period, local government raised around half of its own funds; by the late 1990s this had fallen to as little as 15%, with central government firmly holding the purse strings and calling the policy shots. If the present day political class is serious about genuine decentralisation and the revitalisation of local government, historians should be top of their list of experts to consult.

Social policy

In the field of social policy, politicians are especially prone to generalising about the past, making assumptions about the reasons for change and legitimising their own proposals with rhetorical appeals to 'history'. Margaret Thatcher pioneered this with her campaign in the early 1980s for Britain to revive its so-called 'Victorian values'. Abigail Will's H&P paper showed how New Labour also subscribed to the myth of a law-abiding 'golden age' of respect and deference in the past, adopting the most severe policy stance on juvenile justice for 150 years. H&P has held policymakers to account for their use of historical examples and attempted to foster a better understanding of the past. For example, at our major event on pensions reform in 2006 we successfully confronted the then Pensions Minister with his department's bad history of the Beveridge reforms.

Pensions reform remains one of the most challenging areas of domestic policy, with twentieth-century governments missing opportunities to achieve lasting solutions approximately once every decade. As a result governments cling to policies that past and present experience show to be failures - means testing and pensions linked to employment contributions - to the detriment of pensioners living in poverty today. The British pensions system has become a multi-layered and highly complicated web as successive governments have bolted on new features rather than tackling inherent problems. Hugh Pemberton showed that, from the outset, the state pension introduced in 1946 was not properly funded, in fact operating as a pay-as-you-go scheme with current contributions funding current pensions. Then from the 1950s the value of this pension began to decline relative to pay, creating demands for an earnings link to be introduced, while occupational pension schemes mushroomed, creating a vast and powerful interest group in the private sector. Pat Thane's paper explains how women in particular have lost out as a result of this cumulative policy failure: their public pensions have been inadequate since they were first introduced in 1908, and were always recognised as being so. This was why the first pensions were non-contributory and why later reforms proposed to remove gender inequalities but, due to the low rate at which state pensions were paid, this was not achieved. Understanding the history of British pensions reveals that the famous Beveridge Report of 1942, romanticised above all by Labour, was never fully implemented by the Attlee government or its successors. Its core proposal, for a universal basic state pension which would provide enough to live on, has yet to be achieved today.

Policies to support single mothers and their young children have also seen the perceived financial needs of the modern state prioritised over effective social policy. Tanya Evans shows how the 'New Poor Law' of 1834 left an unpleasant legacy of workhouses and the stigmatisation of illegitimate births, which was not properly addressed until the Finer Report of 1974 proposed a one-parent family benefit. Though this was to be means-tested and, where possible, recouped from the absent parent, it was rejected by the Labour government of the time as being too expensive. Instead, late-twentieth century governments have implemented yet another series of measures which have failed to deliver long-term solutions for single mothers, focusing unsuccessfully on forcing fathers to pay, though history has consistently shown that many absent fathers are simply unwilling or unable to do so. The high cost of enforcement and repeated attempts at effective reform of the Child Support Agency (CSA) have now far outweighed the cost of introducing a scheme such as Finer's, which would at least have been money spent improving the incomes of single-parent households and the life chances of children.

Meanwhile Thomas Nutt shows that in some parts of the country the pre-1834 'Old Poor Law' seems to have operated more effectively than the present-day CSA, with parishes in early-nineteenth century West Yorkshire recouping 97 per cent of the cost of supporting unmarried mothers, while the CSA had arrears of almost £3.8 billion by September 2009. Looking at the Old Poor Law's success in this field as a model for present-day reformers suggests that a successful child support system requires not only institutional determination to enforce paternal responsibility but also responsiveness to absent parents' ability to pay and flexibility in the system to allow for individual circumstances, and this is more likely to be achieved if administration is devolved to the local level.

The NHS and public health

Party leaders have competed to demonstrate the depth of their dedication to the principles of the NHS and its founding fathers and all have committed to maintain tax funding for the NHS and the principle of universal coverage, free at the point of use. However, Labour's planned increase in National Insurance, partly to fund 'front line' NHS services, has been one of the major fault lines in the campaign. The Conservatives have described this as a 'jobs tax', but Rodney Lowe's H&P paper argues that, historically, employers' contributions have been far lower in the UK than in Europe and the US; the burden has largely fallen on employees.

Aneurin Bevan's determination to ensure free access to health care as a citizen's right, not conditional on payment of contributions, ensured that general taxation became the main funding source for the NHS from 1948 and also dissociated it from the other welfare services launched at the same time. This created the artificial - and highly contentious - division between health care and social care, which Pat Thane recently explored in a submission to the Health Select Committee. In the current election campaign all the main parties continue to discuss social care entirely separately from health care, with Labour proposing to create a 'National Care Service' separate from the NHS. But there has never been a clear boundary between health and social care and there have long been debates over whether the frail elderly (pejoratively termed 'bed blockers') should be cared for in 'free' NHS geriatric wards or in local authority homes with means-tested charges. It seems unlikely that policymakers will be able to get to grips with such intractable problems unless they are prepared to abandon their conventional rhetoric and undertake a serious review of health and the NHS within its full social and historical context.

Both Labour and the Conservatives propose that all hospitals should eventually become Foundation Trusts which, it is claimed, increases their accountability to local people. Martin Gorsky and John Mohan show that the 'mutual tradition' in healthcare allegedly revived by foundation status was largely a myth. While pre-NHS contributory schemes did theoretically include opportunities for participation in hospital management boards, the vast majority were passive contributors or interested only in keeping their members' contributions as low as possible. Since users rarely expressed views on local health needs and, when they did, they were often over-ruled or ignored, without clearer guidance on the role the public can expect to play in holding foundation trusts to account, disillusionment is bound to follow. In any case, health inequalities have been reduced more effectively by longer-term economic and social initiatives than by healthcare services delivered at the point of need. In the past, local initiatives played a key role more through the provision of better housing and living conditions than of medical care. Yet the party manifestos continue to focus squarely on health services, with little reference to public health issues.

One exception is alcohol, which the three main parties all propose to control more tightly, though more because of concerns about public order than concerns about public health. As a result, messages on the issue are confused and do not have the same resonance as those on smoking, partly because public understanding of concepts such as 'moderation' and 'units' is low and partly because government policy is contradictory, promoting both longer opening hours and tougher anti-social behaviour measures. Abstinence is neither mentioned nor encouraged but, although unfashionable, it is a growing trend among British people and is routine among certain faith groups. Virginia Berridge shows how experience of the nineteenth-century temperance movement could be used as the basis for clearer and more powerful public health messages.

All of H&P's papers on alcohol policy indicate certain parallels between past and present, but all warn against looking to the past for off-the-shelf remedies to implement today. For example, moral panics about women's drinking have punctuated British history, manifested today in concerns about 'ladette' culture. But Phil Withington and colleagues show that the increase in overall alcohol consumption since the 1960s is at least partly due to women's increased social freedom and opportunities and therefore a symptom of positive social change. Similarly, Peter Borsay shows that although the 'moral panic' over the early-eighteenth century 'gin craze' centred on the relationship between gin-drinking and maternal neglect, it thrived in a wider climate of concern about the government's ability to manage the rapid social changes associated with urbanisation and increasing affluence. Today's politicians are exploring the introduction of price controls, attracting parallels with the raising of duties in the 1751 Gin Act, but it is difficult to evaluate whether this, other features of the Act or social change, were the key to reducing gin consumption. Again and again policy makers and journalists focus on health issues as isolated and threatening matters, while historians repeatedly show that they can only really be understood within their full social context.

Climate change

Environmental policy analysis may be thought of as the preserve of scientists, but historians involved in H&P have demonstrated that they too have valid and original contributions to make. In a recent paper delivered at a H&P training workshop at The National Archives, Dennis Wheeler described a major project to analyse weather records captured in ships' logbooks dating back to the seventeenth century. This is now generating a valuable source of data for climate change scientists.

Taking a similarly long-term historical perspective, Paul Warde's H&P paper on energy efficiency and energy consumption suggests that current policies aiming to increase efficiency require a better understanding of the historic development of energy supply and demand. Government attempts to improve efficiency date back to the late-nineteenth century, and have frequently been successful, making Britain more energy efficient today than in Shakespeare's time. However, these improvements in supply have constantly been outstripped by increases in demand, so carbon emissions keep rising. The shift from coal to oil-dependency - which took place over fifty years during the twentieth century - suggests that achieving a similar transition today from oil to renewable sources would require a historically unprecedented growth in renewable output to keep up with constantly accelerating demand. The inevitable conclusion is that policymakers will eventually have to persuade the public to accept significant cuts in its energy consumption.

Meanwhile, a H&P paper on water stress shows that the public has equated rising consumption of essential services, such as energy and water, with a higher standard of living and civilisation, making lasting behaviour change very difficult to achieve. From the late-nineteenth century onwards, as people have become accustomed to the prevalence of former 'luxuries', such as baths with fixed plumbing and then washing machines, short-term drought has been a recurring problem and notions of what constitutes essential and non-essential use of water have been highly contested. The respective responsibilities of suppliers - to control leaks - and users - to limit consumption and waste - have constantly been disputed and the public have repeatedly proved unwilling to curb their water consumption in the long-term.

However, Mark Roodhouse's widely noticed policy paper demonstrates how the history of wartime rationing in the UK could inform proposals for carbon rationing schemes in the future. During the Second World War, the government chose rationing over taxes as the quickest and fairest way to cut consumption of key goods and resources. Taking this experience as a model for the present day suggests the following main ingredients for success: a system that is temporary, fair and transparent, and under which the public are confident that evaders will be caught and will face stiff penalties. In addition, the public would also need to be convinced - by the politicians in whom they currently have little faith, and scientists whose research ethics have recently been questioned - that there is a clear and urgent risk of catastrophic climate change, which will impact directly on their lives if carbon consumption is not checked, and quickly. Three years on from the publication of this paper, calls for carbon rationing remain the preserve of green campaign groups. But this H&P contribution remains an exemplary illustration of how previous, successful efforts to make rapid changes in public behaviour could be translated into a contemporary setting.

International security

'There has never been a time when the power of America was so necessary or so misunderstood, or when, except in the most general sense, a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day', Tony Blair told the US Congress in July 2003. It is particularly ironic that earlier this year two historians were among the ex-Prime Minister's inquisitors at the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War. In the intervening years even the US military has recognised the need for a more historical approach to its activities. In a recent, scathing report (pdf file) on the quality of US intelligence in Afghanistan, Major General Michael Flynn said that, 'analysts must absorb information with the thoroughness of historians, organize it with the skill of librarians, and disseminate it with the zeal of journalists.'

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, two of H&P's earliest policy papers have proved to be frighteningly prescient in their analyses. Beverley Milton-Edwards' direct consideration of the twentieth-century history of the region, warned that a fairly straightforward coalition victory on the battlefield might turn out to be the easy part of the invasion. It explored the (then little-known) history of British involvement in Iraq since the First World War, when foreign control and a failure to accommodate the country's diverse religious and ethnic groups led to endemic popular discontent, chronic political instability and repeated military coups, only brought to an end by the accession to power of Saddam Hussein in 1979. It showed how the territorial integrity of modern-day Iraq, along with many other Middle Eastern nations, has always been artificial, originally created and sustained for the benefit of the British, over-riding traditional ethnic interests and boundaries and fostering conflict and resentment that have continued to the present day.

John W. Dower's H&P paper, published just after the invasion, criticised the cherry-picking of history by the Bush administration to legitimise a policy that had already been decided. A devastating comparison of Iraq in 2003 with post-1945 Japan cited myriad reasons why US policymakers should not rely on that earlier experience as a model. Key differences between the historical situations included: the legitimacy accorded to the US-led demilitarisation and democratisation of Japan by other Asian states, the adoption of this ideal and commitment to reconstruction by the Japanese themselves, the retention in Japan of some stability through the figurehead of Emperor Hirohito and the state bureaucracy, and the absence in Japan of highly-prized natural resources to inspire external interference and competition. In a bold observation, the paper concluded that US policy in invading Iraq, and the way this was marketed to the world, bore a closer resemblance to Japan's own imperial ambitions before the Second World War than to the US-led restructuring that took place after 1945.

The Iraq war is now known to have been premised on faulty intelligence, but as two other significant H&P contributions demonstrated, this need not have been the case. Calder Walton's policy paper argued that torture should be prohibited not just for moral reasons or because it fails to win over civilian 'hearts and minds', but also because it produces unreliable evidence. There has been a remarkable inability to remember Britain's successful experience of intelligence gathering during the Second World War, which saw the capture of all German agents operating in Britain and many of them 'turned' into double-agents, without recourse to physical torture. The notorious wartime Camp 020, operated by MI5 in South-West London, saw captured agents held in a legal vacuum outside the protection of both national and international law until they were either 'turned' or executed. However, despite the extremity of the national emergency facing Britain in 1940, the camp's director banned the use of any physical torture or assault, writing that, 'violence is taboo, for not only does it produce answers to please, but it lowers the standard of information'. He was also well aware that any 'quick wins' that could be gained through violence were likely to prove short-lived and damaging to future intelligence gathering.

Christopher Andrew's policy paper pointed out that a resurgence in fanatical religious terrorism had been evident for two decades before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and suggested that an exploration of the West's understanding of Soviet intelligence during the Cold War could have produced valuable insights into the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Regardless of the intelligence they receive, agents in authoritarian regimes have always told their leaders what they want to hear, reinforcing their misconceptions of the outside world. Thus the sizable body of Iraqi intelligence material which became available after the first Gulf War in 1991 showed that Saddam had been receiving reports just as sycophantic as those produced for Stalin by the KGB, leading him to believe both that the invasion would not go ahead and that, even if it did, he would still have the upper hand. This is a paper which can, and should, provide valuable lessons for policymakers who are today trying to evaluate the mind sets of the leaders of 'rogue states' such as Iran and North Korea.

Britain's nuclear deterrent has featured prominently in the leaders' debates because of the Liberal Democrats' manifesto pledge not to pursue a 'like for like' replacement for Trident. and their argument that hard-pressed public finances might be better directed elsewhere. This is a difficult and risky policy area for whoever forms the next government - nobody wants to be the Prime Minister who scrapped the deterrent and left Britain vulnerable. But a decision cannot be avoided for much longer. All the main parties would benefit from reading Matthew Grant's H&P paper and opinion article on the nuclear deterrent. They reveal the extent to which this policy area has always been governed by the irrational over the rational; how alternative paths have been summarily closed down; and how fear - of the unknown future threat and of voters' reactions - has dominated political decision-making.


This survey of H&P papers highlights some common themes. In many policy areas, there is a desperate - and sometimes wilful - lack of historical awareness and understanding. Policy often fails to understand or address the long-term causes of current problems, frequently recycling techniques and approaches that have failed in the past, while remaining ignorant of relevant historical precedents. As Virginia Berridge shows in her research for H&P, History Matters? History's role in health policymaking, history is not absent from policy discussion, but too often it is bad history that predominates: the repetition of 'folk histories' that become entrenched in the mindset of a political party or policy organisation, the contrasting of the present with mythical 'golden ages', or the mining of the past for nuggets to legitimise current polices.

On all the major issues that face the incoming government, historians have something to contribute. Now is the time for historians to make their case, even if they - like the myriad other voices attempting to be heard - find themselves sometimes ignored, criticised or rebuffed. The rhetoric of 'newness' in current policymaking deprives politicians, their advisers and civil servants of a wealth of material that they could draw on. This paper offers a glimpse at the treasure trove of historical research and ideas that could help illuminate and tackle today's policy questions. Over eight years and through 100 policy papers, H&P has been making this research accessible and available to non-academic audiences. Over the coming weeks and months we will be publishing many new papers with fresh insights into key policy issues.

H&P has always recognised that historians, as well as policymakers, have a major role to play in rebalancing this relationship. As Berridge has argued, "We cannot expect busy policy-makers to lend an ear simply because historians have now decided they need to know. Important variables are timing, language, speaking to the right people... and fitting the political agenda." In the current climate of higher education cuts and pressure to demonstrate 'impact', historians are only too aware that the wrecking ball is on its way to the ivory tower. However H&P's experience shows that many historians in UK universities never spent much time in their ivory towers anyway; they have always been keen observers of the wider world and keen to seize opportunities to communicate and engage with the policy world.

Further Reading

History Matters? History's role in health policymaking, Virginia Berridge, June 2007

'Public or policy understanding of history?', Virginia Berridge, Social History of Medicine, vol. 16 no. 3, 2003

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