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Why Every Government Department Needs a Resident Historian

When coronavirus broke on British shores this February, the government did what governments always do—it looked forwards, not backwards to history. Scientists matter, but so too do historians. In June 2016, when Theresa May became prime minister, she had one major task to fulfil: Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU). She consulted no historians, nor spoke at length to any officials who had a deep understanding of the EU. Result: three years later, Britain was still in the EU, and the country was more deeply divided than for many decades.

Every Whitehall department, including No 10, should have an active historian advising ministers on historical precedent. Had such a figure existed in the Department of Health earlier this year, lessons learnt from 1918-19 pandemic, which killed 200,000 Britons and 50m worldwide, would have been put into immediate effect. The historian would have alerted ministers to lessons learnt from the more recent pandemics, including Sars in 2002 and Ebola in 2013. History matters. It can avoid repetitions of past mistakes, can provide context, understanding and nuance, and allow for a clearer appreciation of the sensibilities of key players in major decisions.

Some Whitehall departments have historical sections, but not No 10, where it is most needed, and where they do exist, they are timid. The Foreign Office has the largest, run by a “Chief Historian,” which provides historical background when required, assists historians with their research, and produces books bringing together annotated documents on key topics. But, surprisingly and wrongly, it steers clear of offering policy advice. The part of Whitehall whose historical section is most policy-orientated is the navy within the Ministry of Defence. 

The Cabinet Office’s historical section keeps a beady eye on publications by those who have signed the official secrets act, and polices the propriety and ethics of what appears in print. It oversees the government official history series, and the release of official documents. But it does little to offer historical advice, or encourage it across the civil service at a time when, with rapid movement of officials, institutional memory is becoming weak. The Treasury did have a flourishing historical section, but it fell victim to cuts after the financial crisis in 1976. Most Whitehall departments though, like No 10, have little time for history. 

Read entire article at Prospect (UK)