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Response to Review no. 614

I welcome Anne Deighton’s careful, thoughtful and informed review. Indeed, it was encouraging to note her recognition of the manner in which my book not only illuminates the link between history and public policy during the period between the early 1950s and the late-1970s but also possesses a strong contemporary resonance in a society characterized by frequent demands to learn from the past. Certainly, when commencing this research project I found numerous accounts articulating the theoretical case for using history. There were also frequent examples where history served a rhetorical purpose, that is to rationalize publicly a policy adopted for other reasons. More often than not history performed a reactive ad hoc role, as policymakers repeatedly stated their determination to learn from a recent problem or crisis. What Sir Norman Brook’s 1957 ‘funding experience’ initiative proposed was an alternative approach drawing upon the lessons of history in a proactive systematic manner as part of the normal policymaking process. As Anne Deighton noted, this was easier said than done in Whitehall. Only the Treasury made much of an effort, and eventually even this department decided to close down its Historical Section (1976). Moreover, official inertia, even hostility, to the use of history was influential, as typified by the senior official who complained that ‘history is bunk. Lessons cannot be learnt because nothing is ever the same as before’ (pp. 186–7).

The Treasury’s historical experiment might have failed, but its history offers illuminating insights into the perceived utility of history to public policy. Several policymakers followed Brook in viewing history in positive terms in terms of furnishing an institutional memory, offering a broad perspective upon current problems, facilitating the speedy retrieval of background information, and encouraging strategic thinking. More significantly, history was presented by Brook as one way of saving money, most notably by saving staff time and avoiding costly past mistakes. For historians, it is useful to have such points placed on record by policy practitioners as opposed to academic historians arguing the case for using history.

For Anne Deighton, the Abadan case study represented a key strength of my book. Notwithstanding the publications of Wm. Roger Louis and a spate of recent studies, the 1951 Anglo-Iranian Abadan dispute has been largely ignored by historians, especially by comparison with the 1956 Suez dispute. And yet, as Rohan Butler’s 1962 Foreign Office history recognized in a sixteen-page conclusion to a 324-page history, the Abadan dispute offered British policymakers a series of important political, military and economic lessons. The problem was that the history, commissioned in 1959, was not completed until 1962, thereby raising questions about whether Britain’s history during the 1950s would have been different if such a history had been commissioned at the time, become available c. 1953–1954, and then treated as a framework for action (1). In this vein, the review was unfair to Butler when stating that his Abadan history took nearly a decade to complete; in fact, it took three years. Nevertheless, the length of time taken to complete many histories, particularly in the Treasury, did become an issue, since any history being written for a specific purpose risked being overtaken by fast-moving events.

In many respects my book investigates developments during a period marking an earlier chapter in the enduring debate about the use and non-use of history. As Anne Deighton observes, currently we are going through another active phase, as evidenced by the excellent work of the ‘History and Policy’ website project and the annual conferences ‘on the uses of history for public purposes and the involvement of the public in the study and consumption of history’ that began with conferences at the IHR (2006) and the University of Swansea (2007) (2). Anne Deighton’s review contained few criticisms. I acknowledge the force of her complaint that my book failed to list official histories published in Britain (3). Unfortunately such a list would be long, and its omission reflected severe pressures upon the contracted word limit (4). I am uncertain about the meaning of her criticism that my book is ‘occasionally disjointed’, even if this comment does inspire a final observation. Generally speaking, complaints about the lack of joined-up government point to an enduring lack of inter-departmental coordination within Whitehall. What my study suggested is that this phrase should be extended to describe the constant failure of British policymakers to use history in order to link past, present, and future in a meaningful and helpful manner.

Notes

  1. See my forthcoming study: P. J. Beck, ‘Britain and the 1956 Suez Crisis; the Abadan dimension’, in Re-Assessing Suez 1956, ed. S. C. Smith (Aldershot, in press 2008). Back to (1)
  2. For an overview of papers published on the History and Policy website, see J. Tosh, In Defence of Applied History: the History and Policy website [online]. [Feb.2006] [URL: http://www.historyandpolicy.org/archive/policy-paper-37.html ]. [16 July 2007]. Note also, P. J. Beck, History and Policy at Work in the Treasury, 1957–76 [online]. [Nov.2006] [URL: http://www.historyandpolicy.org/archive/policy-paper-49.html ] [16 July 2007]; P. J. Beck, Thinking and Acting Historically in the Treasury, 1957–60 [online]. [April 2007] [URL: http://www.swan.ac.uk/history/publichistory/beck.doc ] [17 July 2007]. Back to (2)
  3. The Cabinet Office’s website lists the current series of official histories, but is rarely up to date. For example, in July 2007, official histories recently published on the Falklands War (2005), the Channel Tunnel (2006), and Desmond Morton (2006) were still listed as in preparation: The UK Government’s Official History Programme [online] [Feb. 2005] [URL: http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/publicationscheme/published_information/1/officialhistory.asp#prospect ] [22 July 2007]. Back to (3)
  4. For a list of British official histories covering the pre-1945 period, see Official Histories: Essays and Bibliographies from Around the World ed. R. Higham (Manhattan, Kansas, 1970), pp. 481–526. Back to (4)