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By Sir Nicolas Bevan
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Historical precedent: How historians influence politics


9 min read

If today’s politics is tomorrow’s history, then perhaps our ministers would be wise to pay more attention to those writing the books, as Andrew Southam reports.

Before becoming prime minister for 44 days between September and October, Liz Truss named as her favourite historian Rick Perlstein, an American expert on the United States conservative movement under presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Her summer leadership campaign quoted remarks identified by Perlstein of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who told Nixon: “If the people believe there is an imaginary river out there… you don’t tell them there’s no river there. You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river…” to underline Truss’s position as a candidate of optimism. 

However, a month into her premiership and two weeks after her chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng delivered the government’s dramatic fiscal statement, Perlstein claimed she had misunderstood his work. “The idea that someone would come across the account that I offer of the cynicism, intellectual vacuity, and just basic emptiness of the promises that were made by Ronald Reagan in this regard, and say, ‘Jolly good, this is what I’m going to try for England’, is kind of mind-blowing,” he told Times Radio.

Until cutbacks in the 1970s, a number of government departments and agencies had their own in-house historians

The problems of the now former prime minister arose not only because she may have misinterpreted Perlstein but also perhaps due to the absence of an advising historian to explain what has and has not worked in the past. There have in contrast been occasions when professional historians have beneficially influenced the thinking of politicians as advisers and confidants – especially through particular intersections over the last two centuries.  

One of these was the late 19th century crossover between history and politics, during which a number of historians joined political parties. They included John Dalberg-Acton, later Lord Acton, an expert on religious history who became a Liberal MP and friend and adviser to prime minister William Gladstone and later coined the aphorism, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. 

The First World War was another junction when historians took up advisory roles in government, including the mild-mannered ancient historian and classicist James Headlam-Morley, who not only led Britain’s political intelligence department as a German expert but became a historical adviser to the Foreign Office and helped draft the Versailles Treaty at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 to 1920. 

Indeed, the peace conference proved a high-water mark for historians.

Cambridge professor of diplomatic history and romantic Slavophile Harold Temperley was another Versailles adviser who so impressed prime minister David Lloyd George that his private secretary David Davies asked him to stand for Parliament. He wrote the official history of the peace conference and then became a special adviser on the Balkans to foreign secretary Arthur Balfour at the League of Nations, earning him the enmity of the Italians for his pro-Slavic stance. 

Former archaeologist T E Lawrence of (Arabia), whose exploits made him a film idol as a blonde-haired Englishman leading the Arab revolt against the Turks, influenced colonial secretary Winston Churchill at the 1921 Cairo Conference over the borders of the newly created Iraq and Transjordan, modern-day Jordan. 

Lawrence wrote a noted work of his adventures, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in 1922 while a fellow of All Souls, Oxford, a college which acted as an early version of a think tank and another intersection for gifted politicians, historians and lawyers including the wartime India secretary Leo Amery and the historian of ideas Isiah Berlin. (history graduate and politician John Redwood is a current fellow.)

Between the wars, the ancient history tutor Arnold Toynbee, another wartime intelligence and Versailles adviser, became from 1924 the longest serving director of studies of the newly founded foreign affairs institute at Chatham House, where he produced an annual survey of international affairs.

He was asked by government during the Second World War to lead the newly created Foreign Research and Press Service to devise a new post-war peace. Unfortunately, the new unit’s idea of a multinational solution for the 14 countries bordering the Danube was scotched by the subsequent Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe – though continued to have credibility as late as the 1980s. 

After the war, Professor Sir Charles Kingsley Webster, who was the sixth son of a Liverpool freight dispatcher and a diplomatic historian, exercised the most significant international influence of any historian when working to establish the United Nations. 

He harmonised the contesting views of Churchill, Clement Attlee and Anthony Eden to help devise a world congress system which he then helped negotiate with the Allies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC. In April 1945 he revised the “terrible” draft of the South African premier Jan Smuts to produce the Preamble to the UN Charter.

Until cutbacks in the 1970s, a number of government departments and agencies had their own in-house historians. They included Margaret Gowing at the former UK Atomic Energy Authority, who later became an Oxford professor of science history. Only the historical sections of the Foreign Office, which celebrated its centenary in 2018, and the Ministry of Defence remain today.

Thatcher said ‘I’ve got the message. I’ll be very nice to the Germans'

Historians made a comeback in the 1980s when prime minister Margaret Thatcher admitted into her inner circle Oxford regius professor Hugh Trevor-Roper. His wartime work as an intelligence officer in 1945 proved that Adolf Hitler was dead and not, as was being rumoured, captured by the invading Soviet army, which resulted in his 1947 international best-seller, The Last Days of Hitler.
Thatcher also used as speech writer and foreign affairs adviser the inimitable Oxford professor of modern history Norman Stone, a hard-living Glaswegian who wrote the seminal work on the First World War eastern front. A celebrated phrase maker as a Times columnist, he spoke eight languages including Hungarian and Turkish, and his first wife was the niece of the finance minister in the government of Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier.

Norman notably taught Boris Johnson’s controversial adviser Dominic Cummings, who graduated with a First in history, and influenced Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, who gave a reading at his memorial service in 2019.

Trevor-Roper and Stone along with historian and journalist Timothy Garton-Ash and historians Gordon Craig and Fritz Stern of various leading American universities attended the remarkable Chequers seminar of March 1990 to help the prime minister decide if the Germans were “dangerous” and whether to support reunification.

Norman argued the case for unity, saying that West Germany was not a powerhouse and was being forced to take on East Germany which was the equivalent of “12 enormous Liverpools… in a tatty cardboard box, with a great red ribbon round it, marked ‘From Russia with love’”.
He had some success, as towards the end of the session, Thatcher said “I’ve got the message. I’ll be very nice to the Germans”.

Two other junctions had embellished their credentials for connecting politicians, historians and policy specialists by the 1980s. First was St Anthony’s College Oxford which the former secret Special Operations Executive operative and war historian William Deakin had started nurturing in the 1950s as a foreign policy centre, especially in Soviet studies and the Middle East; and second was the war studies department of King’s College London in the field of defence which military historian Michael Howard had restarted in the 1960s following its closure in 1948. 

And individual historians continued to play a role, including Churchill’s official biographer Sir Martin Gilbert, who became an adviser, speech writer on the Middle East and friend to prime minister John Major, accompanying him on a tour of the region meeting both Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat in 1995. Major confounded the Arab contingent when introducing Sir Martin as his “guru”.  

(Sir Martin, who was well known in Whitehall, also befriended Gordon Brown and was chosen as one of five experts on the Chilcot Inquiry into Britain’s involvement in Iraq.) 

When Tony Blair’s New Labour was elected in 1997, his foreign secretary Robin Cook commissioned the FCO chief historian Gill Bennett to probe the left’s foremost conspiracy over the fall of Ramsay MacDonald’s first Labour government in 1924, which some in Labour suspected was the work of an “establishment” intrigue.  

MacDonald was considered unlikely to win re-election in October 1924, though the result was exacerbated by a “red scare” arising from the publication of a letter in the Daily Mail purportedly from a leading Soviet politician, Grigori Zinoviev, to the British Communist Party fomenting agitation among the British working classes.

Bennett’s 1999 enquiry, which became a book in 2018, The Zinoviev Letter: The Conspiracy that Never Dies, found the letter was probably forged – the original never being found – possibly by a former Tsarist officer Ivan Pokrovsky, although there are other possibilities even including Stalin’s attempt to discredit his rival Zinoviev. She concluded there was not an establishment conspiracy, though there may have been skulduggery by one or two intelligence officers helping to make the letter public.

Also in 1999, Blair asked professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, a historian in foreign policy and strategic studies, to co-author his still famous Chicago speech, “the doctrine of the international community”, which set out the criteria for when to undertake military intervention. Sir Lawrence also later served on the Chilcott Inquiry.

More recently, Boris Johnson employed Northern Ireland history professor John Bew, an expert in statecraft and Attlee’s biographer, as his foreign policy adviser and to help formulate a “grand design” for the 2020 Integrated Review. Truss kept him in the role; and Bew currently remains in government under his third prime minister. 

Another growing intersection is the History and Policy Network, facilitated for the last two decades by the University of Cambridge and Kings College, London, that connects 500 academic historians with policymakers and politicians for research and advice on everything from foreign policy to specialisms like the history of infections, finance, transport or telecoms. 

Some suggest that while the 200-year-old relationship between historians and politicians has seen occasional periods when academics personally advised senior politicians for the better, more often it has been characterised by periods when the absence of their critical thinking allowed disasters like Eden’s 1956 intervention in Suez. 

British professor of history at Princeton David Cannadine wants to avoid these past errors by having every Cabinet minister appoint a historical adviser who is “in a position to give serious informed advice on the historical background to current issues”. This would, he believes, have avoided the faults of the September mini-Budget, as Truss would have been advised that her growth plans had already been tried – and failed. 

Might the government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak be the first to heed the advice and exploit the benefits of incorporating history more closely into policy-making so that, as Churchill declared, “the farther back you look, the farther forward you can see”?

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