Two days before the invasion of Iraq, when Tony Blair addressed the house of commons defending his motion to authorise the war, history was very much on his mind. He repeated the word five times throughout his speech, although his chief concern seemed to be the making of history rather than any serious study of it. He found space for only one specific historical analogy in his speech, likening those days in March 2003 to the moments in September 1938 when Adolf Hitler invaded the Sudetenland. The lessons of appeasement, at least to Blair, were clear.
What was absent, strangely, from his speech and much public discourse surrounding the invasion of Iraq, was any mention of Britain’s previous military experience in Iraq. When British troops entered Basra in April of 2003, few people in Britain realised that it was not the first time, as British troops had captured the city nearly ninety years before, in 1914. Would a widespread knowledge of Britain’s history in Mesopotamia have changed matters? It’s hard to say, but certainly politicians have a tendency, now perhaps more than ever, to cherrypick their arguments to suit a predetermined course of action, and Blair is no exception. Historian John Tosh, in his book Why History Matters, provides a number of pertinent examples, including Margaret Thatcher’s adoption of ‘Victorian Family Values’, where politicians and opinion makers have settled on over-simplified historical analogies to support public policy decisions. Whether it’s discussion on the welfare state, the crisis in masculinity, or justifications for war
what has often been lacking, according to Tosh, is the serious employment of history as a tool to inform political choices.
Professor Tosh, author of widely used texts including The Pursuit of History, and A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England, spoke recently to TMO to discuss why history matters.
Why did you write the book?
I suppose it’s the climax of a concern I’ve had throughout my career as a historian, whether what we do matters to anybody else. I started my career as an Africanist, in a rather naïve belief that I could help to provide a new history for a new nation in Africa, but the specific impulse for the book really came from the Iraq war which seemed to me to be a real and shocking case of where had a historical perspective which was easily accessible and largely a matter of consensus amongst historians been made available in the public domain, it would have illuminated what was happening in Iraq, made the public more aware of the dangers being run.
Accepting that there is an absence of history from public discourse, where should the blame be laid? With politicians? Historians? Journalists?
I think it lies with all three. In the run up to the Iraq invasion we had a British Prime Minister who was particularly dismissive of any kind of illumination which could be derived from history, and he told the United States Congress the same in no uncertain terms shortly after the invasion had been termed a ‘success’. I think the media, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, were reluctant to print or to show interviews and material from historians that were moving beyond a very simplistic analysis between Sadam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. That was the level at which most
historical analysis of the crisis in Iraq was conducted, and, of course, it tells one very little, and in my view was highly misleading. I would look to the newspapers to be more pro-active in commissioning appropriate writers, but I would also criticise my colleagues. I do think the historical profession is unduly cautious about intervening publicly. It’s unduly cautious about acknowledging its hard-won knowledge might have a positive topical significance.
Why does that caution exist?
There’s a long tradition, particularly in British historiography, which goes back to the shock that was experienced by historians at what was happening to their colleagues in the totalitarian dictatorships of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. The notion that once you acknowledged that history had a public or political relevance it could be seized upon and manipulated by unscrupulous politicians in that way. That’s one element that weighed heavily on that generation of historians who are now retired but who of course formed the younger profession coming up.
Beyond that there’s a professional factor. Historians, as other academics, are unduly obsessed with the way their research is measured and evaluated, through the research assement exercise, and that has the unfortunate effect that it takes them away from writing which, while it may not be wholly original in research terms, is nevertheless performing a very important civic function in disseminating relevant historical perspectives.
TMO:Could it be, as well, that there’s a fear that once one engages, as a historian, with current affairs and policy-making, that there’s a danger of losing one’s objectivity?
That idea is very much current, and it seems to rest on a blurring of two different issues. One is the settling on the questions that you deem important, and those questions it might be clear from the outset have a direct political
The second issue depends upon how you treat your material, your evidence, your principles of selection in terms of producing a result, and if some historians, shall we say, are inclined to collapse those two into one another, well my response is that its our responsibility to make that distinction and to observe it in our own work. So we may work in areas of clear political sensitivity but in ways that don’t undermine our, not objectivity which is a very high claim to make, but our level of detachment.
TMO: Who was your intended audience for the book? Academics? Politicians? The wider public?
I wrote it with the intention of reaching out beyond the academic community, and achieving a wider readership because what I wanted to do in the book was make the argument for the practical bearing of historical perspective on current affairs, in ways which were designed to appeal to the average intelligent reader, rather than someone well educated in history specifically. Reaching out like that can be done in various ways. I was thinking of reaching a large audience directly, but equally I wanted the book to reach opinion makers in the media, in think tanks, or on the edge of politics.
TMO: Is it fair to say that, despite the fact that various members of the British government have history degrees, there’s a certain resistance on a political level to this idea of bringing history to bear on policy making?
If were talking about New Labour, I think on their coming to power in 1997 there was a real sense that the past was an embarrassment in the general sense. Tony Blair and his government lost no opportunity to distance themselves from the supposed follies of the Labour party of the preceding generation. Equally a party that was making a virtue of modernity and progress, technology and new solutions, wasn’t going to be a party that appealed to the past very much – Clement Atlee and the foundation of the party in 1900, anniversaries of that kind seemed to pass the party by.
However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we have moved to a slightly different party, and while Tony Blair was a lawyer, Gordon Brown actually has a PhD in History. I have to say I’m disapointed by his reluctance to acknowledge that history has more of a role to play, and some of the comments that he has made, that have a historical purchase as it were, have not been very illuminating or very fair I think. For example, his way of talking about the British Empire. New labour as a political machine was built on a sort of amnesia and it tends to stick with that on the whole as the safest option.
TMO: Is it right to use history as a tool in ‘nation building’?
Here we’re talking about a public function that history has performed for a very long time. I think there are two difficulties with it. First of all, in the present climate, the claim that history could provide that kind of balance for national identity is of course complicated by the fact that there are other forms of political identity which make the same claim, so we have the idea of a multicultural history which might proliferate into a number of separate histories grounded in the experience of different groups, so we’re in the terrain of competition in which the notion that history can sustain an identity is being fractured.
The other objection is that if history teaching and writing is premised on that nation-building assumption, then a great deal is going to be lost, because the difficulty with that nation-building agenda is that it tends to lead to an uncritical history. It prefers interpretations that fit neatly with the sense of national self-regard.
The argument which I make is that we need to pay much more attention to teaching people to think historically. That is to say, to grasp what is the nature of understanding the past in a historical sense, and the ways in which it could be
useful, in an open-ended way, because the difficulty with a national agenda is that it’s a closed agenda. It’s only got one outcome in mind, and that’s a denial of what history can primarily offer.
TMO: A strange question, perhaps, but When does history begin? Is it useful to keep a clear distinction between current affairs, the recent past, and what we term history?
I don’t think it is very useful because in practice the insights and historical perspective in what one observes and evaluates, in terms of immediate current affairs, are very hard to separate, and indeed it would be precisely my argument that a great many of the issues of current topical concern debated by politicians and the media generally, are issues where a historical perspective would be enormously beneficial. Even if it’s only a historical perspective dating back to 1939, or say 1945.
It’s very important that what one might regard as the twighlight zone between
official history, the traditional notion of what history’s about, and the contemporary world is illuminated.
TMO: Has history’s role in the public sphere always been sidelined, or is this a more recent phenomena?
For much of the 20th century history was more important. It was an attention to history of a rather narrow kind, though. It tended towards the nation-building niche. If you go back to the 1930s there were a handful of marxist historians, one or two historians who wrote for the public from an internationalist perspective, but the history that everybody studied at school, and which many continued to read afterwards, was national history. For most of the twentieth century you have a vigorous genre of popular national histories. In that sense history was more influential.
What has happened more recently is that history has become tied in with a leisure agenda, in which any explicit purpose is not really apparent, though it may be there under the surface. History is tied to heritage, to costume drama on television. The very prominence of history on television channels has led to the notion that history is the ‘new gardening’. Without wishing to disparage history as entertainment – and why shouldn’t it be entertaining? – it should be doing other things as well.
TMO: Has the success of history programmes on television changed the way history is written?
Some of the most widely selling history books are crossover books, such as Simon Schama’s recent book The American Future, or his earlier work on the history of Britain. There’s quite an important influence. I think myself that the more traditional public demand for history writing that follows the conventions of historical discourse as we know them, has not been by any means exhausted, and I don’t take the pessimist’s view that
because of television on the one hand and the internet on the other, that the days of traditional history writing are numbered. That’s not borne out by what happens to history books in the bookshops.
TMO: There is often, it seems, a gulf between academic history and popular memory. In countries like Ireland and Italy, for example, there seems to still be tremendous problems agreeing on the facts of the recent past. More dangerously, over sixty years after the discovery of Auschwitz there are still people who deny the Holocaust. Does this point to some kind of intrinsic failure in history writing?
That’s an interesting question. Part of the answer has to do with what we mean by political maturity. I don’t think that historians should necessarily be in the business of communicating a right answer, indeed one of the benefits of disseminating historical perspective is that it spreads the idea that history is not a cut-and-dried set of arguments and facts; that it lives through debate and controversy, and that very sense of controversy by analogy is what should be sustaining public debate more generally – there’s a kind of tie in.
With regard to the particular examples you mention, I think the Holocaust is in a unique case, not just because it was uniquely awful and important, but because there is no serious disagreement about the fact that it happened, or the scale of what happened. When one talks about holocaust deniers one is talking about a handful of nutcases, who admittedly have some media exposure and political influence, but that is a very different case from debates about the Irish past, or debates in Italy about the risorgimento or the fascist past, where there is a wider spectrum of genuine debate amongst people who are, as it were, in possession of the actual facts.
Holocaust denial can still exist, essentially, because there are still people around who have an ideological preference for Nazism, and who share its incredibly polarised view of the world in terms of good races and the bad. We know such people exist, there are people in the British National Party, for example. It’s no surprise that there are people who might espouse these views. The appropriate response, on the part of the historian, is to take any opportunity of confounding those mistaken views – as happened in the celebrated libel case in 2000 involving penguin books and David Irving. The outcome of that case was a complete exposure of Irving’s unscholarly methods. The methods, or rather lack of methods, which resulted in his mistaken results were made clear and exposed by the Judge. That kind of confrontation is, I think, needed in cases like that.
Do you think that professional historians have, on the whole, been slow to take advantage of the internet?
Yes I think they probably have been. On the other hand, what historians have discovered, if perhaps a little belatedly, is something important, which is that traditionally the access that professional scholars had to primary sources, the documents, the archives, was that which marked them out as exclusive professionals. They knew their way around, had access to them, and in many cases archives were only open to professional historians of standing and scholars.
Very substantial quantities of archival material are now making their way on to the internet, through the work of archivists themselves – such as the National Archives at Kew – or directly through the initiative of historians themselves, as is the case with the Old Bailey Project, which has put on the internet very substantial material from the Old Bailey proceedings in the 18th Century. These are really useful resources which, of course, blur the distinction between the professional historian and people in the wider public who might want to put this material to use. I think that’s an extremely important and positive development and it will undoubtedly continue.
TMO: Aside from archival material though, would you agree that there’s a reluctance on the part of historians to actually publish research material online?
Well, I’m happy to report that there is an extremely active website run by historians, called History and Policy, which has now published about 70 papers in the last five years. They’re short papers with usually no references, a short bibliography, and a focus on very specific conclusions which are summarised at the beginning of each paper. These are incisive interventions which are quiet deliberately steering away from the traditional academic discourse. The website began in 2003, significantly at the time of the Iraq war. There were a couple of papers on the website, but at a time when the site wasn’t widely known.
TMO: Isn’t that, in a sense, ‘dumbing down’ for the internet though? Publishing in a format that’s not particularly recognised academically.
I don’t regard it as dumbing down, I regard it as meeting the requirements of a different audience. You have to think of what the purpose of public history is. The purpose is to communicate. If, as historians, we remain wedded to the traditional monograph we’re not going to achieve that communication, so the way in which we write for that wider audience needs to be different.
It would only be dumbing down if the content and conclusions were being simplified or subordinated to a particular policy objective. That’s not the case. It’s a modification of the scholarly
TMO: Imagine that Gordon Browne were to ring you in the morning, in complete agreement with the arguments of your book, to ask you for some concrete examples of what should be done to remedy the situation. What would you say to him?
What I would say to him is that he really needs to reformulate the way in which the national curriculum in history is currently based, and to think much more clearly in terms of what it should be trying to achieve with pupils. At the moment what is happening is that it’s making the mistake of trying to touch far too many politically correct bases. It’s trying to do something about the national story, about the global story, about the holocaust, about the slave trade, about black history etc. etc. What this results in is what has been called by one critic the ‘sushi bar of
history’. A student goes through a number of short modules on areas of history that are not connected up, and therefore there’s very little sense of historicity that’s acquired through that. My first suggestion would be to take the school curriculum seriously.
Beyond that, I think there’s an open question as to whether government departments would benefit from having paid historian advisors. David Cannadine went public, some months ago, to suggest that that should be the case, and that on top of that there should be a chief historian serving the government as a whole. That’s an issue one can argue about. It draws, to some extent, on the experience of other countries like New Zealand.
Education is at the heart of it.
Why History Matters by John Tosh is published by Palgrave MacMillan