NS Essay - 'It's noticeable how little historical perspective and sweep many MPs have, particularly when discussing something big such as Iraq'

History may be fashionable on television and in the bookshops, but our politicians understand it les

Tony Blair is said to have admitted to Roy Jenkins that he wished he'd read history, and not law, during his student days at Oxford. "Amen to that," one of Britain's most respected political historians told a recent gathering of dons and fellow historical travellers. There was heartfelt applause.

The speaker was Peter Hennessy, professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary College, London, and once the Whitehall correspondent of the Times. The occasion was a British Academy seminar about the place of history in public life, where the debate reflected an increasing sense that serious history and serious historians are losing the place they once enjoyed in our public life, and that this has potentially grave consequences.

And yet in the past few years, history has been touted as anything from the new rock'n'roll to the new stand-up comedy, poetry, cooking and gardening. On our television screens, Simon Schama and David Starkey have re-established the tradition of authored, narrative history. Archive-based series, such as ITV's The Second World War in Colour, have brought the events of six decades ago vividly to life. Channel 4's Time Team (fronted, lest NS readers forget, by a Labour NEC member, Tony Robinson) has made archaeology popular. And in what passes for Fleet Street these days, the more intelligent newspapers increasingly flirt with historical features on the op-ed pages.

Bookshops, meanwhile, are busy reflecting the new popularity of popular history. Works such as Antony Beevor's Stalingrad, Amanda Foreman's Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and even Mark Kurlansky's Cod have made the bestseller lists, even if bad books about the Nazis still crowd the shelves. The National Trust has more members than all the British political parties put together, and researching your family history has become a hobby for millions.

Why then should academic historians worry about the place their subject holds in public life? The answer is their sense that, its popular appeal notwithstanding, serious history is out of favour in government. And while any professional grouping is jealous of its proximity to power, the historians invited to the British Academy to hear luminaries such as Hennessy, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cambridge's Quentin Skinner seemed to be experiencing more than run-of-the mill frustration.

They are not alone in detecting change. Over the past couple of years, I have spoken to politicians from all the major parties who worry that British politics and public life have lost a sense of serious historical awareness, with implications for policy-making and national perspectives. "It's noticeable how little historical perspective and sweep many MPs now have, particularly when discussing something big such as Iraq," Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party leader, said when BBC History Magazine canvassed opinion at Westminster. "A little knowledge about Britain's presence in Iraq in the 1920s might have brought some understanding of the complexities of being an occupying power." Shortly before his death a year ago, the Liberal Democrat peer and historian Conrad Russell noted "an impatience with history" at Westminster. And Michael Portillo, whose new career has included stints as a TV history presenter, told me that "people who have come into politics over the past 20 years and haven't read a lot of history can have a seriously distorted view of how things have to be. History helps you understand that nothing has to be, that things can be different."

Among Labour MPs, there was qualified agreement. Speaking before this year's general election, Tony Banks suggested that "the Labour movement is less aware of its roots and traditions and history than it has been. Some might say that in the past it spent too much time in the past and now it's not spending enough." Chris Smith, the former culture secretary, commented: "I suspect that there is less opportunity now to keep up to date with modern history and interpretations because of pressure of time, and the ability of politicians to step back from the hurly-burly to read and think is more limited than it used to be."

It's easy to see why the historians complain. During the build-up to the Iraq war, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic invoked the past to justify an attack. Saddam Hussein was another Hitler; failing to act would be the equivalent of appeasement. This was reminiscent of Anthony Eden's conviction in 1956 that Egypt's Colonel Nasser was not a representative of a new political movement, Arab nationalism, but was instead another Mussolini. On both occasions, a simplistic invocation of history as repetition led to political catastrophe. Similarly, President Bush's call for a "crusade" against terror was a linguistic gaffe that a historically minded adviser might have vetoed, given the resonance the term still carries in the Muslim world.

Outside academia, does this really matter? At the Royal Academy, Peter Hennessy argued that an understanding of history was vital if politicians and high-ranking civil servants were to function properly. "If they work in certain areas, a knowledge of history that is more than cursory and impressionistic is indispensable," he said. "A pre-eminent example is constitutional matters. Though there has been a blizzard of constitutional legislation since 1997, ours is still a historic constitution - shaped by centuries rather than decades; a thing of custom and practice; a matter of making it up as you go along and calling it 'being flexible' . . . The current Prime Minister tends to dismiss it all as procedure, slapping the label 'boring' on it."

Admittedly, there is a sense in this of yearning for an earlier era - perhaps summed up by the classically educated Harold Macmillan, who, towards the end of his life, was heard to say of Mrs Thatcher: "I do wish she would read a book." In early December, obituaries recalled how Eugene McCarthy, the former US senator whose anti-Vietnam war campaign helped topple Lyndon Johnson, was fond of quoting Plutarch. But while it would be unrealistic - and possibly unwise - to hope for future British cabinets and Whitehall departments that echoed to the sound of classical aphorisms, greater historical sophistication might help.

This is not to say that historians would make better decision-makers. Nor is it only modern politicians who have misread the past. After Lenin's death, some Bolsheviks were so anxious to avoid what they saw as the lesson of the French revolution - the emergence of a military dictator - that they missed the threat posed by Stalin. Historians have no more of a monopoly on wisdom. And despite the maxim that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes, most historians would point out that it just ain't that simple. Even so, there is a case to be made for historically aware policy-makers.

If history and the historians have found themselves excluded from the corridors of power, however, modern political history may be partly to blame. Margaret Thatcher's regular invocation of Winston Churchill - who himself devoured history and spent much of his postwar years out of office writing his own - went with a simplistic reading of our island story, and Oxford University's refusal to give her the usual honorary degree bestowed on PMs seems to have exacerbated her distrust of academia.

A similar process occurred among the architects of new Labour: distancing the Blair project from "old" Labour seemed to them to require a "year zero" in which the party's past was forgotten. Talking to Peter Mandelson a few years ago, I was struck by his enthusiasm for the history of Labour in London, an enthusiasm befitting a grandson of Herbert Morrison. But with new Labour's anxiety to erase the public memory of internal divisions in the 1970s and 1980s went a tendency to discard much more, and many academics complain that this has fed a general suspicion of historical complexities.

There have been exceptions. Early in Tony Blair's leadership, he surprised the audience to his first major speech on environmental issues by mentioning how he'd been enjoying Caroline Benn's biography of Keir Hardie - an attempt, perhaps, to reassure party traditionalists. Not long after that, historians were heartened when the London School of Economics don Linda Colley was invited to lecture at Downing Street. Devolution was in the air and Colley's book Britons is a penetrating investigation of modern nation-building.

Since then, however, there has been a growing sense of the curious role of history in many of the Prime Minister's pronouncements. His critics point to his much-parodied comments at the time of the Good Friday Agreement ("This is not a day for soundbites . . . I feel the hand of history on our shoulders") and his speech to the US Congress in which he claimed that "history will forgive" the attack on Iraq.

Naturally, a politician who is not influenced by historical concerns gains freedoms. Portillo observed: "On the whole, I think he [Blair] doesn't show a lot of interest in history, which worries me. But I'm also aware sometimes that can be very liberating . . . history can sometimes shackle you." And the political landscape is littered with conflicts whose intractability is due in part to the antagonists' refusal to abandon historical certainties. In the Balkans, in the Middle East, in Northern Ireland, a more open, critical approach to history might allow prejudice to be attenuated.

That openness is vital. As shown by the row in France over attempts to enforce a form of official history that stresses "positive" aspects of French colonialism, it is impossible to improve historical literacy simply by imposing a single narrative and teaching more of it. The past, like the present, is contested territory.

Yet historians are worried that a simplistic approach to the past by politicians mirrors a broader problem. While budding Schamas and Starkeys keep applications for history places high in universities, there is concern that many schools are teaching a much-diminished subject. Two years ago the then education secretary, Charles Clarke, admitted to me his concern that the pressures of regular testing had led schools to stick to just a few topics - the Romans, the Tudors, the Nazis - leaving swathes of British and international history untouched. Across the political spectrum, historians complain of a decline in general historical awareness that inevitably feeds into the political sphere.

There are faint signs of change. At Westminster, party history groups - Liberal Democrat and, recently, Labour - have launched lecture programmes. The Labour MP and former history journalist Gordon Marsden is leading a drive to strengthen history teaching in schools and colleges. Gordon Brown, who studied economic history at university, has aired his ideas on British historical identity in a film for Newsnight. And intriguingly, before the election the Conservatives suggested raising the age to which history remains compulsory in schools to 16. Could history be a vote-winner? Well, last autumn a Tory education spokesman called for better history teaching as a basis for a broader education. That spokesman was David Cameron, and it will be interesting to see how he develops the theme now he is leader of his party.

Straws in the wind, perhaps. Yet - whether or not something comes of them - when it comes to matters of national identity, citizenship, our relations with Europe and the wider world, and secular and religious societies, our politicians might find it useful to pay closer regard to what the historians have to say.

Greg Neale is Newsnight's resident historian and editor of BBC History Magazine