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The return of big history: the long past is the antidote to short-termism

Historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage have created a powerful, ambitious rebuttal to "the spectre of the short term".

Photo Op (2006) by Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps

“There never has been a time when . . . except in the most general sense, a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day,” Prime Minister Tony Blair declared in a speech to the US Congress in July 2003. Nowadays Blair is not exactly deemed a voice of authority, but the opinions he expressed are still widely shared. In an era when technology has revolutionised our daily existence – even the nature of life itself – understanding the past may seem irrelevant when planning the future. But history does matter. And many academics are anxious to explain why.

A striking contribution comes from the historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage. At a mere 165 pages, their book The History Manifesto is modest in scale but not in ambition: its first sentence mimics the opening of the Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting our time: the spectre of the short term.” Guldi, who teaches at Brown, and Armitage, a British-born professor at Harvard, point to politicians trapped in the electoral cycle, business leaders fixated on profit returns and bureaucrats obsessed by performance targets. Academics, one might add, have also been sucked into the vortex, with the rigid six-year cycle of the Research Excellence Framework deterring big historical projects that take time to mature.

Yet Guldi and Armitage insist that historical writing can provide the answer to short-termism, if properly conceived and delivered. In the last quarter of the 20th century, they argue, most historians produced scholarly monographs or doctoral dissertations about narrow periods and specific topics, or they indulged in microhistories of “exceptionally normal” episodes from everyday life, such as Robert Darnton’s investigation of a bizarre cat massacre in 18th-century Paris. There seemed little appetite to explore the longue durée, a term popularised in the 1950s by Fernand Braudel and other scholars associated with the French journal Annales.

This obsession with the miniature reflected the increasing professionalisation of historical writing. In contrast to earlier centuries, when the historian’s craft had been the preserve of amateurs such as Gibbon and Macaulay, the 20th century was the era when history professionals emerged – men and women who earned their living from teaching and writing history as employees of universities. Like other professionals, they sought advancement by becoming unquestioned masters of a small terrain, fenced off by their command of specialist archives. The explosion since the 1970s of new subdisciplines – including social history, women’s history and cultural history – encouraged further balkanisation of the subject. Academic historians seemed to be saying more and more about less and less.

In consequence, Guldi and Armitage lament, the big debates of our day lack the benefit of historical perspective. They spotlight a trio of vital contemporary questions – climate change, international governance and socio-economic inequality – that have been addressed mostly by economists and other social scientists, often using data and assumptions that are rooted in the short term. Yet these subjects cry out for a longue durée approach. And Guldi and Armitage show how historians have started to respond over the past decade, exploiting the mass of information that can now be marshalled thanks to the digitisation of archives and other databases, combined with the ubiquity of keyword searching. In the age of IT, social problems on a scale previously beyond the grasp of a large research group are feasible for a lone, but digitally smart, scholar. And so, The History Manifesto proclaims, big history is once again possible, thanks to big data.

Guldi and Armitage write with brio and passion and their ambition should be applauded. Yet their supposedly universal panacea is in many ways very American. The Manifesto offers a reworking for historians of a tradition of “big” thinking that has characterised American intellectual life since the Second World War. “Big science” led the way (in projects such as the Bomb, mainframe computers and the transistor), followed by big social science (through foundations such as the Ford and Rockefeller and the RAND Corporation) – all closely harnessed to the needs of the federal government. Big history, now much in fashion in leading US history departments such as Harvard’s, is another facet of that academic-governmental nexus: the cover of the Manifesto proclaims a desire to “speak truth to power”.

And yet, like many programmatic writings, The History Manifesto seems strangely indifferent to practicalities. It does not make clear how these big historical projects would grab the attention of people in power. Simply addressing topical issues such as climate change is not enough: as Guldi and Armitage acknowledge, politicians are creatures of the short term who prefer to ignore big problems that cannot be solved, or at least visibly ameliorated, within an electoral cycle. They are also busy people who do not have time for lengthy reading and reflection. All this shows that big historical truths must be served up in politically digestible, bite-sized chunks.

A more user-centred approach is exemplified by the work of Richard Neustadt and Ernest May – Harvard academics, now sadly deceased – who for many years taught a course on the uses of history to American politicians, officials and senior military. The book that grew out of it, Thinking in Time, was published way back in 1986, and The History Manifesto makes no reference to it. Yet Neustadt and May offer an instructive alternative response to the curse of short-termism in high places.

Their main injunction derives from Avram Goldberg, the chief executive of a New England grocery chain. Whenever a manager came to him in a flap, he wouldn’t ask, “What’s the problem?” but say, “Tell me the story.” That way, Goldberg said, “I find out what the problem really is.” His maxim became the premise of the book by Neustadt and May. Rather than focus on the crisis at hand (while already straining for a quick-fix solution), one should stand back and ask, “How did we get into this mess?” That is the first step to seeing a way out.

Telling the story requires identifying critical events and turning points, asking what happened when. This basic chronology then has to be fleshed out by addressing “who” and “why” questions about personalities and motivations: what Neustadt and May call “journalists’ questions”. Digging out this kind of human detail is as much a historical activity as constructing a chronology. It requires probing into the past of a person or a country, just the sort of thing that Blair, Bush and their aides did not do properly before the invasion of Iraq.

Asking “What’s the story?” may seem a strange way to define the practice of history. Our normal definition is content-based – the names-and-dates regime that destroyed any feel for the subject among millions of schoolchildren and that still features in the UK citizenship test. Nor does “What’s the story?” chime with the idea that history provides a stock of useful analogies, such as the “lessons of appeasement” that have seduced many political leaders, from Anthony Eden in 1956 to Blair and Bush in 2003. Instead of history as a body of facts or a toolkit of lessons, Neustadt and May presented it as a way of thinking: thinking in the stream of time.

Actually, that is not such an alien idea: it’s what we do every evening, constructing a narrative of what has happened during the day by highlighting some events and downplaying others within an arc of what seems, with hindsight, to be significant. Thinking in Time essentially urged policymakers to apply the same narrative mode of thinking more systematically when making decisions that relate to government.

Neustadt and May’s prescriptions still seem to me apt and perceptive. They are rooted in the recognition that human beings fundamentally are historical animals and they provide simple, practical advice about how people in power can be their own historians. But the Achilles heel of Thinking in Time in 1986 was how would-be practitioners could speedily obtain the essential historical information to put flesh on the bare bones of their narrative timelines. Neustadt and May suggested a range of useful books, articles and bibliographies, but it seemed implausible that most busy policymakers, or even their aides, would have time to do the necessary research.

Nearly 30 years on, however, the IT-age tools that Guldi and Armitage identify can also help the policymaker who wants to become historically literate. There is now a profusion of information out there, available at a few clicks of a mouse. The new problem is quality control: identifying the information that is reliable and that rises above mere WikiHistory.

One answer comes from History & Policy, a web-based think tank run jointly from Cambridge and King’s College London. This posts short papers of 2,500 to 3,000 words, each offering a historically informed view on issues of current concern. To date, nearly 200 papers have appeared, covering a wide range of issues; recent topics include power-sharing in Northern Ireland, the London airport debate, treatment of the mentally ill and the Ukraine crisis. The organisation also runs specialist seminars targeted at specific interests, with the aim of providing the busy politician, civil servant or business person with a broader perspective but in succinct, manageable form. Although each paper suggests further reading, it is assumed that most users won’t have the time for a long academic tutorial. The aim here is not big history but applied history, useful at the point of decision-making.

For some traditionalist scholars, this search for relevance threatens a core value of professional history – the recognition of the past as a foreign country. But, as John Tosh has insisted in his book Why History Matters (2008), what we need is “a critical applied history”, one that is attentive to both continuity and difference. Neustadt and May developed the same point: “the future has nowhere to come from but the past”, yet “what matters for the future in the present is departures from the past” – hence the predictive capacity and also the potential pitfalls of historical analysis. Those departures may be slight and subtle but recognising them is essential when trying to anticipate the future.

Public awareness of the interconnection of past, present and future has been particularly keen at moments of dramatic rupture or transition. The end of the Second World War, with the total collapse of Hitler’s European empire and the horrific exposure of his “Final Solution”, constituted one such moment; another was the end of the cold war in 1989-91, when the “Iron Curtain” disintegrated and the Soviet Union fell apart. Such evidently “historic” moments have kindled an interest in “contemporary history”, or Zeitgeschichte, as the Germans call it. In this area, too, historical awareness has relevance for political debate, by helping us to locate our contemporary problems in the longer sweep of events.

Definitions of the appropriate time span for “contemporary history” lack precision: surveying various writers, Kristina Spohr of the London School of Economics suggests that the term has generally been employed to signify the history of “one’s own time”. She quotes Geoffrey Barraclough, an exponent in the 1960s: “Contemporary history begins when the problems which are actual in the world today first take visible shape.” When exactly that was will vary from case to case and is a matter of judgement for individual historians, requiring them to construct narratives on the Neustadt-May model but over the longue durée.

To Eric Hobsbawm, a lifelong Marxist, his own time was naturally defined by the rise and fall of the Soviet state and he framed his Age of Extremes around the dates 1914 and 1991. Hobsbawm’s book has become a classic, but in the 20 years since it first appeared our sense of the “contemporary” has moved on from the cold war. In an era preoccupied by globalisation, historians, when trying to discern how today’s problems took visible shape, have looked back to moments and markers that differ from Hobsbawm’s.

One significant trend is the vogue for “transnational” history, transcending the conventional western focus on the evolution of nation states: what the Harvard scholar Charles Maier calls the principle of “territoriality”. One of these new frameworks for understanding contemporary history is the cultural “clash of civilisations”, attractive to many American conservatives preoccupied with Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of China. Another framework is the emergence of supranational structures such as the European Union, intended to break out of the cycle of ruinous nationalist wars between France and Germany and to escape the perpetual “bloodlands” of eastern Europe. If European integration is indeed the trajectory of our own time, it implies a very different way of telling modern history from the conventional narratives about territorial nation states.

This approach is, of course, unlikely to have much appeal in our dis-United Kingdom. A political class trapped between the erosion of a once-solid state based on shared Britishness and a Continental behemoth depicted as the embodiment of alien “European” values does not seem in any mood to venture beyond territoriality. However, for those who are inclined to escape the bunker of Britishness, asking “What’s the story?” has utility in this larger sense. It invites us to interrogate the grand narratives we tell ourselves as a country about where we have come from and where we might be going.

Big history, thinking in time, applied history, alternative narratives: these are just a few ways that those who study the past are engaging with the present. That pioneer of “contemporary history”, Thucydides, writing 24 centuries ago, presented his account of the Peloponnesian wars as a warning for future decision-makers – for those who, as he put it, “want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and (human nature being what it is) will at some time or other and in much the same ways be repeated in the future”.

He described how an ill-conceived foreign adventure – the disastrous attack on Syracuse – triggered the climactic phase of a long power struggle that not only destroyed Athenian democracy but also sapped the power of the Greek city states, laying the peninsula open to foreign domination. In our own day, after a year of national mourning for the men who marched away in 1914, we might raise our eyes to take in the bigger historical picture and the haunting parallels with the lost grandeur of Greece: an international conflict that exploded out of the blue in 37 days, which was sustained for four blood-soaked years by the intransigence of national leaders and from whose suicidal destruction Europe never recovered. We may not share Thucydides’s idea of a universal “human nature”, but his proclamation that history matters still has resonance today.

David Reynolds is Professor of International History at Cambridge. His latest book is “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East