“All history is contemporary history,” the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce once said, meaning, no doubt, that all history was written from the point of view of contemporary preoccupations. Inevitably, perhaps, we look at the past through the eyes of the present. Even so, until very recently, contemporary history was regarded with suspicion by the professionals. When A J P Taylor read history at Oxford in the 1920s, most of his time was spent studying the medieval period. When he reached the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, his tutor told him, “You know all the rest from your work at school, so we do not need to do any more.” The further one gets from the present, the more “scholarly” one becomes.
Yet the contemporary history of Britain flourishes as never before, as shown by the success of historians such as David Kynaston and Dominic Sandbrook. The public feels a need to understand the age in which it lives. Surely part of the appeal of the 1950s is straightforward nostalgia for that lost Elysium when, supposedly, the young knew their place, crime was confined to scrumping apples, and good-natured policemen patrolled every street. Modern novels are difficult to understand, and rarely end happily. Why not put on rose-coloured spectacles and escape to the past?
But there is more to it than this. For contemporary history has a vital civic and educative function. To cast one’s vote intelligently, one must understand something of the history of the welfare state, the interwar depression and the rise of Thatcherism. Opening his first education summer school at Dartington Hall in 2002, the Prince of Wales reminded the audience of Cicero’s comment that “to remain ignorant of what happened before you is to remain a child”. It is also to lack the equipment to make the complex judgements a modern democracy demands of its citizens. “Historical ignorance,” Dan Jones has said, “breeds political apathy.” The contemporary historian, therefore, need in no way feel embarrassed by his task, but can reply as François Guizot did when reproached for writing about recent events: “Thucydides and Machiavelli wrote and published contemporary history. Why shouldn’t I try it?”
Naturally, contemporary history engages the passions in a way that the distant past generally does not. Most of us care little about William the Conqueror or the Crusades, but we do have strong feelings about Margaret Thatcher and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Yet there is no reason why the historian should not overcome partiality, as, for example, Richard Vinen did in his recent book on Thatcherism, Thatcher’s Britain, and Alan Milward did in his official history of Britain’s relations with Europe, The Rise and Fall of a National Strategy, 1945-1963. It may be difficult to be objective when writing contemporary history, but these books show that it is not impossible.
The contemporary historian has some compensation for the extra difficulties that he faces. For he generally enjoys some living contact or participation in the events he is describing. The best of the modern volumes in the Oxford History of England series, that on the years 1870-1914, was written by Sir Robert Ensor, a Fabian with personal knowledge of the men of whom he was writing – Ramsay MacDonald, David Lloyd George and Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Even if writing about a period not personally experienced, such as the Attlee government, one finds that contact with one’s grandparents’ generation will yield a personal touch not available to the medievalist or Tudor historian.
But the contemporary historian faces a difficulty that his colleagues dealing with earlier periods can avoid. If he is to write the history of a democratic age, he has to write the history of the people, not just of the elite. In his Oxford history, A J P Taylor tells us that a law-abiding Englishman could, until 1914, pass most of his life without stumbling upon the existence of the state. It was not until the First World War that, in his words, “the history of the English state and the English people merged for the first time”. Historians of the recent past, such as Kynaston and Sandbrook, are right to emphasise popular attitudes. For, in a democracy, as Sir Robert Worcester, the doyen of survey research, insists, public opinion is king. Therefore, the history of modern times must be a history not only of political leadership, but also of how the rest of us lived our lives.
Fortunately, the contemporary historian has the great advantage that he can study public opinion scientifically. On 1 January 1937, Dr Henry Durant began publishing regular Gallup polls in Britain, under the auspices of the British Institute of Public Opinion. Today, scarcely a month goes by without the pollsters inquiring as to the popularity of the prime minister and the government.
Sponsors of the published polls, the media, use them to predict election results, even though they purport to offer no more than a snapshot of opinion at a particular moment in time. But survey evidence also tells us what the public actually thought rather than what its leaders believed or hoped that it thought. As David Butler and Richard Rose, pioneers in the study of contemporary history, declared in their book on the 1959 general election: “There has never been anything comparable to sample polls as a tool for advancing understanding of mass political behaviour.”
There is, therefore, no longer any need for the historian to rely on the hunches of members of the elite, remote from the people. But the views of the people cannot be discovered from anecdotal evidence or the impressionism of organisations such as Mass Observation, whose interviews have been well described by Bob Worcester as “chance encounters”, in which the investigators tried “unobtrusively to strike up friendships with the natives by buying them drinks”. It is difficult to imagine anything less authentic or statistically reliable. By contrast, looking at the trends over time in the Gallup files can prove highly rewarding. Indeed, I am sometimes tempted to say that one could write the history of Britain over the past 70 years from survey evidence alone. Sometimes, the results are surprising. The most popular prime minister in the 20th century was Anthony Eden in the summer of 1955, and the most unpopular Margaret Thatcher before the Falklands war.
Politicians and the public alike would have been less often surprised had they taken notice of the polls. In February 1945, for example, although 85 per cent were satisfied with Churchill and 77 per cent with the government’s conduct of the war, Labour had an 18 per cent lead over the Conservatives well before the election campaign had begun. Churchill’s “Gestapo” speech, in which he said that socialism could be introduced only with the aid of a secret police, probably had less effect than is generally imagined, because the Conservatives actually narrowed the gap between February 1945 and election day in June.
Polls also tend to disprove “golden age” theories of politics, usually espoused by the elderly, who will insist on telling the rest of us how much better things were in their day. Yet, in our grandparents’ time – for example, during the 1950 general election campaign in the Greenwich constituency – only a quarter could name their local MP, and just half knew which party he belonged to. The level of civic knowledge was pitiful.
It is, I suspect, the left that has suffered the most from the scientific study of public opinion. For the left has always prided itself on having
a peculiarly intimate relationship with the people. In the 1950s, Aneurin Bevan denounced opinion polls for taking the poetry out of politics. He knew what the people wanted, simply by looking into his own heart. The trouble was, sadly, that the people often did not want what he thought they ought to want.
In 1982, during the great debate on sending a task force to the Falklands, Tony Benn waved a handful of letters in the Commons and declared that public opinion was swinging massively against the war. He was quickly contradicted by a MORI finding published in the Economist a few days later, showing that 78 per cent of the British public was in favour of it.
In 1983, Bevan’s disciple Michael Foot, shortly before Margaret Thatcher’s landslide victory, insisted that the real election was not that described by the polls, showing a huge lead for the Conservatives, but was to be found instead in the cheering crowds who attended his election meetings. All too often, the left lives within a closed world of its own. It can be successful only when, as in 1945 and 1997, it is in tune with popular aspirations, not when it seeks to impose its own prejudices upon the people.
More than 150 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville noticed that democracy was a new kind of society requiring a new kind of history. It is the
development of the scientific study of public opinion that enables this new kind of history to be written.
Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. His book “The New British Constitution” was published in June by Hart (£17.95)