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What can history teach us about policymaking?

In an era of “post-policy politics”, politicians should look to the past for inspiration – and warnings.

By Jack Shaw

One of the most integral parts of politics is ideation. Yet in an online world, we are being overpowered with information while witnessing the decline of ideas. The political economist William Davies has criticised this “post-policy politics” as being shaped, in part, by political strategists more concerned with how to connect with lost voters than developing a policy programme. Stanford economists have cited the decline of the production of ideas in the US as one reason for its eroded competitive advantage in their academic report, “Are ideas getting harder to find?“. Economic growth “arises from people creating ideas”, its authors conclude. The same can be said of politics.

A confluence of academics, civil servants, think-tankers, members of parliament and – of course – the public have a role to play in generating ideas. And bridging the gap with policymakers can help address the absence of ideas in our politics and policymaking.

Academia is a case in point, and history as a professional discipline serves as an illustration. Drawing on the subject can add value to policymakers. But, despite history being one of the most read subjects by MPs at university, the humanities are unloved by Whitehall. The social sciences on the other hand fare better: scientists, geographers and economists have been given a more thoughtful hearing. Some economists, such as Diane Coyle, have acknowledged the shortcomings of the discipline, but still make a compelling case for why they should have a special role in public policy. The government, drawing on a similar model as the US, has established an Economic Advisory Council to that end.

The fortunes of history as a discipline have ebbed and flowed. It has been admired by individual figures. Here the words of Winston Churchill are prescient when he told James Humes – who became Dwight Eisenhower’s speechwriter – that “in history lies all the secrets of statecraft”. The Treasury acknowledged the importance of history when it established in 1957 an initiative to record histories, in the words of mandarin Norman Brook, as “an aid to current administration”. The initiative was scrapped two decades later but the issues it was designed to tackle – from short-termism to poor institutional memory – continue to exist, or indeed have got worse.

In the early days of the Treasury’s initiative, the political economist Thomas Balogh described the civil service as “more and more generalised” and criticised civil servants for failing to meet the need for “increasingly demanding specialised knowledge”. The Fulton Committee recognised similar challenges in the late 1960s, citing concerns that civil servants didn’t have enough contact with the outside world. The committee recommended that specialists be given more policymaking opportunities. Criticisms about the lack of institutional memory and generalist nature of the civil service aren’t novel, yet they have ramifications for contemporary politics.

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Take the government’s manifesto commitment to tackle regional inequalities. Since 1975, successive governments have introduced no less than 55 policies targeting local economic growth in England. Tony Travers at the London School of Economics warns of the dangers of what he calls “regeneration archaeology”, where policies from previous decades are metaphorically dug up – or more accurately dusted off – and re-packaged, despite their limited success first time round. Metaphors of “policy wheels” and “conveyor belts” have also been used to describe the same phenomena. While turning to the past for inspiration does not require historians per se, practitioners of history are well-placed to navigate the challenges – including one described by Travers – with using historical lenses in policymaking.

[Read more: Why Britain’s institutions are dying]

For these reasons, while foreign and Commonwealth secretary in 2010-14, William Hague made a point of promoting in-house historians by moving their office from the basement. More recently, the prospect of a Labour government has led to a proliferation of analysis exploring previous Labour governments, from Ramsay MacDonald’s time as prime minister over a century ago, to the shortcomings of Neil Kinnock’s campaign, which may be of value to a Labour Party that lacks the experience of government.

A politics that is out of ideas is the bedfellow of a politics that ignores history, for history can serve as both a source of inspiration for new ideas and as part of the toolkit necessary to help policymakers avoid previous blunders. Both civil servants and their political masters stand to benefit.

This pitch about the relevance of history to policymakers is not to suggest that learning or returning to history is a panacea for governments facing a world of growing complexity, nor that history should be elevated above other disciplines. Rather, it is to suggest that experts can add value to the challenges being grappled with by policymakers; in drawing on the practice of history, that value is significant. I would go further still: collaboration between disciplines – which is absent from the Economic Advisory Council, and the historical advisory council proposed by renowned historians Anthony Seldon and Niall Ferguson – could further strengthen the value of their advice.

As well as drawing on historical approaches, there is a case for embedding experts within policy functions. At a more strategic level, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) proved how successful a multi-disciplinary set of experts advising government at short notice and in the face of incredible policy uncertainty. To generate new ideas and improve the design of current policy, is it time to revisit the role of history and academia in Westminster?

[Read more: Pride of place is an economic issue]

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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