History as an antidote to the knowledge gap; The Independent Archive

17 September 1990 Continuing his column `Whitehall Watch', Peter Hennessy looks at A. J. P. Taylor's legacy and the danger of `procedural memory'
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A CONJUNCTION of an event and two conversations set me thinking last week about the extent to which Whitehall policy-makers and people in public life generally in the United Kingdom now treat the past as a usable commodity.

It is ironic that the death of A.J.P. Taylor should have set the train of thought in motion because that prince among debunkers always maintained that the only thing statesmen learn from the mistakes of the past is how to make new ones.

But for my generation, which graduated in the late 1960s (and not just those of us who spent our library hours at college on history), reading him on European and English history, Hitler and Bismarck, the British foreign policy establishment and those radicals who dissented from it, was part of our standard "intellectual furniture", to use a phrase once applied to the works of Eric Hobsbawm, another scholar whose books drip with stimulation.

At only a slight risk of exaggeration, the benefit of such writings seeping into the consciousness of a generation was that it gave people in public life a perspective - a kind of inoculating jab against what George Orwell called "the smelly little orthodoxies" of political fashion.

And Taylor, for all his quirky perversities and appalling softness on the post-war Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, was a powerful antidote to falling for any of the "isms" or succumbing to the allure of the mighty of the moment.

So much for the death of a scholar who brightened the post-war intellectual scene in Britain and helped keep history the queen of the arts. It's those related conversations his death inspired that bother me.

First, a senior figure who read history at university, and who is still in the Civil Service. With a rush of passion rare in one at his level, he said: "In Whitehall we don't have a collective memory any more. We have a procedural memory, that's all; and we re-invent things."

Next, a former official, now in consultancy work, who, quite separately, said almost the same thing: "Because of the dependence on files, you are taught by the past in Whitehall - but you don't learn from it."

It was a sense of this knowledge gap in public life, especially of the recent past, that led to the foundation four years ago (in which I was involved) of the Institute of Contemporary British History, with a programme of seminars and publications to help fill it.

At a different level the Politics Association, which celebrates its 20th anniversary at a conference in Manchester next weekend, has done great and sustained work in deepening the level of understanding in schools; as shown by the depth and quality of today's A- level politics papers, and the number sitting the exams (now more than 10,000 a year and increasing).

But what is the remedy at the upper levels of public life? It could be the inclusion of historical background as a routine element in business school and Civil Service College training. You often find course participants familiar with "guru" books like Correlli Barnett on The Audit of War and Paul Kennedy on The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. There needs to be more than that.

The best solution would be a private one - top people regularly deploying chunks of their leisure time on wider historical reading because it has become a private pleasure. That depends on historians continuing to feed high-quality well-written works for the general reader into the bookshops. This in turn implies that the Taylors, the Hobsbawms and the Dacres reproduce themselves generation after generation.

To end on a more cheerful note, the nation's official collective memory - the Public Record Office - is undergoing an efficiency scrutiny led by Martin Bonsey, a Lord Chancellor's Department official on secondment from the Prime Minister's Office in Australia. I gave evidence to the team last week, and though it was a private occasion I can, without breaching good faith, report that they, at least, have an appreciation of history's importance in their bones. It augurs well.

From the Home News pages of `The Independent', Monday 17 September 1990