Leading article: History lessons

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The Independent Online

Who could refute Professor David Cannadine's argument that politicians would benefit from a rigorous study of history? Is it not obvious that our political masters would be far better placed to make the right choices if they knew how disastrously badly their predecessors had chosen? Did not George Santayana succinctly and truthfully point out a century ago that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"? And what could be wrong with putting policy-makers in touch with a network of engaged and learned historians, or even appointing a "Chief Historical Adviser" to Whitehall? Nothing. Unless we end up resurrecting that most dubious of species: the court historian.

One can imagine what a tempting offer it would be for a scholar. Think of the unimpeded access to primary sources. Consider the unique insights into the minds of the powerful. And did not Suetonius make a good fist of it? Ah, but the pitfalls! Politicians are unlikely to choose a scholar who will tell them that history is not on their side. They will want a courtier or, worse, a propagandist. And decent historians are constitutionally unable to perform either of those functions. A few bad, or vain, ones might be tempted, though.

Historians would be better advised to stick to the library (or, increasingly, the TV studio) rather than dabbling in the treacherous waters of politics. Let future generations of political leaders, rather than the present crop, reap the fruits of their insights and objectivity. After all, the important thing about good history is that it never goes out of date.