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Using History, Making British Policy

Review by: Brett Bennett University of Texas at Austin

Using History, Making British Policy: The Treasury and the Foreign Office, 1950-76, Peter J. Beck (Houndmills Basingstoke Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 310 pages.

Peter J. Beck’s Using History Making British Policy: The Treasury and the Foreign Office, 1950-76 provides a historical overview of the minimally successful attempt to incorporate internal departmental histories into policy making. The question of how history should inform policy remains surprisingly under-studied. Many historical scholars seem to find the subject of the “usable past” dangerous given the amount of death and devastation caused by the creation and enforcement of state histories in the twentieth century. But the question remains, and it will likely always remain: how should the state (or a person) use history to determine current decisions? This book looks at one of the most explicit attempts to incorporate history into decision-making within the British Government in the 1950s-1970s. Its most interesting sections include lengthy discussions of Treasury Department and Foreign Office internal histories, which highlight the failure to jump start them, and when finished, the failure to incorporate them.

Norman Brook, the Cabinet Secretary, Joint Permanent Secretary to the Treasury and Head of the Home Civil Service offered a circular advocating the “funding experience” initiative, which sought to prompt the various government departments to create official histories. This circular came off the heels of the civil series of the Second World War official histories, led and advocated by the historian Keith Hancock. In 1941, the Government of Britain concluded that it needed an official set of Second World War histories. The set included a civil, medical, and military series, edited by Hancock and other eminent historians, Sir Arthur MacNalty, and James Butler. During the publication of this series, Hancock sent around a report praising the value and erudite scholarship of the official histories, setting the precedent and idea into Brook’s mind. A variety of responses came back to Brook’s proposal, some enthusiastic, such as the Foreign Office, others ambivalent, such as the Inland Revenue and the General Post Office. After Brook left, Burke Trend took over the position, and continued to champion the development of internal histories. This corresponded to a general debate among historians and policy makers about whether or not the Government should promote peacetime histories in addition to internal histories, or whether they should focus on both. Not all policy makers wanted official histories – they could just as easily look propagandistic or reveal secret policies or memos that the British did not want to be public. But this occurred at a time when historians and others lobbied Harold Wilson and Parliament to change the time needed for the release of official documents from fifty years to thirty years, in order to accommodate the production of peace time histories, internal and external. In this enthusiasm for history, the Foreign Office and the Treasury Office commenced with their historical projects.

But enthusiasm ran into bureaucratic reality: the difficulties of writing a history, let alone persuading others to listen to it became a problem. Margaret Gowing, the first historian for the Treasury, wrote the first internal histories for the Treasury. She later became embroiled in a history of exchequer aid to the colonies that took the rest of her career at the Treasury before she moved to the Public Records Office, leaving a void that would never be fully filled. After her, a variety of historians attempted to write important financial histories that would inform policy. Time after time, the practicality of decision making made long histories too tedious, and short histories not revealing enough. The problems faced by Gowing – difficulty accessing sources that were being used (Treasury officials were told not to use other departmental files and interviews), as well as interviewing people about the circumstances being studied – became chronic across the Treasury and the Foreign Office. Also, the difference between historical interpretation and the needs of readers failed to connect: Ogilvy- Webb’s history of economic planning was criticized for missing a stronger narrative. Creating an “official” paradigm remained a problem throughout the writing of Treasury histories, and those who advocated it often wanted histories that read more like a tacit political agreement with departmental heads as opposed to real scholarship that provided new and unbiased insight into the Treasury. During the later 1970s, division clearance issues and delays in the production of histories became a chronic problem. Divisions between historians and upper level officials remained a problem. In short, the histories failed to achieve the internal results desired. By the mid 1970s, the Treasury quit placing resources and emphasis waned – history failed to achieve its glorious results.

The Foreign Office experienced histories differently than the Treasury. Before the “funding experience” the FO printed official histories of diplomatic events and wartime histories, such as the Documents of British Foreign Policy. Historians of the Foreign Office came from outside of the department, such as Rohan Butler. Butler wrote an influential history of the Persian Oil crisis and the British abandonment of Abadan in October of 1951. Butler, the editor of the DBFP series and a Professor at All Souls College, Oxford, viewed the process differently than foreign officials. Published in 1961, Butler’s book entitled British Policy in the Relinquishment of Abadan in 1951 spelled out the problems of British Foreign policy: the decline of British power, the attempt of the British to scuttle the Middle East, and the ambivalence and advocation of America against British interests in the Middle East. Unlike internal histories of the Treasury, Butler’s book influenced how key policy makers viewed British decline and foreign policy in the Middle East. Influential leaders digested Butler’s arguments and applied his conclusions to later formulations of foreign policy. But still, the Foreign Office, though widely impressed with this history, did not choose to continue to commission such long, internal histories. The divisions between historians and policy makers remained too strong, and the need to act on the moment, not the past, hindered the application of history into current policy. After Butler’s effort, the FO only produced ad hoc histories on prosaic topics such as cod fishing near Iceland; hardly the future wide-minded political historians had in mind.

Beck’s book draws into question the practicality of marrying history with policy making. It provides case studies into the limited abilities of academic historians to write administrative histories. Additionally, it serves as an implicit warning to historians who seek to make history the justifier of war or specific policy. Should historians stay away from political debates? This book does not seek to answer that question. The question it does ask – how did the British government use histories to determine policy – should at least make people and policy makers think twice before calling for or writing individual histories to explain everything. In the end Beck achieves for policy makers what a positive historical narrative could not: doubt about the uses of history in policy. Paradoxically, this solidly written book provides exceedingly practical lessons to historians and policy makers alike.

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