Pat Thane, a founder of the History & Policy network, argues that historians can offer valuable input into the debates of the present.
Appearing on the BBC’s Newsnight to discuss the urban riots, David Starkey provoked widespread condemnation with his comments about race. He led some commentators to argue that historians should stick to what they know – the past – and leave the present to those better equipped to understand it. Starkey’s intervention may well have brought the profession into disrepute. Some will no doubt argue that historians should maintain a strict separation between academic research and current affairs.
It is true that historians should stick to what they know and, as a specialist in Tudor history, Starkey is clearly no expert on race or other aspects of recent history. It would be a great shame if one high-profile historian’s extraordinary faux pas overshadowed the valuable input that expert historical research can and should make to public debate.
Immediately after the riots, people questioned whether lessons had been learned from the 1980s. Some reached back to the battle of Sidney Street and even to the Peasants’ Revolt for parallels.
The debate has ranged across a vast number of issues, including police tactics and accountability; the police’s relationships with deprived communities and with politicians;
the challenge of engaging disaffected young people; the role of parents, schools and the voluntary sector; wealth inequalities, poverty and the effect of cuts in welfare, jobs and educational opportunities; and the growth of consumerism. On all these issues, historians can contribute fresh perspective, alongside other experts who are more routinely consulted, such as social and political scientists.
At a time when the political tone is so apocalyptic, with the prime minister talking of the country’s “slow-motion moral collapse” and the need for “all-out war” on gangs, historians can put current events into a more accurate context: challenging hyperbole, resisting the tendency to treat the latest crisis as unparalleled, and highlighting what is really distinctive. They can explain the nature and causes of social change, what policies have been tried in the past, what worked, what didn’t and why.
Much of the current discourse assumes decline from some past golden age when all children lived in two-parent families which kept them on the straight and narrow; there were no street gangs; ‘communities’ (possibly the most over-used, least interrogated word in post-riot discourse) were cohesive, everyone respected the police and no one locked their front door. It was never like that. In every decade since at least the 1950s, there have been panics about youth crime, teenage pregnancy, marriage break-up, indiscipline and poor results in schools.
It is immensely regrettable that, as society has grown richer, serious social problems continue. But they are more likely to be resolved by using all available resources, including the knowledge of historians, to analyse how the present situation has come about and what are the options for tackling it, rather than by simply reaching for the illusion of decline.
History & Policy, now based at King’s College London and Cambridge University, was established to mobilise historians with appropriate expertise to engage with and comment on current policy issues.
With a network of over 300 historians, we specifically try to put journalists and policymakers in touch with the right historian, to address the right issue, with the right knowledge at the right time. Hopefully, some of the policy areas under review following the riots will benefit from historical input and maybe even avoid falling prey to inaccurate historical assumptions and reinventing the policy wheel.
David Starkey’s taste for controversy is well known and he lived up to it on Newsnight, but that doesn’t mean that historians should no longer feel able to comment on the news of the day. Hundreds of other historians want to use their research to inform – and sometimes to criticise and hold to account – the people who grapple with today’s policy problems.
Historians surely owe it to ourselves and to the public to show that our work can be useful as well as scholarly, especially at a time when it is suffering funding cuts because it is apparently believed not to be useful.
What do you think? Should historians stick to the past or comment on the present? Send us your views to
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