History-loving politicians

Why do so many politicians write history books? Does a knowledge of the past help with the challenges of today? And should MPs pay more attention to history? Our reviews editor, Matt Elton, headed to Westminster to ask a panel of history-loving politicians

Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum Tristram Hunt. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Which came first for you, history or politics?

Peter Hennessy: Gossip – which links the two. Weapons-grade gossip is the link and the motivation; gossip with footnotes.

Kwasi Kwarteng: Very few youngsters really have a passion for politics. For me, an engagement with, and love for, history came before that. So I see history as coming before in terms of sequence of interest.

Chris Skidmore: I was different: I was thinking about applying to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, and was dissuaded by my schoolteacher who said that I’d learn more about politics if I studied the court of Henry VII.

Tristram Hunt: I had a passion for history first of all. I had a wonderful teacher who taught me about the battles of Bannockburn and Waterloo – but who also introduced me to politics through history because we studied  [19th-century social scientist and co-founder of Marxist theory] Friedrich Engels and his account of Victorian Manchester. So it segued from history to politics.

PH: My elder sister was a history school-teacher, and for Christmas 1958 she bought me RJ Unstead’s Looking at History. It had a profound effect on me because I’m a Catholic, and I remember a wonderful drawing of the ecology of the monastic system in the productive and pietistic sense. It led me to want to be a monk  – until puberty, when mercifully that went, but the love of history remained. That’s the thing that really set me off, and then a succession of wonderful teachers, which I suspect we all have in common.

CS: One thing I’d like to add is that when I studied history at school and the beginning of university it was still very much an ivory-tower trade taught from textbooks. Now there has been this explosion in public history, thanks in part to things such as BBC History Magazine.

What benefits do you think being a politician has for writing history?

KK: Being a politician helps you become a better historian, but not necessarily the other way around.

PH: Doesn’t it give you a gyroscopic effect asa politician: a view that everything will pass, knowledge of what is transient and what isn’t?

KK: People say that, but when I look at arguably the two most effective politicians in Britain in the past 50 years – Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair – both were incredibly unhistorical in terms of their knowledge and approach. Thatcher had a lower-sixth version of British history in many ways; she had very passionate views, but she was not someone who ever claimed any deep historical knowledge. And I think that Blair was the same.

TH: That was always the Roy Jenkins’ criticism of Blair: that he wasn’t historical. And he meant it in an admiring way: that you don’t necessarily want an executive decision-maker reflecting too deeply on all the nuances. You want someone with an almost 2D approach sometimes.

CS: I think, for me, that writing and doing research in the library here in Westminster, there’s a constant reminder of being in this place, the geography of power. The ghost of Whitehall Palace is still reflected in the way that things operate today.

PH: The other thing is the human side: this place, both chambers, divide into people for whom the walls talk, who have a sense of history and ancestral voices, and those who are tone deaf to it, who would like us to be based in somewhere such as the Midlands or York. I have nothing against either of those places, but there are some of us for whom it’d be like the tearing of the flesh.

Do you think that politicians in general take enough notice of history?

KK: I don’t think they do.

PH: They cherry-pick if they do much at all.

KK: But actually, as Tristram said earlier, in fact in some ways there’s an argument that, if you’re an executive and you’ve got to take snap decisions, you don’t want to pore over centuries of examples and different precedents. A lot of our colleagues are people who are interested in history but don’t refer to it to inform their decisions.

TH: History is a dataset. It’s like economic or  social data: politicians use it to bolster, inform and develop arguments and rhetoric – and it’s always been the way. What’s the point of Shakespeare’s history plays? Their use, from the 1600s onwards, was always about informing the present and shaping debate.

CS: There are two dangerous tendencies of abusing history that I see some members of parliament falling into. One is what I call the ‘Churchill tendency’ of looking at intervention and thinking, can I be on the right side of the argument? Can I predict, years in advance, that I can somehow be vindicated and transform my political career in some way by, say, opposing action in Syria? The second is the drive to always be on the right side of history. So when critical votes come, MPs think: “I have to be on the right side of history, not only for my constituents but so that, in 30 years’ time, I’ll be regarded positively.”

PH: One must never overdo the lessons of history. I’m a Mark Twain man: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.” You have to know how we got to where we are. John Buchan, of The Thirty-Nine Steps fame, wrote in his memoir: “In the cycle to which we belong, we can only see a fraction of the curve.” The job of the historian, I think, is to describe that curve as travelled so far as best as we can – and not to load too much expectation on it as a predictor, because great perils lie there. Having said that, the wonderful novelist Penelope Lively wrote in her memoir that memory is “the vapour trail without which we are undone”.

If you fly without a sense of how we have got to where we are, you’re flying, in effect, without radar.

KK:  I think that we can overdo that. I think that you’re right to say that it helps to have a sense of the past and know where you’re going, but at the same time there have been remarkably effective political operators who weren’t that well-versed in history: Oliver Cromwell, for instance.

Do you have any political heroes from the historical periods you’ve explored?

KK: I think that Thatcher, who I’ve written a book about, was a remarkable leader. I don’t follow her in every particular, but her style means that she still dominates in many ways.

CS: Having been involved in this lifestyle for the past five years, the common strand among the people I admire is longevity. I now have the utmost respect for key political figures in the Tudor period, which in many ways was the birth of the modern state. [Elizabeth I’s chief adviser] William Cecil, for instance, constantly complained of feeling ill and tired, and I understand now that the political system can drain you. He had a great ability to change and be on the right side of the argument, and was a master at the art of the political U-turn at the right time to make sure that he didn’t bring himself down. All throughout history you can see the failures of those who are unable to negotiate the political system and whose lack of malleability meant that their heads ended up on the block.

TH: The young Joe Chamberlain in Birmingham was a proper progressive, an absolutely pioneering civic leader. He had a great ability to take on vested interests, to confront laissez-faire mid-Victorian economics, to deliver social justice and inspire others.

PH: Do you think that it’s dangerous that we still think in terms of political heroes?

TH: That is probably what divides us politically as much as anything else. There’s the Tory tradition of the power of individuals above all to dictate events, versus the socialist idea of the general melee of economic forces.

Do you think that this political difference feeds into your approaches in writing history?

KK: I think that it does. Both Tristram and I have written books about empire, and they were both successful, but they had very different approaches. I find that very stimulating. I learned things from Tristram’s book [Ten Cities that Made an Empire] and disagreed with a lot of other things, but there are lots of different approaches. Ultimately, I don’t think that one can claim total exclusive possession of the truth. As Tristram says, we tend, on the right of politics, to talk of individual actors affecting outcomes, while intellectually the left is more fascinated by economic and social structures.

CS: The other thing is that committing to write a book takes up to five years, and you have to believe in your subject and put that effort in. I don’t doubt for a moment that writing about economic history or agrarian history is valuable, but I couldn’t commit myself to focusing on a book because that’s not where my heart lies. And that political attitude in a way informs that.

TH: The risk for us, as historians working in Westminster, is that you are more and more drawn to the importance of individual conversations in affecting results. What you learn working here is that individual relationships matter enormously in political outcomes, but the danger for us as historians is that those broader economic, social and intellectual contexts can sometimes be lost.

Are there any misconceptions about the relationship between politics and history? And are there any pitfalls?

PH: The one thing that’s struck me since coming into the House of Lords six years ago is just how great the gap is in terms of public understanding of the way parliament works. Many people, unfortunately, have a parody view of parliamentarians, particularly MPs, garnered from watching Prime Minister’s Questions and from the expenses scandal and all of the rest of it. They don’t realise that if you prick MPs they bleed like anyone else, and that most people in both houses of parliament are very highly motivated with a strong public service charge. They’re hugely decent people who work their socks off, with a constituency load that never gets any easier – I don’t know how these guys manage to get any scholarship done at all.

There’s a lot of what [English writer and critic] William Hazlitt described in the 1820s as “the pleasure of hating”. The country is looking for things to fall out over, and often the number one target are the people here in Westminster. And I find that a great pity because it’s downright inaccurate – and being vilified doesn’t help on wet Mondays in February when you have all your duties to do.

KK: A recent phenomenon is that some people now think of MPs as civil servants rather than private people. So you occasionally get people asking “But why are you writing books?” The fact is that MPs have been writing books since Thomas More and probably before that, for hundreds of years. So when people talk about the new phenomenon of the historian MP, it makes you want to ask: have you not heard of Edward Gibbon or Thomas Macaulay or Thomas More or Winston Churchill?

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TH: One of the things that I’ve discovered is that being a historian is very informative and useful for my work in the constituency. Stoke-on-Trent is a place with a remarkable history in the industrial and design revolutions, and it’s a place that has been hammered in the past 30 years by world historic changes. So having a sense and understanding of time and one’s position within it is useful. But it’s also useful to have the credentials as a historian to say: “The architecture and heritage and industry we have here is important – let’s make more of it.” As history becomes heritage and heritage becomes an asset, being a historian is quite a valuable part of doing your job as an MP.