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When historians attack!

I have always associated those who sign their names to letters published in the quality press with the self-regarding, solipsistic and self-consciously important chattering classes.

Well, maybe the chattering classes have just gained another member as a letter I signed (along with 66 others, including the Centre for British Politics postgraduate researcher Matthew Francis) has just been published in the Times.

As it lurks behind a paywall, this is the letter in full:

Sir, Twenty-six historians claim that AV would be a betrayal of the sacrifice of past generations of democracy campaigners (letter, Mar 11). But claiming to speak for the dead on a referendum they never contemplated seems to us a betrayal of academic standards that we as historians hold dear.

They claim to speak for historians, indeed for history, in defending first-past-the-post. But as on any such serious political question, historians are as divided as the population at large. The notion that “History teaches us to vote ‘No to AV’,”, as the headline put it, or that it gives any such clear lesson on the rightful configuration of the voting system, again leads us to question the signatories’ scholarly acumen in supporting this petition.

Invoking the spirit of Winston Churchill on account of his 1931 objection to AV is a cheap bid for public resonance and bad use of historic example. His initial resistance to votes for women and, later, to the introduction of direct elections in India, make him a poor guide to future voting systems.

It is misleading to claim that under AV one citizen’s vote could be “worth six times that of another”. Instant run-off voting, of which AV is a form, retains the equal vote that the signatories fear is under threat. Further research would have shown that its compatibility with the principle of voter equality has already been tested in court in the US, where it was found that “no voter is given greater weight in his or her vote over the vote of another voter”.

The letter was organised by History and Policy and written in response to an earlier missive written by 26 historians, which claimed that AV was a ‘threat to democracy’. Coordinated by Conservative MP Chris Skidmore the signatories included luminaries of the historical profession such as television’s very own Dr David Starkey and Professor Niall Ferguson. It was widely reported in the media.

Yet, as even those who oppose AV conceded, the letter was riddled with errors of fact.

What got my goat – it’s a very abused beast these days – was less these school boy errors but the extent to which historians with no research expertise in the field of modern British political history, let alone that of electoral systems, felt able to pontificate on the subject of AV. Had 26 plumbers (and so far as Dr Starkey is professionally concerned, regarding AV he might as well be one) written a similar letter, would they have been taken as seriously?

The letter to which I put my name was written not to claim that History tells us that AV is in fact the saviour of democracy or anything like that. Instead it merely points out how such spurious claims mark a ‘betrayal of academic standards’.

The current Yes and No to AV campaigns have been so soaked in hyperbole it is difficult to believe many of the claims made by either side.

While I know something about previous debates about electoral change I am something of a novice when it comes to electoral systems. I refer interested readers to this article published by Parliamentary Affairs (which I happen to edit) written by those who know their stuff. Their conclusion? It doesn’t make that much of a difference really.

Dr Starkey et al please take note; or you might start looking like this.

Steven Fielding can be followed on Twitter.

For the record, the full list of those historians who signed the letter along with myself were: Professor Stefan Berger; Professor Christine Carpenter; Professor David Cesarani; Professor Peter Clarke; Dr Lucy Delap; Professor Richard Drayton; Dr Amy Erickson; Professor Steven Fielding; Professor Matthew Hilton; Dr Katherine Holden; Professor Geoffrey Hosking; Professor Bernard Porter; Dr Alastair Reid; Dr Dominic Sandbrook; Professor Simon Szreter; Professor Pat Thane; Professor Jim Tomlinson; Professor Richard Toye; Professor Frank Trentmann; Professor Jeffrey Weeks; Professor Noel Whiteside; Professor Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska; Dr Joan Allen; Philip Begley; Jane Berney; Dr Lawrence Black; Professor Huw Bowen; Dr Kate Bradley; Dr Elaine Chalus; Dr Tim Cooper; Dr Surekha Davies; Dr Martin Farr; Matthew Francis; Dr Francis Graham-Dixon; Dr Matthew Grant; Dr Simon Griffiths; Dr Joanna de Groot; Dr David Hall-Matthews; Professor Edward Higgs; Dr Michael Jennings; Dr Martin Johnes; Dr Jenny Keating; Dr Charles Littleton; Dr Peter Lyth; Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal; Dr James Mark; Clare Mulley; Dr Scott Newton; Dr Lucy Noakes; Dr Nicola Phillips; Professor Geoffrey Plank; Dr Martin Polley; Dr Virginia Preston; Dr Alejandro Quiroga; Dr Pedro Ramos Pinto; Dr Tim Rees; Dr James Renton; Dr Sarah Richardson; Dr Mark Roodhouse; Dr John Seed; Dr Peter Shapely; Dr Sally Sheard; Dr Virginia Smith; Dr Naomi Standen; Dr Troy Whitford; Dr Chris A. Williams; Dr Angus J.L. Winchester.

Published inAV campaignBritish PoliticsPolitical history


  1. Charles Charles

    Could you post the names of the other 65 historians please?

  2. Matt Matt

    One set of historians saying that another set of historians doesn’t have the historical background to comment on the historic significance of something.

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