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Does history provide lessons for policy-makers?

Written by Louise Kettle

Image credit: Christopher Sullivan


This month the Foreign and Commonwealth Office celebrated a hundred years of the in-house historians. A recommendation for a “research or historical section” was recorded in a memorandum on 17 November 1908 but a Historical Section was finally created in the Foreign Office in 1918. Since then the Historians have been instrumental in the publication of official histories.

They are also responsible for providing advice to FCO Ministers, officials and diplomats, to ensure that historical knowledge can inform the policy of today. Academics and students of history will oft argue the contemporary relevance of studying the past but drawing lessons from it can be difficult and converting this knowledge into policy is a complex process.

The prominent historian Sir Geoffrey Elton fiercely disagreed with the idea that history provided lessons. He urged that the study of the past, to ascertain lessons for the future, was an “inappropriate and usually misleading purpose” and that the notion of lessons from history was an absurdity.

A. J. P. Taylor supported this view, believing that history was an interesting and enjoyable exercise which served no purpose other than providing an understanding of the past. For him, “we learn nothing from history except the infinite variety of men’s behaviour. We study it, as we listen to music or read poetry, for pleasure, not for instruction.”

Indeed, whilst the past – it is stated – may be prologue and therefore shed light on how the complexities of today have been reached can it really – when every situation is nuanced by its particular context – provide lessons for today’s policy-makers?

Historians including Allan Bullock, Margaret Gowing, William Keith Hancock and Michael Lee have argued that history can and does provide lessons and have urged politicians to pay closer attention to the past for clues on how to deal with the problems of today. Christopher Andrew, the official historian for MI5, for example, has mourned the “long-term historical amnesia” or “Historical Attention Span Deficit Disorder” which can be present in todays policy-making. There is now even a specific website, History and Policy, which endeavours to connect historians and policy-makers.

In fact, the view that history may be of practical use is a long standing tradition. Many key politicians throughout the twentieth century have been interested in history, following a long tradition of Greeks, Romans and men of the Renaissance who read history not for pleasure but for practical benefit.

Thucydides wrote his History of the Peloponnesian War, recounting the war between Sparta and Athens in the fifth century bc, in order to inform policy-makers of the future. He stated the writing was for “those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past, and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same way, be repeated in the future.”

Similarly, in 1513 Machiavelli stressed the importance for leaders to examine history as a manual for statecraft:

“As for a mental exercise, a ruler should read historical works, especially for the light they shed on the actions of eminent men: to find out how they waged war, to discover the reasons for their victories and defeats, in order to avoid reverses and achieve conquests; and above all, to imitate some eminent man, who himself set out to imitate some predecessor of his who was considered worthy of praise and glory.”

Sir Walter Raleigh also declared “the end and scope of all history being to teach us by example of times past such wisdom as may guide our desires and actions” and Sir Francis Bacon surmised “Histories make men wise”. Indeed, history was the favourite reading of Napoleon, Lloyd George, Hitler and Sir Winston Churchill. Churchill, who famously stated “Personally I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like to be taught”, believed in the benefits of the lessons of the past for informing policy and stated “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”

This has become a fundamental assumption of social scientists who emphasise the importance of understanding past political and international relations phenomena in order to inform current decisions and, taking the argument even further, to form theoretical positions to provide a predictive function for the future through inductive reasoning.

Nonetheless, the process is not easy; it is complex, as is the process of policy-making. Consequently, whilst history provides lessons for policy-makers learning those lessons remains extremely challenging.

For more on this and how lessons can be learned from history see Louise Kettle’s new book Learning from the History of British Interventions in the Middle East.

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One Comment

  1. Afzal Ashraf Afzal Ashraf

    This is wonderfully written and a pleasure to read, Louise. Thank you.

    The question about learning or not learning from the past is an old one, it is itself historical. The problem is partly with the fact that there are different histories and different uses for history. Claudius in Robert Grave’s I, Claudius says, “there are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth.” This contest between inspiration and information has always existed, not just in the writing of history but also in its reading.

    History means different things to different people. For some, it is just a story, a non-fiction novel. For others it contains the secrets for their success, their leadership, their victories and ultimately their legacy. It is difficult to know what Napoleon, Hitler and Churchill took from history. Given that all of them innovated more than they recreated, it is likely that they took from history more inspiration than information. They probably saw past conquerors and generals as role models for their own greatness as leaders rather than as sages of strategy. They certainly used history to create political myths about their nations’ past glories and future greatness.

    History in most forms is an ore which needs processing to convert it into a useful product. That is probably why Elton and Taylor warned against its use as policy based learning. For it to be a source of learning, there needs to be an analyst between the historian and the user of history. Machiavelli was one such analyst. In his doctrine for the Prince he makes hardly any reference to historical precedence (not that I can remember). He provides practical advice on how to gain and maintain power. These are based on historical and contemporary observations suitably adapted to political and military needs of his master. But the process between history and advice (the toil of research, analysis and writing) is invisible to the consumer. It is part of what Gregory Crane calls a “genre in which wise men offer public advice to princes.” Is it the absence of such wise men, or wise women, that has led to the disestablishment of government historian posts or the ignoring of those that remain?

    The most dangerous thing about lessons from history is that they are most often unconsciously learnt and invisibly absorbed as culture. That is probably the reason why institutions such as the government and the Armed Forces appear not to learn. Appearances can be deceptive. They have learnt from history. The only problem is that the lessons they learnt had a “best before” use date and they didn’t know it.

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