Despite the presence of a number of ministers trained in history (step forward Gordon Brown and John Reid), the present government’s approach to policy-making has often showed all the historical perspective of a forgetful goldfish. Policies are adopted and implemented, abandoned and readopted as the next bright shiny new solution to age-old problems within the space of a few short years.
And when politicians do look to historical precedent, their range of “folk memories” is limited and selective. Nye Bevan’s stewardship of the new National Health Service from 1948 being a particular favourite, his name invoked as someone who “were he alive today” would have supported the most unlikely health policies. Meanwhile, all that happened before 1948 has been forgotten.
Writing in The Guardian yesterday, and on the History & Policy website, Professor Virginia Berridge called for a “rethink of the politics-history boundary”. She argues that history is currently being used in policy making in an ad hoc way, usually without the involvement of historians themselves, and wants a more consistent and coherent approach.
To summarise her findings (with grateful thanks to whoever wrote her press release):
1. The use of history in health policymaking is currently dependent on political expediency, personal networks, timing and particular policy situations.
2. Politicians make limited use of the history and historical interpretation available to them, relying instead on ‘folk histories’ that revolve around familiar individuals, epoques and interpretations;
3. In particular, the founding of the NHS in 1948 has a powerful hold over the current government, with ministers invoking the same narrow history - dominated by Nye Bevan - to lend credence to current policies;
4. Historians are rarely invited into the policy arena, while social scientists, economists and historically-trained politicians act as ‘history brokers’;
5. Those historians who are ‘invited in’ are selected on the basis of their public profile or entertainment value, rather than the relevance of their historical expertise;
6. Policymakers remain ignorant of and fail to learn from important precedents to some key policy issues, such as the long history of public opposition to vaccination;
7. Historians are recognised as providing a perspective that no other discipline can offer, being more enlightening and less prescriptive than political scientists, but their ‘message’ can be difficult to discern; and
8. Historians need to do more to identify and communicate the policy relevance of their research and to explain differing historical interpretations.
This is a fascinating piece of research that should be read by all those involved in policy-making, particularly but not exclusively in the health sphere. The full report, titled History Matters? History’s Role in Health Policy-Making is available on the History & Policy website.