Laura Sefton, ‘History beyond election cycles: the importance of engaging with people outside of the political sphere’

Laura Sefton

Laura Sefton

At some point, all historians have been asked to evaluate the significance of their research. Funding applications ask us to demonstrate the impact of our work before we explain our project; to justify its potential for engagement before considering the methodology we will use. Therefore, Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto is a welcome publication that will again prompt all historians, regardless of the stage of their careers, to reflect on what we do and to consider how we can do it better.

Whilst this book is important in recognizing that we should be proactive and reflective practitioners, there is still much to be troubled by in its pages. Most historians will recognize Guldi and Armitage’s diagnosis of current historical practice, namely that it is focused on short-term projects, driven by archival material and contextualized using theoretical frameworks. However, I would be surprised if many historians saw this in the negative terms that Guldi and Armitage seem to. They may acknowledge that the long durée approach they advocate has much to learn from ‘micro-studies’ but they do not explain how the two could work together; it would surely be impossible to take a long chronology and devote the same time and attention as we would in a twenty year span?

Perhaps we should see history as the co-operative venture that it is. The historical community is a vibrant arena that provides continual intellectual stimulation; as historians we never work alone but are instead always in conversation with one another. Even if a single historian works on a twenty year period, there are enough of us to ensure that the past remains a rich, varied and complex tapestry. It may be an annoyance to policy makers that these histories are not woven into a convenient narrative or a single text, but historical integrity is all the better for that.

Indeed this text often feels like a depressing defence of history’s utility to politicians and policy makers without considering how, or why, history is important outside of the realms of power. As historians, we are told we should make ourselves useful to policy makers, yet, as my colleague Matthew Francis noted, this would place historians in the one place they could not ‘speak truth to power’. History would be at the mercy of the short term mentality the authors consider as the problem: our utility determined by five year election cycles.

More importantly, it would take us away from the public we wish to engage, and are already engaging, with. The History Manifesto’s vision of historians as powerful predictors of the future does not even risk locking us back into the ivory tower, but would move us instead into the arena of politics. If the gulf between historians and society is still too large, this would be the only move that would make it even wider: the corridors of Whitehall remain closed to the public.

The argument that we have ‘special powers’ (p.14)  or that we are better placed than ‘other experts’ to predict the future, will only continue to isolate us. We should not try to predict the future but should use our collective energy to ensure that we all have a better understanding of the complexities and intricacies of the past, to enable people to anchor their own lives in longer narratives, and to help society think critically about its present. We cannot foretell the future, but we can help to prepare people for it. The only way we can do that is together, outside of the political structure and by engaging with an increasingly marginalised public.

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