The Institute of Contemporary British History (ICBH) was founded in 1986 by Anthony Seldon and Peter Hennessy. It was the belief of the two founders that there was need for historians and academics from cognate disciplines to study the UK's recent past as a corrective to the interpretations of post-war British history being used in the public sphere by both the political left and right to explain then current issues. The founders also believed that it was important for academics to share the fruits of their research not only among each other but also to engage with the policymaking elite.
For the latter reason, the ICBH was set up outside the formal academic confines of a university. Additionally, at that time contemporary history was not a fully established or recognised discipline. Nevertheless, it quickly forged close links with the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), which provided it with offices on Tavistock Square, and with academics and academic departments right across the UK. By the late 1980s the ICBH had established itself as the central meeting point for all those interested in contemporary British history.
The ICBH's position was recognised by policymakers too. So when, in the early 1990s, William Waldegrave announced a government initiative to improve the access of academics to government records in advance of the 30 year rule, which then governed the release of state documents, the ICBH acted as a clearing house between academics and government departments.
For elite oral historians the ICBH's witness seminar programme was also to be an important resource. The witness seminar programme established that policymakers, both politicians and civil servants, could and should talk to academics on the record and in public. This engagement consequently marked a cultural sea change in the relationship between policymakers and scholars, and helped to consolidate the principal of open government.
To help facilitate the academic study of contemporary British history, the ICBH initiated a number of activities. These included an annual summer conference, which it has held nearly every year since 1986, book series with a number of publishing houses, and the establishment of two academic journals, Twentieth Century British History and Contemporary Record – later Contemporary British History. Most historians of contemporary British history have published an article or two in one of the journals and many have published in the book series.
As the 1990s drew to a close, and as the discipline of contemporary history became embedded in the formal university structure right across the UK, the relationship between the ICBH and the IHR grew ever closer. In 1999, the ICBH formally joined the IHR as one of its research centres. Soon afterwards, the Leverhulme Foundation endowed a chair in Contemporary British History, which has been held by Pat Thane since 2000.
Since joining the IHR, the ICBH changed its name to the Centre for Contemporary British History (CCBH) to reflect its altered status. The activities of the CCBH have been more geared towards high scholarship, with the development of a Master's programme and with the supervision of doctoral students. The CCBH has won a number of research awards from both the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Board/Council (AHRB/C), and from other funding bodies.
The CCBH continues to be an important meeting place for those studying contemporary British history through its summer conferences, occasional conferences and the like. Additionally the witness seminar programme continues to lead in the area of elite oral history collection, having now completed nearly 100 separate oral history projects, and the CCBH continues to connect academics with policymakers through its links with the History & Policy network.
Michael Kandiah is Director of the Witness Seminar Programme at the CCBH.
Virginia Preston is Deputy Director of the CCBH.