History can be studied in many ways and for many reasons, including the sheer pleasure of learning about other times, people and places for their own sake. But one of the values of history in a liberal democracy could be to inform us about current policy-making: which is quite evident when so many historians in private conversations regularly come out with really insightful comments about the controversial events of the day.
We endeavored to interest journal editors and policy-makers in a historical understanding of current events, and in early 2001 we decided that perhaps it was up to us to start a new publication, and that the most interesting way to do that would be to use the emerging technology of the internet to set up a website: for this would allow us to get material directly into the public realm relatively quickly and without depending on anyone else to edit or publish it.
The History & Policy website pitched its stall somewhere in the middle-ground between, on the one hand, the professional history of textbooks for students or specialist research for colleagues, and, on the other, the writing or broadcasting of popular history for mass audiences. That is to say, the writing would be based firmly on the research and understanding of specialists, but would address its findings to an educated, opinion-forming public.
Clearly there would be two main challenges: could we get our colleagues interested in writing this sort of history, and could we ensure that they did so in a way which would be genuinely accessible to others not trained in the discipline of history and with precious little time on their hands?
The early days of History & Policy were dominated by last-minute searches for material and time-consuming editorial reshaping of potentially interesting pieces. With a more established public profile and a large archive of successful model papers, now over 70, we are now faced with the opposite dilemma: the possibility of an overwhelming flood of excellent contributions!
There was, of course, another major challenge: would it be possible to get the attention of our target audiences? To have any realistic chance of accessing busy professionals in the world of government, think-tanks and the media we would need to have some kind of physical presence in London as well, for the busy professionals in the world of government, think-tanks and the media would not be likely just to stumble on the website without prompting, nor would they be likely come to events in Cambridge.
By a stroke of good timing Pat Thane had just taken up a new post as Leverhulme Professor of Contemporary British History at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) and Virginia Berridge was launching a new Centre for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene, both with a remit to interact with the wider public world and policy. History & Policy was therefore able to develop from a website into a consortium of Cambridge and London historians experimenting with new sorts of public events.
It was immediately clear that we would be able to attract enough high-powered historians in higher education, but less clear how we could draw in significant numbers of our real target audience. Once again we were fortunate that events were moving in our direction, for an anonymous private donor was just then approaching the IHR with an offer of financial help for this sort of activity, and on this basis we were able to set up an external-relations office with staff who have enough time and the right kind of expertise.
We are now in the happy position of anticipating regular media coverage and lively interactions with national-level journalists and politicians at our events, which have so far included a high-profile launch at the Cabinet War Rooms, and a series of discussions in the House of Commons, bringing together members of the House Of Lords, MPs, senior civil servants, historians and the media.
During the course of all this activity the website was re-designed to give it a fresher and more professional appearance, especially important as it remains the primary public interface for our activities. It is sustained by a national network of professional historians (120 and growing) who can be mobilised to provide briefings and interviews on current policy issues, with the support of media-training bursaries designed to enhance their interview skills. It showcases an ever-expanding range of short papers in which historians analyse current policy issues – from Iraq to ID cards, climate change to child maintenance and pensions – and users are offered a regular email update service.
As well as a strong and growing media profile including articles in the national quality press by Polly Toynbee, Peter Riddell and Simon Jenkins, among others, History & Policy has made regular contributions to BBC Radio 4's news and current-affairs programmes. The website also carries opinion articles written by historians on the pressing news stories of the day.
History & Policy has been increasing its public impact by supplying commissioned research reports to government enquiries, and has been enabling historians to contribute directly to the proceedings of parliamentary select committees on topics including pensions, monetary policy, the NHS, carbon trading and waste strategy.
There clearly is an appetite for this sort of history both among those who are in a position to write it and those who are in a position to make use of its insights. The future for History & Policy is therefore to continue to develop its distinctive and unique ability to provide a bridge between a wide network of specialists – in principle the whole of the historical profession – and anyone in the public world who might benefit from their expertise.
We will be careful not to develop an agenda of our own, whether about history or policy, and to keep exploring the widest possible range of 'policy-makers', from national government ministers to local activists in non-governmental organizations and the corporate world.
If we can secure sufficient funding, our ambition is to become a self-sustaining, national institution providing impartial historical knowledge in order to build public confidence in the way decisions are taken and create better policy-making that benefits everyone. Perhaps in due course this will also have an influence on the sort of research that historians set out to do, as well as on the sort of value historical inquiry as a whole is given in government and wider public perceptions.
Alastair Reid is Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Girton College, University of Cambridge.
Simon Szreter is Reader in History and Policy, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge and Fellow of St John's College.
Together, they are founding editors of the History & Policy website.