'Official' history typically provokes one of two reactions from professional historians. The first is contempt on the grounds that it is mere propaganda -'official but not history' in Basil Liddell Hart's tart phrase. The second is a guarded interest. This is because, like the History and Policy network based at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), its purpose is to make public policy 'better through an understanding of history' and it has the potential, as a by-product, to deepen mutual understanding between historians and policymakers.
It was to learn lessons from the perceived failings of the Boer and Russo-Japanese Wars that the UK's Official History Programme was established in 1908. Ever since, as in similar programmes abroad, military history has remained its core. The First World War was covered by some 50 volumes.(1) There followed a history of the Second which provided Michael Howard and John Ehrman, among others, with their first major commissions. More recently, an acclaimed two-volume history of the Falklands campaign by Sir Lawrence Freedman was published in 2005.(2) Within the Programme there has also been a related series of histories on the clandestine exploits of the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War. In the hands of M.R.D. Foot and others, they have performed the invaluable task of supplementing the necessarily truncated written record with oral testimony.
Since 1941, official history in Britain has sought – somewhat exceptionally – to reach beyond the military. In the confident belief that the war was to be won as much on the home as on the military front, a Civil Series was then commissioned under the general editorship of an Australian historian working at Birmingham University, Keith Hancock. This provided the training ground for an exceptional generation of economic historians, who already had some experience of wartime Whitehall, including Michael Postan, H.J. Habbakuk and William Ashworth. Even more famously, it also catapulted into a chair at the London School of Economics (LSE), without any formal academic qualifications, the author of Problems of Social Policy (3) – Richard Titmuss.
This coverage of 'civil' history was further expanded in 1966 with the inauguration of the Peacetime Programme under which most current histories are commissioned. Among its most notable achievements have been Charles Webster's The Health Services since the War (4) and, more recently, Terry Gourvish's award-winning The Channel Tunnel.(5)
How and why are official histories commissioned? And what are the principal challenges they pose historians both as individual authors and in general?
The Official History Programme is administered by a small Unit of the Cabinet Office. Potential topics for inclusion in the central programme have to be of national and interdepartmental importance, and are submitted by Government departments to an Official Cabinet Committee. It then produces a shortlist of topics which forms the list of histories to be commissioned over the next 10 years. Each history has to be ratified by a cross-party group of Privy Councillors and approved by the Prime Minister. Once the appropriate historian has been selected by the Cabinet Office, the appointment is made by the Prime Minister and announced to Parliament.
The purpose of the central Programme is to help both policymakers and historians. For the policymaker, the histories are designed to sustain a 'collective memory' so that policy advice is alive to relevant precedent and does not fall prey, in the words of the History and Policy website, to 'unexamined historical assumptions and cliches'. In addition to the central Official History Programme there are a few departments which employ historians either on a permanent basis (at, for example, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence) or on special 'departmental histories'.
Such a need was well recognised in Whitehall in 1957 when the then Cabinet Secretary (Sir Norman Brook) urged officials to write accounts of important events while memories remained fresh. Hence the availability to current scholars at The National Archives of many internal histories, not least in the Treasury's historical memoranda series.(6) Under the mounting pressure of work, however, such histories were rarely read. Under the pressure of economy, their compilation had also largely halted by 1976 – the year when the Treasury's Historical Section was symbolically closed.(7)
Such internal accounts, by definition, remained closed for 30 years. By contrast, an objective of the central Official History Programme from the start was – in the words of Keith Hancock – to 'give truth a quick start'. It was to provide a quarry of information which would inform the public and, above all, enable historians to construct their own informed, independent accounts of the recent past. This remains a principal objective of official histories. In addition, they are designed to enrich the evidence. In part, this can be achieved through the matching of documentary with oral testimony, while interviewees are relatively close to events.(8) In addition, official historians' specialist knowledge can be used to inform record officers in their near impossible task of selecting little more than one per cent of departmental files for permanent preservation. Official historians thus serve both the present and the future needs of their colleagues.
Such a service, however, allegedly comes at a price. Working under the Official Secrets Act and with their manuscripts subject to vetting, it is argued that official historians are prostituting their profession. Moreover, they are liable to be 'captured' by the powerful assumptions underlying official records and thus guilty – if only subconsciously – of constructing an unbalanced 'first draft of history' which will prejudice later interpretations.
Such dangers were certainly real in the past. In the early 1950s, for example, the progenitor of the Civil Series (the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Edward Bridges) emasculated his offspring in order to preserve an image of how he considered policy should be made. It could not appear as anything other than rational and consensual. Thereby constitutional conventions, such as ministerial responsibility and official neutrality, could be preserved and even reinforced. Moreover, an image could be projected of the Second World War having been won by a mix of 'public enterprise, rational administration and altruism', which undoubtedly played its part in creating and shaping the nature of the post-war consensus which was to survive until the mid 1970s.(9)
Today, however, such dangers are far less real. Given greater openness and pluralism, vetting is far more relaxed. The challenge to professional integrity lies more in the tracking down of telling evidence amidst the miles of archives than in a battle over its publication. In any case, well-informed 'first' and 'second' drafts of history already exist as a result of investigative journalism and social science research. Together with the quarry of information provided by official histories themselves, therefore, there is no room for evasion. There is also the final reassurance that, even if vetted, official histories in their unexpurgated form will – as a public record -be permanently preserved and thus ultimately available to the public scrutiny. This is a guarantee which, often to their cost, historians of other commissioned work have lacked.
The rebuttal of traditional criticisms does not mean, however, that the writing of current official histories is unproblematic. The fate of earlier internal histories, largely unread and ultimately the victim of economy, weighs heavily. Of equal concern is the disappointment of Hancock's initial vision of the Civil Series as a 'new kind of hands-on contemporary history'. His ambition was to present to a mass, as well as a specialist, audience histories of the recent past informed by full access both to policymakers and their working papers. Good government would consequently be encouraged not just in Whitehall but also by the creation of a more informed and responsible electorate. Such a vision soon faded. Regardless of Bridges's censorship, policymakers had rather more pressing tasks after 1941 than to be interviewed by historians. They were, understandably, also somewhat reluctant to divulge the contents of top-secret documents. Then, as now, the mass audience also remained elusive. 'Hands-on contemporary history' had to await the arrival of investigative journalists (such as Peter Hennessy, now Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary, University of London) and social scientists in the very different world of the 1970s; and in the meantime official histories reverted to their original role as a specialist service for professional historians and policymakers alike. Their popular impact was dependent on the distillation of their findings by others.
Official history, moreover, has never been the privileged preserve of the professional historian. Military histories have been largely written by former combatants and 'civil' histories continue to be written by those with first-hand experience of Whitehall (such as Rear-Admiral Wilkinson, who is writing the history of the D-Notice System). Even when 'outside' academics are commissioned, it is often from other disciplines (such as economics, witness the appointment of Alex Kemp and David Parker to write respectively the histories on the Development of North Sea Oil and Gas and Privatisation).
This is as it should be, particularly given the lingering suspicion of historians as a profession that 'contemporary history' is little more than a tautology. For its effective writing, official history requires a practical knowledge of policymaking and a range of insights and skills from other disciplines. Historians need to consider what unique qualities they can bring to the mix and whether another period of innovation, as attempted by Hancock, is required. Otherwise, at a time when policy is recognised as being in increasing need of a historical perspective, historians are in danger of becoming strangers at what should be their own feast.
Rodney Lowe is professor of contemporary history at the University of Bristol and an Official Historian at the Cabinet Office writing a history of the British Civil Service since Fulton.