Why History Matters

The Policy Exchange “History Matters Project” which is to be chaired by Trevor Philips is a hopeful sign of an intelligent response to the historical literacy in public education and, on the streets, in social media, to the deeper impact on democratic legitimacy and the rule of law sometimes underlying the intention beneath those challenges.

In a new paper entitled ‘History has still to be written’ a number of writers have collaborated on a broad view on the nature of ‘history’ and how the UK Government’s ‘casual disregard for history’ and ‘an intellectual and political incapacity to engage’ within the public discourse runs contrary to Minister’s protestations that ‘we won’t allow the rewriting of history’. The topic is of the moment as many try to use a view of history or ‘the past’ as a justification for a singular cause, proposition or agenda. That is why a full understanding of ‘history’ has never been more important, though not new or novel.

David Hackett Fischer in his book Historians’ Fallacies (1970) stated the problem of this sort of ‘objectivism’ for the political, agenda-driven activist.

It is no easy matter to tell the truth, pure and simple, about past events; for historical truths are never pure, and rarely simple. And the process of historical truth-telling itself is never more intricate than the truths which historians tell. Every true statement must be thrice true. It must be true to its evidence, true to itself, and true to other historical truths with which it is colligated. Moreover, a historian must not merely tell truths, but demonstrate their truthfulness as well.”

The paper separates ‘history’ from the other purposes that seek to reformulate and capture history for a cause:

“The issue of the moment is not that ‘history’ is being ‘rewritten’. It is that the past (the recent past a nebulous idea of ‘memory’, the distant past a story of ‘oppression’) is being recruited to serve an agenda and historical thinking dismissed if it prevents one – and only one – moralising political whippet winning the race and becoming the undisputed champion.”

The paper History has still to be written” may be downloaded on a new publishing website: dissentingvoices.uk  

This first paper from publishing website dissentingvoices.uk is timely. Those involved considered what might be the best approach to widening public discourse on topics. The process of curation of a paper, bringing together contributions from a number of people from different backgrounds is intended to offer something new. It is hoped this process will reveal the working out of ideas and arguments, with each paper written over time, through many drafts, not the quick blog piece of a spare hour.