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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Monday, 15 April 2019

More history and less economics?

“We need more historians and fewer economists”. 

This was the somewhat tongue in cheek claim made by the historian Rutger Bregman in an interview with Dan Snow on his ‘History Hit’ podcast. Bregman is the historian who hit the headlines when he took the Davros elite to task over tax. He is also the author of ‘Utopia for Realists’, which argues that throughout history it is utopian visions that have driven humanity forward. His case for historians is summed up regarding the financial crash:

“I thought that we needed historians to take the stage and explain what’s going on. When I watched the crisis on TV, the only people being interviewed were economists, and these were the guys that didn’t see it coming. I thought that we needed some historians there, so I left academia,”

He has a point, although I declare an interest as a history fan, albeit one who has written a fair bit about economics. I am also the Secretary of the Keir Hardie Society that seeks not only to remember the historical figure but also to promote his ideas in a modern context.

That is precisely what a new generation of historians seek to do. Dan Snow often asks historians to give some historical context to current affairs on his podcast. It is also not an either-or choice, as some economists use historical context effectively. I have in mind Thomas Piketty (Capital in the Twenty-First Century) and Mariana Mazzucato (The Entrepreneurial State). 

This matters because as the Spanish/American philosopher George Santayana said; “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. You might also argue that those who study history can successfully repeat it. For example, I can think of more than a few generals who have successfully copied Hannibal’s double envelopment tactic at the Battle of Cannae.  

I accept this trend is not always progressive. I watched David Starkey on Politics Live last week, at his pompous, arrogant worst, as he patronised a young woman panellist.

The teaching of history in our schools has come in for some criticism. Professor Tom Devine argued some years ago that pupils are leaving school with little knowledge of their nation’s past because history is being squeezed out of the curriculum. When Scottish Ministers raised this issue, some argued this was a nationalist plot to indoctrinate young people. I didn’t agree then or now. 

Many people in Scotland would benefit from a better grasp of our history. Last year I was on the Culloden battlefield when a visitor was telling his son and me that this was where the English murdered the Scots. He wasn’t too happy when I politely pointed out that we were standing on the spot in the ‘English’ line held by the Royal Scots Fusiliers, supported in the second line by the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. And don’t even start me on Braveheart, Scottish knights fighting with Edward at Bannockburn or the recent Netflix film on a well-known descendant of the Norman French de Bruis family!    

This also plays into concerns that there has been a narrowing of subject choice in Scotland’s schools. The Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee is conducting an inquiry into that very issue. Lindsay Paterson also makes a case for a broad curriculum in yesterday's Sunday Times.

This is one of the issues raised in Scottish Labour’s current education policy consultation. That paper also asks how we can develop Scotland’s working class and labour movement archives and increase access to our industrial museums?

We have a strong heritage sector in Scotland, with good museums that strengthen our understanding of the past. My encounter at Culloden might not have been necessary if the excellent revamped visitor centre had been open. But many of our battlefields are not so well preserved. Even Culloden is threatened by development, as is Prestonpans and Transport Scotland are planning to do further damage to the Killiecrankie battle site. 

Our industrial museums operate on very modest funding levels. Local government cuts have added to the pressure on local historical facilities. The People’s Palace in Glasgow was only saved after a local campaign. It has just reopened after a £350k refurbishment, but the Winter Gardens remain closed.

The Scottish Government held a consultation last year on a draft culture strategy. The responses generally support the ambition and approach while emphasising the need to support the capacity financially. Extra funding can be levered in, but stable government funding is crucial.

Neither should we be parochial. The responses emphasised the importance of an international focus. Not just in promoting Scotland's diverse cultural assets, but in enriching and renewing our culture at home through meaningful contact and exchange with cultural policy and best practice from around the world.

That is reflected in the growing popular interest in world history. The National Trust is a large membership organisation, and historical societies of all kinds are well supported. Well written popular history helps, but it also drives broader study. I am always pleasantly surprised when picking up a book in my local library on what
even I think is an obscure historical subject, to find how many times it has been borrowed.

So, while we need both economics and history, let’s think about how we can better support our history through education, museums, sites and events. Not just to remember the past, but also for what it can tell us about the issues of today.

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