Last week, the post of Historian with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was advertised (with the strapline ‘If you’re passionate about the past and excited about the future, consider a role as a Historian in Whitehall’). Historians in government are a very rare breed in Britain, at least in historical roles (historians have been taken on as generalists since the civil service professionalised – and came under pointed criticism as ‘amateurs’ for it from the late 1950s). By contrast, historians working as historians are part of state and federal/provincial government structures in the USA and Canada; the US Society for History in the Federal Government has been around for over 30 years.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that the grass is greener for colleagues across the pond. Being a historian in government doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bringing historical thinking into the corridors of power (even walking said corridors doesn’t equal admission to the offices where the major policy decisions are taken). The North American experience suggests recognition as a specialist can be a distinctly mixed blessing. An expert’s influence can easily be limited to those questions relating directly to the area of expertise…
The role of the historian in government is often concerned with research and the management of records: cataloguing papers; editing documents and producing official histories for publication; responding to queries; writing briefing papers on historical topics. In countries such as Canada and New Zealand, historians are also expert contributors to processes that address grievances and claims relating to the treatment of indigenous peoples.
The currently advertised job certainly fits with this editorial and curatorial profile. But the FCO is a particularly interesting case, because a previous historian at the department made the transition from editor of official documents to historical adviser to the Minister.
Rohan Butler Credit: FCO
Rohan Butler (1917-1996) worked at the Foreign Office from 1944, while also a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford. He became Senior Editor of the Documents on British Foreign Policy in 1955, and, in 1959, he was commissioned to produce a history of the Abadan Crisis as part of a Whitehall initiative (‘funding experience’) to learn lessons from the past.
Peter Beck’s careful scholarship has revealed the work of historians at the Treasury and Foreign Office during this experiment. Butler, however, managed to gain a position of influence as a historian (the Abadan history was finished in 1962 and Butler went on to become historical adviser to successive Foreign Secretaries until 1982) – something his Treasury colleagues never did.
Beck states that the Abadan history ‘fed into, guided, and influenced on-going discussions and reviews within Whitehall by juxtaposing the lessons of history, contemporary realities, and possible new directions for both foreign policy and methods.’ Beck somewhat underplay’s Butler’s success, stating that it’s difficult to ascribe a ‘clear-cut outcome’ to the history. But Butler’s work was informing the highest levels of decisionmaking. He was, effectively, a policy adviser as well as a historian.
The job description for today’s FCO historian mentions ‘responding to requests for historical information and advice from Ministers, officials and the public’, but the prospect for a role such as Butler’s seems remote. The salary of £26,363 – £32,834 is well below the range for special advisers and points, perhaps, to a role seen as ‘back-office’ rather than ‘core business’.
We may today lament that history has little influence on policymaking – it might be worth looking back at Butler for inspiration: a historian on the inside.
 Beck, ‘The Lessons of Abadan and Suez for British Foreign Policymakers in the 1960s’, p. 545.
See also: Beck, Using history, making British policy: the Treasury and the Foreign Office, 1950-76, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
NB: Butler’s authoritative memorandum on the Katyn Massacre (produced in 1972 and printed for internal circulation in 1973) is now in the public domain with original footnotes and annexes.