Historian with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office – a job with a history

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 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.’[1]   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.

[1] 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.

Policy advisers: out of the top corridor and into the classroom?

1255_University_Corridors02

The university policy adviser is now a fixture in higher education.  At least, there are enough of us that we’re now getting organised.  There’s a large Political Affairs Network under the auspices of UUK that brings together policy, comms, strategy and related staff as well as a smaller, more informal collective of VCs’ policy advisers and exec officers, now named the Lighthouse Group (after Plymouth’s Caroline Chipperfield handed the attendees of the first get-together snazzy lighthouse phone charms).

We work to very different VCs with very different institutional aims, but in practice the similarities are surprisingly many.  One of the main similarities is also the source of one of the main challenges: we work in VCs’ offices.  Maybe not in physical terms that far from where the core business of the university happens, but sometimes it may as well be.  It would be relatively easy to stay in the bubble of the ‘top corridor’ and only interact with other parts of the university when we need a ‘crunchy’ case study for an MP’s briefing note, some figures for a speech or an amenable group of students for a ministerial visit.  That is of course a crude characterisation (all the HE policy advisers I’ve met have genuine dedication to their institutions).  And we do need access to – and the trust of – the executive team to be effective. But I wonder if that’s only half the argument.

Would we be better policy advisers if we were also part of ‘core business’?  More aware of operational realities, more part of the fabric of the place and more able to bridge the corporate and academic ‘levels’, both as advisers and advocates?

Some could get involved in teaching and supervision, building on (or developing) their academic credentials or team teaching to integrate their professional expertise on politics, government, journalism or management.  Others have come by different routes and could contribute to student administration, marketing or recruitment.  Of course, some of these roles would need significant commitment – a genuinely dual or hybrid role – whereas others could be fulfilled on a less formal basis.  And there would need to be mutual benefit and a collaborative approach – no-one would want a tokenistic effort that involved more trouble to accommodate than it was worth.

Personally, the best and most fulfilling thing I have done has been taking on an academic role.  It has clarified my sense of self and opened up a whole new future.  But even if you’re a dedicated follower of policy, getting some experience of ‘core business’ has got to be worth considering.  From the university’s perspective, why shouldn’t policy advisers be expected to  ‘practise what they brief’, if only to make them better advisers and advocates?  From the adviser’s perspective, we can develop that rare combination of profile and substance that is often lacking in politics (with the well-established special adviser route to ministerial status).

As I’ve argued before, it’s a shame that university systems and structures create parallel tracks for staff that make any such innovation difficult.  Making it happen relies on the entrepreneurship and enthusiasm of those involved (on both sides).  But maybe working on the ‘top corridor’ is only worth it if you also know how to work outside it.

The need for a hybrid policy-academic idiom

Martin McQuillan, Dean of Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University, posted an interesting review of the new Stefan Collini book What are universities for? on WonkHE recently.  The review itself is worth a read but I was particularly interested in his concluding comments:

Equally, and as a matter of urgency, we need to develop a productive, hybrid idiom in which policy can accommodate awareness of its own history and analytical self-reflection, while critical academic writing can direct its intelligence towards the task of addressing the pressing political (practical) questions of today that will otherwise be left to the think tanks and the policy wonks.  The choice cannot only be between ‘HEFCE-speak’ or ‘Collini-ism’; another conversation must evolve if the idea and practice of the university is to have a chance in the future.

I think he’s hit a number of nails on the head (not least the one about the need for historical awareness in policy development – though that could also be developed in university management too).  Perhaps the most important point he makes though is about current absence of a ‘productive, hybrid idiom’ in which to discuss higher education.  Votes of no confidence in the Minister, dire warnings of the end of days, even despondent head-shakings in corridor conversations further disengage and distance academe from policy.

We cannot afford for the message received in Westminster and Whitehall of an unreasonable and unresponsive sector to be consistently reinforced (however unjustified that might be).  Language matters, as Prof. McQuillan recognises.  It conveys our motives and intentions, our commitments and our parameters.  There is a legitimate dialogue to be had about the future of higher education (though the exchange between academe and policy should range much further – universities have much to offer every area of policy from transport to justice) but we need a shared language.  Maybe that should be our ‘grand challenge’?

NB: That is not to say that there aren’t entirely genuine and justifiable concerns about the government’s current programme of reform, but we need to be part of the policy development process if we want to shape it.

As an aside, I think ‘policy wonks’ (I’m blaming Mark Leach for the traction that term seems to have achieved!) at least those inside universities, could be seen as part of the solution rather than the problem.  As long as they are engaged with the core activities of the institution, they are well-placed to act as brokers, mediators or translators between universities and policymakers.  This could be by having a hybrid role combining policy with other responsibilities, whether professional or academic, or by structuring their work to ensure regular contact, particularly with Schools or Faculties.  Secondments between university and government policy functions would enhance their ability to operate in and between the two worlds (as well as helping their inhabitants to be bilingual).

Policy advice in higher education: a historical pathway?

At university, I remember being faintly jealous of fellow students who had a clear sense of the path ahead (a medic and a lawyer being among my housemates).  Even if they weren’t sure of where they’d specialise, they knew there was a thing called medicine or law, and that they’d find their places in time.

It’s far less easy as a student to identify a ‘thing’ called history outside the confines of study, much less imagine all other other things that touch on, connect with or are enlivened by history.  (I hope to help my students do such imagining but that’s for another post).  So like a lot of graduates, it took me some time to find a path I wanted to follow, which mainly involved taking opportunities as they arose.

Policy advisers have been around for a long time in different guises but are relatively new in universities.  As a result, I wonder if they attract those, like me, who didn’t have a ‘thing’ but rather fell into the role with a commitment to higher education and a bundle of skills, experience and interests we hoped would be of use.  Many universities now have someone in a policy-related role and it’s great that a network has now been formed under the auspices of Universities UK to allow the members of a new profession to connect.  (I try to resist the term ‘wonks’ as embraced by Mark Leach of Wonk-HE in the Times Higher but have unfortunately failed to come up with a neat and catchy substitute as yet).

Maybe as roles develop and become established in university structures and advisers gain some profile in their own right, students will be able to identify them as part of a new career path, a new ‘thing’ to work towards.  Placements and internships can play an important role here but there’s also some advocacy to be done here.  Occupying as I do a strange world between the professional and the academic domains, I hope to be a double agent: exposing students to policy work as something that’ll make good use of their historian’s skills and then bringing them into my team for some practical experience.

In a 1984 Public Historian article, Avner Offer calls on historians to ‘stimulate demand; supply will then take care of itself’.  Policy advisers (wonks, historians or otherwise) could usefully adopt the same mantra.  Stimulate demand, from students, from universities, from government and stakeholder organisations, and we too will have a clear path ahead, and a ‘thing’.