Historian Herbert Butterfield

What are historians for?

Contemporary commentary or timeless reflection?

Artillery Row

David Cannadine, the Princeton professor, remarked in October that historians could have steered Liz Truss from her disastrous mini-budget if they had been consulted. That may or may not be true. The point he was making was that Britain’s growth problems are systemic and that many of Lis Truss’s methods had been tried before. “It might have been a good idea to have phoned Peter Hennesy”, the historian of government, “and say, Peter, is this a good idea?” He would have told them, no. That is a job which, according to Cannadine, historians want. 

Weighing in on political questions would undermine historians authority

As far as Keir Starmer’s plans for an elected House of Lords are concerned, historians would likewise be willing to be approached. It has now been over 100 years since the Parliament Act of 1911 stated, “it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation. One trusts that the Labour leader already knows that. Historians could tell him about the impossibility of wholesale reform; so, too, could recent politicians like David Cameron and Nick Clegg. 

The point is that is not what our historians are for. To weigh in on political questions like this would undermine their authority and the fact that they speak for something — the truth, the voice of the past. If they want to be politicians, then, good luck to them. However, historians, especially historians in public life, have a different task to perform. 

The historian Geoffrey Elton, hardly the height of fashion in historical circles in his own time and since, nevertheless used an apt analogy to describe his colleagues’ task as he saw it. They should be like a “good glove” turned “inside out”. By this, he meant “humble outwardly”, “proud inwardly” about what they can achieve. Historians should not weigh in on political matters; they should stick to their own turf. The danger would be that they become sceptical inwardly about what they really know, and proud outwardly — or useful to society in a paradoxical, that is “not what we are for” kind of way. 

David Cannadine is not a “good glove”. Geoffrey Elton would tell him to go back to his “cell” in an inaugural lecture in 1968. The language he used was strangely redolent of the desert fathers, the Christian hermits whose practice from the 3rd century of asceticism in the Egyptian desert formed the basis of Christian monasticism thereafter. Abba Mosses said, “Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you. Everything.”

People want quick-fix solutions to the world’s woes

This is quite the claim, and it relates directly to what Geoffrey Elton envisaged as the historian’s role in public life. “The world”, he said, is “littered” with people who want quick-fix solutions to the world’s woes, and “prophets” pretending to help them. “We as historians can most certainly, if we want to, cash in on that.” Yet historians should not because to do so destroys the life of the mind which is cultivated within the cell. “It is not a question of finding an answer to the future, of planning the future, of settling the future for the world.” It is a question of encouraging better thought about “past, present and future” — of focusing on the past and being changed by it. 

Another historian, Herbert Butterfield, remarked just over fifty years ago: “Sometimes I wonder at dead of night whether, during the next fifty years, Protestantism may not be at a disadvantage because a few centuries ago, it decided to get rid of monks.” He saw the emerging postmodern condition which we still grapple with, and the way in which Western civilisation and the Protestant world in this country, specifically, was beginning to wane. Elton saw many “faiths”, many ideologies, people divided. Butterfield feared the absence of monks who would bear witness to objective truth for others. 

It could be that the task of the historian remains in effect to be like a monk. That is what Butterfield and Elton seemed to be driving at in their life’s work — and now we are fifty years down the line. Within the five decades which have elapsed, Britain’s growth problems have not been resolved nor its constitutional dilemmas, and politicians offer quick-fix solutions. Others suggest that we should be tearing down statues and denouncing our forebears. Do something. Anything.

Historians should tell us, if anything, to stop and think. We should be challenged and humbled by the past before acting. 

Butterfield did so. Historians should “dig very deep” and go back to “original sources and first principles” — go back in the cell — in order to turn the “crisis into a creative moment”. That is the task which they have to perform, contra Cannadine. “A greater responsibility falls on us to give something of ourselves to contemplation and silence and listen to the still small voice.”

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