How history helps policy

Abigail Woods, Professor in the History of Human and Animal Health, King’s College London

What has history got to do with policy-making today? Surely there are lots of other disciplines with greater claims to ‘speak truth to power’? Well that may be so, but history has its own unique power, the power to – and I quote – ‘render what seems obvious and self-evident in the present problematic and strange.’ History de-centres the present; it reveals the roads not taken, the sheer contingency of where we ended up. At the same time, it shows that everything we now think and do is shaped partly by what has gone before. It follows that policy makers need an understanding of history if they are to grasp how and why they make the policies that they do, whether they could make them better, whether they should consider making different policies instead, and if so, what the impacts might be

Policies are often invested with the weight of history, which can make it both very necessary and very difficult to change them. My own field, the history of animal health, is relatively young in policy terms. The State Veterinary Service just celebrated its 150th anniversary – it’s a new kid on the block when compared to matters such as tax, national defence and the law. And yet policies instituted 150 years ago still shape the way we manage animal health today. It was then that the principle of controlling livestock traffic to prevent the spread of infectious diseases was embedded in policy, along with the slaughter of animals exposed to highly infectious diseases or those which put human health at risk. These same principles and policies are responsible for many of the controversies that have surrounded livestock health in the 21st century, for while these have remained largely the same, the world around them has changed dramatically.

The unprecedented slaughter of over 10m livestock in the 2001 FMD epidemic, the intractable problem of finding a publicly acceptable solution to the bovine tuberculosis problem, and thorny questions of who can trade in what animal products to whom, all result from decisions made well over a century ago. In showing the circumstances under which those policies came into being, history prompts questions about whether those circumstances are still relevant today. At the same time, by revealing how policies have shaped businesses, careers and expectations, history reveals the difficulties in effecting change, the impossibility of starting afresh, however logical it may seem.

History isn’t just concerned with understanding what’s old about policy. It can also help policy-makers to grapple with new initiatives – if only to point out that in fact, they aren’t new at all. One of the many things that historians are good at is identifying out historical precedents. That doesn’t mean that we can offer exact templates for action: it’s impossible to extrapolate direct lessons from past to present. But in looking at what worked in the past, what didn’t work, and why, we are able to flag up some of the things that policy makers need to be aware of in shaping current and future policy. For example, in my own field, it is generally assumed to be self-evident that disease prevention is better than cure. Who could possibly dispute it? Yet history’s record shows that policies intended to promote preventive behaviours have often run into difficulties in the past, that on the ground, cure was, and most likely will continue to be practised in preference to disease prevention, for reasons that might seem spurious from afar, but were seen as perfectly legitimate by the people concerned.

Taking such lessons on board shows that if the government is serious about evidence-based policy, or evidence-informed policy, then it needs to regard historians as key providers of evidence, and to show willingness to learn the lessons of the past. It is encouraging that in my own field, policy makers have gradually come to realise that decisions about animal health aren’t just technical decisions: they involve real people, and therefore the natural sciences don’t have a monopoly on evidence. On account of this outlook, I was granted the opportunity several years ago for a short secondment in Defra, where I shadowed the dCVO. The presence of a historian did raise eyebrows, but it was a very productive experience all round. They learned something about the value of history, and I gained a fascinating insight into how policies are made, and the context in which my research findings might prove useful.

On the strength of that experience, I’d like to express my wholehearted support for the Historians in Residence initiative, and my hope that as many of you as possible will take advantage of the opportunities it offers connect up history and policy.

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