Lessons from history…but which ones?

So, that was the election. It wasn’t like Harold Wilson in 1964 or 19 74. It was more like John Major in 1992, wasn’t it?  Does that mean Cameron will face the same struggle with backbenchers over an EU referendum as Major did with the so-called ‘bastards’ over Maastricht? Will Miliband’s hubristic pledge stone come to be seen to be Kinnock’s “We’re alright!” at the pre-election rally in Sheffield?

These are entertaining debating points, but the various centenaries of WW1 that are being commemorated and explored this year matter more and remind us that history is a process. The causes of WW1 have be identified, debated, redefined and debated again seemingly endlessly. Many of the things that we “knew” about the First World War have been exposed as myths such as ‘lions led by donkeys’. The “Oh, what a lovely war” caricature has been exposed by the evidence that the generals were personally brave, understood their men and were ready to innovate and adapt.

This is important. It is significant because we are often looking to learn lessons and to support a course of action. We tend, for instance, to classify threats into ones that need to be confronted (like WW2, where appeasement did not work) and ones where we need to avoid unnecessary confrontation (arguably WW1 when nations were sleepwalking into a conflict). Getting it wrong can be disastrous: Blair and Bush persuaded us that Hussein in the 1990s was analogous to Hitler in the 1930s. Whereas Hitler was neither weak nor deterred, Saddam Hussein was both weak and deterred.

We are continually using history to make sense of so much of our lives – from the trivial to the serious. Even if you are not interested much in history, others will be using it – whether it’s Scottish nationalism or making sense of conflicts such as Ukraine. But history is misused and abused: sometimes unconsciously (we may be unaware of our own ignorance or prejudices) and sometimes consciously (when we pick and choose the evidence).

Margaret Macmillan, a professor of history at the University of Oxford who has written acclaimed books about the causes and consequences of the First World War, has also written a brilliant book, full of wisdom and insight: The Uses and Abuses of History. 1. This book should be compulsory reading for all the newly elected MPs and should become recommended reading for leaders and decision-makers in business and the public sector. The book is well written and short, so there is no excuse.

The use and abuse of history is something we should hold in mind in our professional and personal lives. It should teach us humility, scepticism and an awareness of ourselves. It should teach us to challenge assumptions, to ask where is the evidence and what other explanations are there? As Margaret Macmillan concludes: “always handle history with care.”

1 Margaret Macmillan, The Uses and Abuses of History, Profile Books, 2009

Meet the author

Ian Bennett

Ian Bennett

Ian is an expert in change management, efficiency reviews, business cases and costing in the public sector. Ian has over 30 years of experience of working in the public sector, as a civil servant, an auditor and as a consultant, covering central and local government, defence,… Read more »