Reflecting on the excellent Policy Stories workshop (and having overcome my awe at the groundbreaking work being done by my fellow attendees) it struck me that history has a somewhat different relationship to policy than the other disciplines which were represented, perhaps not least because our research subjects have usually been dead for a very long time. History tends not to offer tangible methods of improving the world, or concrete solutions to entrenched social problems. Historians write books and articles rather than creating art or music. We deal in evidence and arguments, not all of which are immediately accessible to others. The ultimate aim of the workshop – to pitch my work on fifteenth-century political culture to busy policymakers responsible for improving the lives of others – therefore appeared to be rather daunting.
In fact the workshop made me think very hard about just how beneficial the fruits of historical research can be to our society. Perhaps most obviously, historians can bring important insight into the way things have been done in the past. Whether we are discussing the dangers of untrammelled corporate power, the causes and effects of mass migration or the complex nature of European politics (to name only three very topical issues) there are historians who have examined the angles, heard the arguments and studied the evidence across different periods of time. My own work often connects to questions that are still being asked today – about the place of cities in the polity or the morality of rulers, for example – and that’s at over five hundred years’ remove. Taking the long view can offer an important perspective on the challenges facing society, by showing how they were met in the past.
History also has a unique relationship to stories. The workshop urged us to think about how we could present our research as a story, surely one of the most engaging ways of convincing people of its value. Historians certainly do need to use narrative to frame their work, and the best historians do this very well. Yet one of the first things we discourage in undergraduate classes is ‘telling the story of what happened’, because we want our students to be analytical in their approach to their source material, and to marshal a solid body of evidence with which to support their interpretation of historical events.
It is this academic rigour which allows historians to uncover the secrets of the past, but we can – and should – communicate the results of our work to as broad an audience as possible. This quite often involves turning our research back into a story again, and allowing people to engage with the highlights, rather than the details. This work is important because history provides a very accessible way of grappling with the big questions of our own time. In thinking about how the power of medieval kings could be limited by their subjects, for example, we raise questions about representation, legitimacy and consent which apply much more broadly. We can do the same for justice, wellbeing, freedom, democracy and myriad other ideas, across time. History therefore has the potential to create the kinds of conversations which policymakers might wish to have with the people they serve, by providing stories which contextualise the big policy questions.
So there is much that historians can offer both to policymakers and to those who wish to engage the public in discussions about the future of Scotland. History’s unique blend of evidence and storytelling means that it can provide not only an excellent medium through which to communicate, but also a treasure trove of precedents and examples which can be shared by all.