Durham Academics Q&A One

Dr David Craig

Associate Professor of Modern European History

Member of the Centre for the History of Political Thought


What is the relationship between History and Politics? Why is it important we use History to inform Politics?

The relationship between the disciplines of History and Politics has evolved considerably. In its early days in the late nineteenth century, Political Science had a close connection to History, and it was considered normal for political scientists to think historically. Over the course of the twentieth century new methods in social science – inspired in part by positivism – tended to squeeze out historical perspectives. This meant that large parts of the discipline of Political Science have come to think of History as merely a source of data, offering little that is useful on its own terms. There are some signs of dialogue in this impasse, though it remains true that the division is a large one.

How did History inform Politics in the 18th and 19th centuries?

One way to think about this is to ask how in the past, politics was understood historically – this was, of course, part of the statesman’s training, where since the Renaissance it was assumed that historical knowledge (especially of the classical period) was essential to understanding the present. From the eighteenth century, the turn towards sociological history increasingly underpinned political thinking. So, in my period – the nineteenth century – there was an expectation that leading political figures could demonstrate relatively wide historical knowledge (though whether it would satisfy the requirements of the increasingly rigorous new historical practices is another matter). The Whig-Liberal politician Macaulay was also the best-selling author of The History of England, and Prime Ministers like Russell and Gladstone wrote historical works. So, there are lots of ways that history and politics were intertwined in the past. Some have suggested this connection has been lost, and that modern politicians are comparatively lacking in historical knowledge, and that policy advice could draw more adequately on history – hence the founding of History and Policy in 2002, and the recent call by Anthony Seldom for government departments to have a resident historian.

What is a useful way to incorporate History into Politics today?

Another way in which history can inform politics is less direct – this is where History becomes the tool of the sceptic. It can undermine the assumptions and preconceptions that structure our norms in the present (moral, political, aesthetic etc.) by showing them to be recent, contingent, or even confused. Historians of political thought have done much in this regard – careful attention to the history of, say, the state, or democracy, or representation, or liberty, can show modern thinking to be less securely grounded than we might think. And by unsettling our familiar stories about our present, we might open up spaces for thinking in different ways, and might even show that old debates are more relevant than we used to think. A good instance here is the work of the late Istvan Hont, who wrote on eighteenth-century political and economic thought and tried to argue that many contemporary problems in politics were better understood by returning to the great debates of that century, rather than going back to the nineteenth century and assuming that everything really began with Liberalism and Marxism.