Linkages - making archives relevant to policy making

The Maurice Bond Memorial Lecture, given to the British Records Association Annual Conference, 29 November 2011

I begin by saluting your bravery in inviting a politician to undertake such a prestigious and, indeed, respectable task. It is a remarkable achievement to have one's profession regarded as lower in public esteem than journalism, and I confess to being just a little bit gleeful at the current torrid proceedings of the Leveson enquiry! The least I can do this afternoon is to exhort archivists and their associates to peek over the parapet in the interests of enhancing the intellectual content of policy making at local and national levels. Thus, if not actually feeling the heat, you might at least get a whiff of the warm breath of exposure. In other words, I believe that you should be applied as well as pure.

Maurice Bond
Maurice Bond retired, alas, just two years before I arrived on the parliamentary scene. I should have liked to have met him, not least because I had a tremendous regard for the expertise and professionalism of parliamentary officers. To set one's hand to the plough and to serve the great institutions of our parliament for thirty-five years is, I believe, a sign of commitment rather than as too many of our contemporaries might suggest, a lack of ambition. We need more Maurice Bonds and fewer birds of passage.

I am not a practitioner of the records service but a mere client, although an increasingly importunate one. This lecture may well show my naivety as to what is available or even possible. I have to say that my experiences of the service are not universally pleasant, although where they are good they tend to be excellent. If, with all my decades dealing with the political processes, I sometimes find archives and archivists rather forbidding, heaven help those who do not cope easily with bureaucracy.

I am conscious of the astonishing progress made in making records available online. The ability to sit in front of one's computer and to read, for instance, census records and nineteenth century local newspapers on screen is a quite remarkable transformation. Nonetheless I believe that there is still a need for guides and mentors and that all too often we do not realise how baffling what is commonplace to the professionals can appear to amateurs.

Public policy - work in progress
We are living in an age of increasing superficiality. The possibility of immediate access to television, telephone, recorded music, the internet and to e-mails has seeded the curious idea that politics can be similarly immediate and that there is an instant solution to even the most complex of problems. The current passion for twitter is a vivid example of superficiality - how can any serious issue be dealt with in 140 characters? There is also, I believe, an increasing view amongst the young that history is not just "old" but that it really is "bunk."

As you might imagine, I take a very different view. I firmly believe that we ignore the lessons of history at our peril. Very few issues have no pedigree. Almost all of them have a resonance in the past and, what is more, have key lessons from the past that we ignore at our peril. To deal with the complexities of our present fiscal dilemmas as if they were unique is extremely foolish and, to some extent, we are paying the price of a lack of depth of understanding of philosophy, ie of the kind of society we want and we need, and of a lack of awareness of historical lessons. There is much published on Keynes' "general theory" of economics, both at the time as well as after the 1930s economic depression, but what I wonder would his papers and those of his colleagues reveal that is relevant to our problems today?

Enough of the politics! I make these points simply to set out a basis for the role I believe archives and archivists can and should play in policy development. The records we have, not least Cabinet records, political memoirs and statistical material, are crucial to the intellectual rigour required for the current political debate. All of us, but particularly the political class, have a duty to explain and to persuade, and to do so we need to have the arguments to hand and to be able to apply them seductively. History is not some optional extra; it is a vital underpinning of our society and its development.

If you want a current example of my case, just look at the situation in Greece! Paul Vallely wrote in The Independent on Sunday nine days ago:

This could be the worst crisis Greece has ever known, an over-excited reporter on the BBC opined the other day. There speaks a man without a history degree, riposted the broadcaster and historian Dan Snow. But you don't have to go back to the time when Alexander of Macedon massacred the Sacred Band of Thebans to find something worse. You could try 21 April 1967, when, on the eve of a general election, a group of right-wing army officers seized power in a coup d'etat after placing tanks in strategic positions around Athens and arresting top politicians and pretty much anyone they suspected might object.

The lack of a sense of history is palpable in many issues. Take health, for instance. Probably the best book on the dilemmas of the NHS was written by Enoch Powell some ten years after his experience as Minister of Health 1960-63, but what, I wonder, do his papers add to our understanding of his experience?

Immigration is invariably a fiery issue and, to a large extent, the debate is about figures rather than outcomes. What evidence is there, I wonder, of the lives of earlier immigrants and of their contribution to British society. There have been television programmes on the Empire Windrush immigrants from the Caribbean but what evidence might lie in the records on the Ugandan Asians' experience - business performance, directorships etc - following their high profile immigration from Idi Amin's Uganda? The programme Who do you think you are? has done us a good turn in showing what records are often available in unlikely places.

Similar exercises could and should be done in relation to housing and education. These are both subjects in which, over many decades, policy decisions have been taken in good faith but which have often had a very different outcome to that which was intended. Are there records, in newspapers of the period at least, not just of statistics but, more directly, of participants and their families, which could inform and underpin the policy debate and help those with the responsibility for today's decisions? Are there "voices," akin to Mass Observation, that can help us to understand what "community" means to individuals? The passion to clear the slums in Leeds led to the creation of huge council estates where physical degradation was replaced by soulless anonymity. The "streets in the sky" industrialised building was loved by architect but hated by tenants. A 1909 Leeds city council committee came down against high-rise flats but was not heeded. What records are there of those who lived in these properties and of their tenants' associations? What can the policy makers learn from the records?

The purpose of records
My argument here is not that records and archives are only valuable as an adjunct to the political process but that it is a role for records of which we are insufficiently aware.

Indeed, not only do I recognise that history is important for its own sake, but I have in recent years found myself becoming what I believe is called a "revisionist" historian! Preparing lectures, obituaries and book reviews is a very salutary experience! This is not only in relation to local history but does, in fact, cast new light on important national issues.

Also, in relation to the present economic crisis it is, for instance, salutary to look at the 1931 census and what light it can throw on today's employment problems. Might, for instance, the records show that our problems have their roots even more in global changes than is acknowledged? In Leeds, for instance, in 1931 there were 55,000 men and women employed in textiles and clothing. I doubt if there are 500 today. Can the economy if left to itself really create sufficient replacement employment for such numbers?

I have had a number of recent examples of local and national "received truths" upset by the careful study of the records. A recent exhibition of Gladstoniana at London's Reform Club was excellent but it repeated an old canard involving Leeds. Back in 1880 W E Gladstone stood for both Leeds and Midlothian in that year's general election. He never came to Leeds during the campaign but still finished top of the poll. He decided not to sit for Leeds and wrote a superbly diplomatic letter to the Leeds Liberals saying that he was conscious of the honour done to him by the electors of the city. However, he had decided to sit for Midlothian as it was clear from the election figures that Leeds was such a strong Liberal seat that anyone could hold it whereas Midlothian would need all his attention!

At the subsequent by-election Gladstone's youngest son, Herbert, stood and was elected unopposed, representing Leeds thereafter for thirty years. The Reform Club exhibition repeated the legend that this was a case of nepotism. In actual fact, it was far from it. The contemporary papers describe how that the local newspaper owner, Edward Baines, was nominated but that at Baines' adoption meeting a group at the back of the room said that they rather liked this young man, Herbert Gladstone, who had fought Middlesex unsuccessfully. This was greeted with acclamation and poor Baines found his adoption meeting hijacked!

The other national story which needs to be rewritten relates to the trials and tribulations of the first Labour government in 1924. Following the general election Labour was not even the leading party and, consequently, the Liberals as the third party had to maintain enough of its MPs permanently in the House whilst it was sitting in order to prevent the Conservatives, who had most MPs, suddenly calling votes. The Liberals complained bitterly that their sympathy for the government was being taken for granted and that they were never consulted. It was certainly the case that Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald wanted to use the situation to kill off the Liberal party but it is clear that there was no specific strategy designed to accomplish this and, in fact, the government fell on a vote of confidence on a very minor issue.

What the records show to be the case, and is not in the history books, is that it was purely and simply a failure of the whips. Vivian Phillips, the Liberal Chief Whip, was a novice. He was only elected in November 1922, becoming Chief Whip just three months later. Labour's Chief Whip, Ben Spoor, had more years of service but was an alcoholic and unable to cope with all the pressures. He was found dead four years later in his room at the Regent Place Hotel whilst still an MP though he had been declared insane a short while earlier. Had there been two experienced and capable Chief Whips the eventual outcome might well have been the same but I am convinced that the government would have lasted longer and achieved more.

The challenge for archivists and librarians
There is, of course, the primary responsibility to conserve and to catalogue records. There is a further responsibility to seek out and to drag records from the reluctant hands of significant individuals and - perhaps with even greater difficulty - from their heirs. I believe that archivists should be proactive in identifying potential sources of records, rather in the way Chris Cook has been with politicians, and to do battle with them for the sake of posterity.

Next the wonderful process of making records available on the internet must be supported and sustained.

Third, the catalogues of what is available need to be developed, together with as great and as easy an access as possible.

Fourth, the BRA should take a lead in identifying smaller but significant holders of records and should "hold hands" with them to bring their material into the public domain. I am involved with two such: the Leeds Library, founded in 1768 and the National Liberal Club founded in 1882. This may well need pump priming with a modicum of financial resources.

Fifth, the interface with the public needs to be looked at frankly and openly, without any reluctance to be criticised. I have found great help from librarians and archivists when contacted on line - some of whom are here today - but in all my various visits to archives and history libraries I have been treated with a variety of responses, ranging from a feeling that I am intruding on a private store to a cheerful direction to open access records, but very rarely has anyone ever approached me to ask how I was getting on and whether they could help me from their professional experience. There is much more that can be done - and it will make us the public very happy.

Finally, and the heart of my argument, those who have the care of records and who know their collections well, should ponder what there is available that can inform and aid our understanding of current issues and work with their political masters to encourage their use to improve the development of public policy. It is a worthy and worthwhile task.