George Orwell

‘Future focused’ not stuck in the past: Study History because we don’t know what’s going to happen next

As we approach the end of another year I thought I’d reflect on what, if anything we might learn from the events of 2017. This has been (another) tumultuous annum with terrorism, the threat of nuclear war, and political turmoil at home and abroad. What I’d like to discuss though, is the value of History as a discipline and the dangers posed by the circulation of fake news and other forms of misinformation.

I’d like to start however, with something I heard on the radio last week. This was an interview aired on Radio Four’s PM show with Sebastian Balfour, historian and Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at LSE. In the course of Eddie Mair’s interview Professor Balfour explained that told his undergraduates that ‘history is about the future, politics is about the past’.

He suggests, a little tongue in cheek perhaps, that social sciences (like sociology, anthropology and political science) have largely based their studies on looking at the past, at past societies, which is then used a way of predicting the future. History, he argues, ‘warns as that the future is not predictable in any way’. The great events of the past are the result of the ‘coming together’ of so many unforeseeable and ‘totally unexpected processes’ and ‘individual decisions’.

I like his analysis because it seems to chime loudly in the modern world. Few political pundits predicted that Donald Trump could actually win the presidency because they weren’t looking in the right places for the clues. David Cameron’s attempt to solve a ‘little local difficulty’ in the Conservative Party gave millions of previously disenfranchised Britons the opportunity to stick it to the metropolitan elites and the European bureaucrats. Across the world we have seen the rise of the Far Right, of extremist religion and populism, all defying the rational logic of very well educated and very well-paid commentators and ‘experts’.

Indeed 2016 and 2017 have been synonymous with the marginalisation of the expert. The psephologists got it wrong in 2015 and 2017 and (mostly) in Brexit and indeed abroad. Guessing the results of elections had assumed the status of a science but recent events have relegated it back to being an art, akin to predicting the outcome of a horse race or even the effects of the planets on our love life.

Of course, there will be some reading this who will claim to know all of this was going to happen. I thought Trump would get in because I have a deep seated (and possibly unfair) low opinion of Americans. Hilary was poor candidate and a woman. Trump was white, sexist, offensive, and racist; a shoe-in in some parts of the USA.

None of what has happened was predictable however and Historians should know that. I think my study of the past (spent mostly it has to be said in the courtrooms of the 18th and 19th centuries) tells me a lot about how people interacted and what they valued and feared. This in turn reveals that while our Georgian or Victorian ancestors didn’t have television, the internet or mobile phones they shared very much more with ourselves than we often consider to be the case.

The people that turned up in the metropolitan police courts that I write about daily, as defendants, victims, police officers or witnesses, were largely just like you and I. They were generally trying to survive in a changing and sometimes scary world, where bad people did bad things, and good people tried to stop them. They had hopes and fears, and they loved and lost, laughed and cried.

The vast majority of people were significantly worse off than the small minority who owned most of the wealth. Society was deeply unequal just as it remains today. History helps me understand the present and its problems very well because it shows me that humanity has been exploiting each other for centuries. Prejudice and xenophobia – both rife in modern Britain – were present in the 1800s as well. Waves of immigrants (from Ireland and Eastern Europe in particular) were marginalised, caricatured, and discriminated against.

The poor were demonised because they were, well, poor basically. They were a burden on the parish (today it is the tax payer’s state) and their poverty and need seen as a personal failing. The only way to incentivise the poor men like Owen Chadwick believed, was to threaten them with the workhouse if they had the audacity to ask for help. Today the ‘benefit scrounger’ will only be ‘helped’ if we remove his benefits and force him to take any job, however menial.

However, if you want to incentivise a rich person you need to pay him more for doing exactly the same as he was doing before. This is capitalist logic.

Marx (Karl not Groucho) argued (and I paraphrase) that it is in the economic interest of the capitalist to pay his workers as little as possible, just enough, in fact, to keep them alive and productive.

I’m not a Marxist (no one is since the Berlin Wall came down – not even John MacDonald and Jeremy Corbyn, despite what the Daily Mail  tells us). But I do think Marx’s explanation of the economic system he saw operating and developing in the nineteenth century is valid today. Even the growth of the ‘gig economy’ and zero-hour contracts is explained by Marx’s critique of capital.

Finally then I want to turn to the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and misinformation. None of this is new of course. This year the BBC unveiled a statue of George Orwell outside Broadcasting House in London. Orwell understood the value of propaganda and misinformation. He had lived through the Second World War and seen Hitler and Stalin’s propaganda machines in full flow, he even worked for one himself, the good old BBC. Orwell’s 1984 was a chilling vision of the future when it was published in 1948, it’s almost become a handbook for misleading the people today.

There is so much news now and so many ways to disseminate and receive it that it is becoming harder and harder for those that want to, to control it. More and more (as Boris Johnson’s trip to Moscow this week shows) it is becoming ‘weaponised’; a tool in the armoury of warring states and political activists. Isis use fake news, the Russian state uses fake news, the Far Right uses fake news, and now it has permeated ordinary daily life. The British press daily carry false news stories, just as the American press does. Donald Trump selects which bits of news he wants to believe or to ignore, the revelations about cabinet ministers and their extra-curricular activities are dismissed as inventions by the police, or held up as evidence of corruption and nepotism in high office.

So who are we to believe? Believe no one? Trust nobody?

That would make for a very scary world (if a world with Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump could get any scarier that is). I think we have to educate ourselves and our children so that we are equipped with the tools we need to make sense of what we are being told. The study of History as a discipline gives students the tools they need to unpick the words of tyrants and demagogues; to cut through the rhetoric of clever wordsmiths and orators; to work out who is telling us stuff and why they want us to believe it (as Hilary Mantel recently noted).

So if you have a son or daughter who is thinking of going to university to study a subject that will help them survive and prosper in the 21st Century send them to me and my team at the University of Northampton’s History department and I promise that they will get the chance to question the world around them, understand what they are being told, and learn the skills they need to make up their own minds about what the future might bring.

Merry Christmas and a Happy (if unpredictable) New Year 2018!

                                      Drew Gray (Head of History, University of Northampton)


*other History departments are available.




DIY Digitisation and Ownership of the Past

Whatever new fads and fashions there are in the study of history (and believe it or not there are many happening all the time) one thing has remained in place since the revolutionary work of Leopold Von Ranke and the German school of history in the late nineteenth century: the use of primary sources dating from the period we are studying.

These might be official government documents, personal correspondence and diaries, images, recorded interviews or (as has been the fashion recently) objects. These things are our link to the past, helping us make sense of what people thought and felt. They allow us to inhabit the past, the same spaces as our historical subjects inhabited (in a literal sense when we touch the same documents they created). They are what makes history interesting and exciting.

As a historian I see no other method of enquiry – yes people are writing less (or zero) letters and ‘we’ll all be searching the web and using metadata in the future.’ But one way or another we will have to make direct contact with our past through some kind of evidence, otherwise it will be lost to us, which could have grave consequences.

George Orwell warned of the dangers of losing contact with the past in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The main protagonist, Winston Smith, works on historical records for the ruling party in this dystopian future, altering  the past in accordance with Party policy, at the same time trying to remember his own past, lost in a pre-fabricated illusion un-anchored in time and space.

Historians must explore the past and they must be open about what they find, however awkward this may be for others – this is as true of social, economic and cultural history as it is of political and diplomatic history.

Winston Smith.jpg

John Hurt as Winston Smith in the film 1984 (1984) 


Primary sources, then, must continue to be our historical material. But changes have been afoot for the past ten years or so in the methods by which we collect these documents. Advances in digital camera technology and a relaxation(ish) of attitudes to photography in archives have allowed historians (and anyone else who cares to bother) to digitally copy and ‘remove’ huge amounts of historical evidence from the archives.

This process of ‘DIY Digitisation’ has been revolutionary for some, and for others at least a significant change in academic practice. Not all historians now work in archives on their documents, some choose to make flying visits, fill their memory cards, and work on the documents at home. Many archives now bear more resemblance to photography studios than quiet spaces for historical enquiry.

Copyright rules and rules of privacy and ethics still remain central to what historians do in archives and with their documents, quite rightly so. But the fact remains that historians ‘own’ these documents in practical, if not legal terms. They have them ‘saved’ on their computers, available to them at any time (when they aren’t teaching, ‘doing some admin’, sitting in meetings…). In a world becoming more ‘digital’ on a day-to-day basis these documents are becoming more real to us – I know this having used this method for the past ten years and having been on that journey myself.

The documents can be consulted and re-consulted at the whim of the researcher, not at the behest of an archivist, and this is a game-changer. It isn’t just about ‘convenience’, it’s about access. Historians of material culture may argue their preference is to see, touch and feel their objects and many do. But many also rely on images of their objects and capture these for similar reasons – so that they can revisit them.

Charges applied to digital photography in archives (not all but many) are an indication of the contestations going on around the ‘ownership’ of these documents, the purposes of archives in physical buildings and the primacy of archive-researcher in the whole process as recent examinations of the issues have shown Learning to let go: Ownership, rights, fees and permissions of readers’ photographs. Given the mass exodus of documents from archives it seems to be a contest that historians are well equipped for.

Perhaps this is a good thing – history should be ours, it is our history and all history, whether secret communications between Churchill and Roosevelt or the correspondence of families in the eighteenth century, is in the public interest. Interesting things are often revealed when documents emerge from the shadows. Just yesterday we learnt that the Queen has invested (offshore) in some companies with questionable portfolios and ethical practices thanks to the leaked ‘Paradise Papers’ Paradise Papers leak reveals Duchy of Lancaster put money into retailer criticised for exploiting poor families. Oh, and Bono bought a Lithuanian supermarket in-between saving the world from poverty U2 frontman was investor in firm based in island nation where foreign investors pay 5% tax on profits, Paradise Papers show

Clearly these matters have more immediate political resonance than the culinary habits of a seventeenth century clergyman, but it all adds up to something bigger than the parts and it is all ours (or should be). I believe that digitisation can potentially have a democratising and liberating impact on our understanding of the past. We are still subject to the rules of archives on access, lots of documents remain unavailable. Some of this material is drip-fed to us by others in the form of online databases, but any of us can now ‘own’ historical documents (again if not legally then in an everyday sense of access) by copying them ourselves and potentially in quite large volumes.

We should beware, of course, that this does not interfere with our professional practice as historians. Reading sources ‘at leisure’ has the potential to loosen and de-formalise the process of document analysis. In his classic examination of the discipline, What is History (1961) E. H. Carr warned against ‘common-sense history’:

‘History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.’

This reminds us that digitisation has not ‘changed everything’ and the fundamental rules and dangers of the game apply. But the way we ‘take them home’ has changed and is, I believe, changing what we can get from the documents and expanding our field of vision as historians. Orwell’s future was dystopian and clearly there are lots of concerns around the digitisation of our lives. But we can take ownership of some of it and the study of history seems like a good place to start.

Mark Rothery, Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century History

If you would like to read a more extended piece on DIY Digitisation and find out more about my experiences of the process follow this link to my online article DIY Digitisation in the Study of Social History . You will find a range of other papers on the subject linked from that page.