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Primary sources: What would Maggie Thatcher have said?

Updated Friday 12th December 2008

Why history students should know better than to take old documents at face value

I’ve been teaching history for quite a while now, at several different levels and for various institutions, so a large number of students have had my techniques and quirks forced upon them. What always startles me, though, is the extent to which so many people, perhaps studying history in depth for the first time, treat materials produced in the past (in other words, our primary sources) as if they were repositories of unvarnished truth.

When asked to comment on, say, a letter describing the new poor law of 1834 from one of its commissioners, I am stunned at how many students will give a reply that pretty much equates to, “because he said the new law was working well and all the paupers were industrious and happy, we can confidently say the new law was working well and all the paupers were industrious and happy”.

New Poor Law poster Creative commons image Icon Wikimedia under Creative-Commons license
New Poor Law poster, 1834.

Now, of course, you and I know that that simply wasn’t the case. The New Poor Law had its successes, for certain, but it also caused numerous cases of human misery by confining the destitute to workhouses. What concerns me, however, is not that students of history (I include myself) sometimes find it difficult to describe the complex manifestations of past life, but that most students repeat such things despite that they are – rightly – people who would never take the word of a politician, a bureaucrat, or a journalist at face value today.

Unless we presume that individuals in the past were markedly more inclined to present the objective truth – and, trust me, on the whole they weren’t – there is just no way of squaring that circle. On reflection, I suppose that this is one of the dangers of working in a discipline that encourages its scholars so avidly to criticise its basic materials. When faced with a source that supports my interpretation of how things happened, I guess I have been from time to time guilty myself of assuming its truth too easily.

When tempted into such complacency, though, I find that Margaret Thatcher’s voice will sometimes cut in to prod me out of it. I’m no fan of the Iron Lady, I must say, but a phrase of hers (a common enough phrase, in fact, but for some reason it’s always delivered in her voice in my mind) has stuck with me. It was back in the late 1980s, and Neil Kinnock had just made a statement about some aspect of Tory policy, to which Thatcher, on being asked about it, had replied – somewhat to the surprise of her interviewer, who had probably expected a more considered response – “well, he would say that, wouldn’t he.”

It scarcely matters what the policy issue was and whether it was Kinnock or Thatcher who had truth on their side; in any case, I’ve forgotten the details. The point is that this phrase is the pith of critical source analysis. There are, naturally, more questions to ask, and deeper rummaging required, but essentially if one bears “well, he would say that, wouldn’t he” in mind then it’s hard to go too far awry.

So, if we did read a report from one of the poor law commissioners saying how splendidly the law was working in the 1840s, then, well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? After all, he would presumably want to keep his job. The same phrase applies to pretty much any source; it doesn’t have to be a text.

Ever wondered why we have so few pictures of ugly princes from the medieval period? Well, artists would paint like that, wouldn’t they, if they wanted to avoid an unpredictable burst of regal displeasure. (Unless, of course, the image was a piece of propaganda generated by a royal opponent: but even then the same phrase applies.)

Maggie optimistically wanted British citizens to be more thrifty and entrepreneurial, and I’m afraid she failed miserably in my case; but, in another way, she’s managed to keep me on the straight-and-narrow. Looking back on what I’ve just written, however, I realise that it sounds rather harsh on the students that I’ve taught over the years. I want, therefore, to make it absolutely clear that none of that criticism could ever be applied to Open University students. But, well…

Taking it further

If the above blog has intrigued you, you may also find the following resources from the Open University to be of interest:

Exploring history: medieval to modern 1400-1900
The problems and methodologies of history – including how to analyse primary sources correctly – are well covered in this OU course, which gives students a very broad introduction to the study of history. It highlights three big historical themes – changing beliefs, producers and consumers, and state formation – and looks at how they altered from the medieval period through to the nineteenth century. Amongst the topics covered are slavery and the slave trade, the European Reformations, Imperialism, the French Revolution, and the Wars of the Roses.

History for 50p
One of my previous blogs also investigates coping with primary sources.


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