Snow and ice. Britain grinding to a halt. Unofficial strikes. Unemployment rising to its highest level in over a decade. A culture of complaint in the media. Doubts over Britain’s relationship to Europe. A Prime Minister widely seen as out of touch. The British government seemingly exhausted after twelve years in office. A general election less than two years away. If this all sounds familiar then either you have an exceptional memory or you’ve temporarily forgotten that this is a history blog. Because, of course, I’m talking about 1963.
Now, because of the superficial parallels between 1963 and 2009, you might well think that this blog is going to harp on the common maxim that history always repeats itself. In fact, I don’t think that is true in the great majority of cases. However, the reason I started with that list is to show just how seductive the idea is, and how difficult to challenge. Because, on seeing those ostensibly startling parallels, there emerges a temptation to map the trajectory of 1963-64 onto 2009-10 and to make some predictions based on what happened in the past. Forty-six years ago, the government apparently became mired in ‘sleaze’, antagonised its core supporters, scuppered its relations with the EEC, and subsequently lost the 1964 election to a rejuvenated opposition. All too easy to see how that pattern might repeat itself, right?
Alec Douglas-Home, Prime Minister (1963)
Wrong. Whilst that’s one possibility – it is very possible that the Labour Party will lose the next election, for instance – I sincerely doubt that it’s a likely one. If it does, though, then it will be caused by contemporary circumstances; it will not be because history circles around in an unending groove. To understand why, we need two things essential to the historian: intimacy and distance.
The past was different from today. This might sound pretty damn obvious, but it’s surprising how many people don’t take it into consideration. Explaining just how it was different is one of the historian’s jobs; unsurprisingly, we get a bit peeved when journalists and various other commentators seek to do it for us by looking for lazy parallels like the 1963 one. By intimacy, I meant that we must look very closely at the past, to show how it was unlike today. Let’s take some of the points I made above. The winter in 1963 was actually more severe and the snow lasted longer than it is likely to now. Most of the major wildcat strikes in that period were the result of the government’s attempt to impose an incomes policy – they were principally about wages, not jobs. Relations with the Common Market were scuttled by General de Gaulle, not by anything done by administration or public on this side of the channel. Unemployment was generally not tolerated to the extent that it is in 2009: in fact, the figure for those out of work was barely over 600,000. The Prime Minister was replaced, through ill health, later in 1963. And finally, though the government lost the election of 1964, a four-seat majority was hardly a lively endorsement of the opposition. That’s a snap-shot, of course, but nonetheless even from this list we can see that 2009 is far from being a mirror of 1963, whatever the superficial resemblance. Symptoms, to put it another way, are not causes.
Distance, too, is important, because by standing back and viewing the whole vista of the past, we can see how the neat congruence of factors that offer parallels across time may be obscuring other realities. A media culture of complaint, for example, has been a fairly constant escort to British society for a very long time. It may have reached rather shrill peaks in 1963 and again now, but, frankly since the Reformation, Britain has been off to hell in a handcart so often that it is somewhat surprising that the country has conspicuously failed to reach its destination. Other examples come readily to mind. Bar the severe winter and the imminence of a general election, practically every aspect that I outlined to begin with was present in 1981. The Falklands conflict resurrected Margaret Thatcher, but prior to the war the public generally saw her as out of touch, and she undoubtedly presided over a strike wave, a huge surge in unemployment, and magnificently frosty relations with the EEC. And, speaking of frost, Britain has ‘ground to a halt’ under a spell of bad weather pretty regularly in the past – 1947, in the midst of savage rationing and production problems, springs to mind – but it has never generated the level of criticism that would fatally wound a government. The phenomena with which I started have appeared periodically throughout history, at least in the democratic age. Sometimes a handful of them have occurred simultaneously, but they have never brought about exactly the same outcomes.
But I like to be even-handed, and I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that historical parallels are at all times bunkum. One thing that recurs consistently in history is the sort of generic lunacy that occasionally grips the human character. Cupidity is a good stimulant of this – so, in a way, the South Sea Bubble of 1720, the railway mania of the 1840s, and the dot.com boom of the 1990s are instances, in a broad sense, of history repeating itself. But even in those cases, we must understand that the circumstances, and the outcomes, of each were somewhat different.
Perhaps a rather more useful way of employing historical parallels is to challenge those policymakers, and I do not mean only politicians, who would serve us up re-heated pottage. So, if a long forgotten policy is suddenly revived by a bright young thing, keen to make his or her mark on the world, it is incumbent upon the historian to ask, ‘if it didn’t work in 1952 (or whatever date), then why should it work now?’ There may be reasons why it could work now – nothing in history is inevitable and, as we’ve seen, it rarely repeats itself – but the question is important to ask nonetheless.
Ultimately, the point I’m trying to make here is to watch out for the easy analogy and the casual comparison – and to shoot them down when spotted. An onerous task, no doubt, but nevertheless one that allows the barely concealed show-off in every historian to shine.
Taking it further
If the above blog has interested you, you may also find the following resources from the Open University to be of interest:
Power, dissent, equality: understanding contemporary politics
This course invites you into the world of politics in a fresh and accessible way, using a wide variety of case studies drawn from the UK and beyond. It sheds light on the inner workings of power, decision making, and protest. It covers politics from parliament to the street, and the politics of ideas as well as institutions.
My earlier blog covers other common history ‘howlers’.