Why History Matters


History and Informed Leadership

History matters because it can form the basis of informed leadership. A lack of historical understanding can also contribute to poor decisions. It is not that the past is a direct guide to the present, or that we can use history to avoid the mistakes of the past. New situations are always unique. Political leaders, however, are often too eager to see only the elements of the past which suit their present day views and ignore the full and complex picture which a really good understanding of the past can provide.

The historian Professor John Tosh, author of ‘Why History Matters’, illustrated this importance when he analysed the failure (in his opinion) of the British Prime Minister of the time, Tony Blair, to consider the lessons of history when he decided to commit troops to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As Tosh states:




A photography of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waving to spectators from an open-top car.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waves to spectators from an open-top car on the way to meet Adolf Hitler in Munich, September 1938. (Photo by Hugo Jaeger/Timepix/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

"My own practice as a historian has always been informed by an awareness of the social and political purchase of historical knowledge - first as an Africanist naively aspiring to equip a new nation with part of its history, and later as a British gender historian concerned to historicize the essentialist notions of masculinity which were current in the 1980s. But the writing of this book was prompted by more recent experience.

For me the Iraq War was a wake-up call. Here was a crisis which manifestly had its roots in the past. Yet during the long lead-up to the invasion in 2003, there was almost no attempt to uncover that past in the media. Instead the British public were repeatedly told that Saddam Hussein was another Hitler - in spite of the fact that analogies which leap over both time and space are the least illuminating. Little was said about the earlier British occupation of Iraq in 1914 and the ensuing attempt to rule the country through a puppet ruler (as pointed out by Beverley Milton-Edwards). There was constant unrest in the country - met by the deployment of RAF bombers as a routine arm of the administration - until the British relinquished overall control in 1934. At the very least such a perspective would have brought sharply into focus the risk of continued insurgency and instability in post-invasion Iraq.

In public government ministers dismissed the merits of historical perspective: Tony Blair told the US Congress in July 2003, 'There has never been a time.... when, except in the most general sense, a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day'. What we have been told of Cabinet deliberations suggests an engagement with history which was only a little less superficial. Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this episode is that there was so little appetite for historical enlightenment among the public. It was as if the bearing of historical perspective on issues of urgent concern was lost on the British people, indicating a political culture in which there was less readiness than ever to draw intelligently on the past."

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If you find Tosh’s arguments convincing then it is not difficult to see how the Churchill Archive collections could provide useful historical perspectives on present day tensions. For example, relations between the UK and the USA and Russia are tense at the moment. It is not difficult to see from documents like the one below that these tensions have a long history. The past may not offer solutions but it does help to illustrate the nature of the problem and the reasons for its long-running nature. For example, the extracts below show us how the British government was in close contact with and providing help to General Yudenitch in Russia in 1920-21. The British were helping one side in a civil war which was taking place in Russia. The other side were the Communists, who eventually won. It is hardly surprising that they viewed Britain’s support for the other side with suspicion. The second extract shows that the mutual suspicion did not dissipate even after many years.

Want to zoom in, download or print any of the following documents? Schools can benefit from additional functionality by registering for free access to the complete Churchill Archive here.



Available to view with free access to the Churchill Archive:

View notes and minutes by Sir Archibald Sinclair, Secretary of State for War, 1920


Available to view with free access to the Churchill Archive:

View Reader's Digest article by Max Eastman, 1943

Another current issue in British and American political life is the so-called ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the USA. British and American leaders are quick to emphasise the closeness of the alliance between the two states, but a historical perspective reminds us that even at its closest during the Second World War, the ‘special relationship’ was not without its tensions.

"The political relationship between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt is one of the most celebrated in British and American history. The two men are widely credited with crafting the Anglo-American 'special relationship' that helped propel the Allies to victory during the Second World War. Yet, as this article shows, the relationship between the two men - and their two nations - was not without its difficulties. There were tensions; tensions over a host of issues from wartime strategy to the make-up of the post-war economic order. Nor did the two men always see eye to eye on the question of how best to deal with the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the bonds that were established between Churchill and Roosevelt would not only survive the stress of war, but also lay the basis for the strong ties that still exist between the British and American people."

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