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23rd December 2022

2022 Highlights: Sir David Lidington – ‘History trains the imagination’

Sir David Lidington, the former de facto No. 2 in the May administration, talks about how a history degree has helped him in his political career

Certain traits define an aptitude for elected politics, and I’ve tended to find they can be aided by a study of history. One useful aptitude would be fascination with human beings – what makes them tick, and how power is exercised. Secondly – regardless of whether you come from the left, right, or center – almost everyone I’ve met in politics starts with a commitment to changing things for the better in their country. To do that, it helps to know what injustices have existed in the past.

There’s a third thing, and I would say it also separates the natural politician from the civil servant: a certain zest for the theatre. Politics involves a willingness to take risk, and to be prepared to stand on the stage at the end, and not know whether you’ll have a standing ovation or a bag of rotten tomatoes slung at you. The natural civil servants shy away from that but what’s interesting is you sometimes see a politician who’s really a civil servant – and then a mandarin who’s really a politician. The thespian is striving to get out there.

The wonderful thing about history is that it trains the imagination: when you start to really delve into history – and read deeply as well as widely in a particular era – you find people in the past had various assumptions and moral codes that can be very different from how we operate today. For example, for people living in 1800 or 1850 the idea that there was going to be this industrial revolution, and transformative migration of people to cities, and a growth of urban conurbations – that’s something which some might have predicted, but by no means everyone. Training of the imagination is important.

History also teaches you how to use and assess evidence. Particularly in postgraduate study, you have to go back to original source material and assess the reliability of it. You look at state papers, which by and large deal with high politics and the people at the top. But if you go to legal records, there you find out about yeomen and merchants – the people who went on Chaucer’s pilgrimage to Canterbury all crop up as plaintiffs or defendants.

Another applicable aspect of history was borne in on me when I was Europe Minister. I visited about 40 countries from Russia and Turkey, to the South Caucasus and Iceland. If you want to understand today’s political outlook you have to understand what happened in the past. What are the demons they still fear? What are the experiences that have shaped the outlook of a particular society today?

For instance, I have long felt that the tension that has always existed between the UK and the EU derived in large measure from contrasting experiences and lessons in the mid- 20th century. For most of Europe this was a period of disaster when national institutions all failed in the face of tyranny, invasion and ethnic hatred. From the EU perspective, therefore you have to build up those institutions to stop anything happening again.

Another example would be China. I remember a few years ago, I met Xi Jinping’s number two, and he started out with this recital about the Opium Wars and how China had been attacked in the 19th century because it was weak and the European powers had exploited her. Hearing that, I began to understand why they see the world as they do today. They feel a need to put right the century of humiliation and to restore China’s place as a global power. One needn’t necessarily agree with that – but you have to understand how the other side thinks.

So history is a real asset in politics because you learn how human beings interact with each other, how relationships and power is mediated through institutions, and what lies behind the motivation of countries and individuals. How a Tudor court operates is good for understanding all about access in No.10 Downing Street. Now you have your special advisers rather than Grooms of the Stole or royal pages. Think about Elizabeth I. Who was it who could actually get in to see the monarch and be sure you got your bit of paper in front of her? Likewise, today – who can get something in the prime minister’s box? Patterns reproduce.

One of the most difficult things for government or for the man or woman who’s prime minister is finding time to regenerate yourself and your government while in office. There are always things pressing in. For me the great prime minister of the 19th century was Robert Peel: he was prepared to change his mind when the facts had changed. If you look at how he moved on Catholic Emancipation and on the Corn Laws and trade you can see that he took decisions based on what he thought was right for the country even at the fatal cost to his own political fortunes. Disraeli was vastly entertaining, but Peel was the greater man and the greater prime minister.

 David Lidington was deputy prime minister under Theresa May and is now Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath

Read Sir David Lidington’s advice on handling the stress of a high-pressure job here

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