Why Do Politicians Care About the Opinions of Future Historians?

16 01 2019

Prior to her historic defeat last night, Theresa May has urged her MPs to support her Brexit or risk being condemned by the historians of the future. According to the headline in the Metro, “Theresa May has claimed that future historians will accuse MPs of failing the British people” by not implementing Brexit.

When I first read May’s words about future historians, I laughed. I thought her attempts to evoke fear of incurring the wrath of future (unnamed) historians were amusing when one considers that actual historians, like other academics, overwhelmingly supported Remain. Since the future historians May worries about will likely be the protegees of today’s historians, an anti-Brexit stance will probably inform how most future books cover Brexit unless it turns out that Brexit was a smart move after all. Most historians tend to have centre-left worldview, but since the British left is itself split over the issue of Brexit, there may be some future historians, especially those from the Marxist hard left, who write books that depict the Brexiteers in a positive light. (There are also some centre-right historians, typically in the US, but they are appalled by Brexit because they view it as victory for Russian interests).

After my initial reaction to May’s words had passed, it occurred to me that it is indeed useful for politicians to worry about what future historians will say about them just as I think it is useful for people who handle cash to imagine they are being monitored by the boss. There is some research that shows that when people believe they are being observed (either by other humans or some omniscient deity), they behave more ethically. However, I then realised that some of history’s worst criminals were also intently worried about what future historians would think about them. Hitler, for instance, expressed concerns about this very issue. Of course, Hitler was projecting his own warped value system onto the imagined historians who were to sit in judgement of him.  (Similarly, belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful god does not preclude people from committing genocide if they believe that such actions are what the god expects them to do). So maybe it isn’t a good thing for politicians to worry about the verdict of future historians.

I then got thinking about the empirical question of why a politician would care about what future historians would think of their actions. It is easy to understand why a politician would care about the voters think about their actions, since the politician wants to get re-elected. However, I don’t quite know why a mortal politician would care about the opinion that some future historian will render.  I’m therefore wondering if there is any published research on the issue of why political leaders appear to worry about how future historians will judge them. Is there any relevant psychological research that speaks to this question? Also, does anybody know when politicians first began using phrases like “history will judge us” or “future historians will condemn us if…”

If any of my readers have answers to these questions, I would appreciate a response in the comments section below.


Update: I just had the following email from a follower of this blog

That’s an intriguing question, Andrew. I put ‘future historians’ into Google ngrams, and it showed some interesting results, with a peak in the early 1940s (I wonder why… ?). The problem is then going through all the ngram references to find the use of the phrase by politicians, e.g. see the FDR reference, third down in the 1935-1947 group, explaining what Woodrow Wilson said to him in 1917…  
And of course British colonial officials abandoning African countries were very concerned about ‘future historians’ and destroyed many papers.







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