Thoughts on Historians and Public Policy in the UK and Canada

22 07 2013

AS: Jim Clifford, one of the founders of the website, posted a lengthy reply to my recent post about Ian Mosby and the place of historians in the public sphere. I’m posting my reply here. 

Hi Jim, is a great initiative. I didn’t realise it was inspired by History and Policy. You are right that’s quite different from H&P, which has several FTE employees. That’s not to say it doesn’t make a valuable contribution. I enjoy reading it.

You wrote that “I’m still interested in reviving the public policy goals of at some point in the future, but I think the History and Policy might take more funding that our site current operates on. History and Policy have staff members that can work to link historians with public policy makers and the media. There are a number of think tanks around Canada that might help us bridge our research with current policy issues, but we’d also need a critical mass of historians interested in this kind of work. Maybe Ian Mosby’s success, along with Sean Kheraj’s work on pipeline oil spills, will inspire others to think about how their research connects with current policy issues.”

You are right that this would take serious money. In translating History and Policy to the Canadian context, you would need to keep several things in mind.  Bilingualism is obviously one  important difference between Canada and the UK.  Federalism is another. History and Policy publishes on a vast range of topics, ranging from maternity care to water conservation to foreign policy. That’s because the UK is a unitary state and the MPs and journalists who have to think about local government one day have to think about Afghanistan the next. In Canada, we have two political classes, one federal, one provincial, that are interested in different sets of issues.

My suggestion is that you need to decide which level of government you are trying to serve or influence. Don’t try to publish papers on topics that are related to both federal (e.g., defence) and provincial jurisdiction (e.g., K-12 education), since people in provincial government won’t be interested in the defence stuff and people in Ottawa won’t care about daycare (Obviously there are some areas, such as agriculture, where jurisdictions overlap).

I would recommend focusing first on federal areas of jurisdiction, as there is likely to be more money for a website that is useful to federal policymakers. Of course, focusing on federal policy areas means that you have to have a symmetrically bilingual website, which will drive up your costs.

In starting out, you should assemble a board of directors that includes some really senior academics whose research interests mirror the main priority areas of the federal government.

One way of determining what these priority areas are is to do a word count of recent Throne Speeches.  Canadian Throne Speeches used to be about social policy, healthcare etc. Nowadays, they focus more on the nightwatchman functions of the state. See here. You might also look at a breakdown of what the federal government actually spends money on.

Another difference between Canada and the UK is that the UK is totally dominated by its capital, which the largest city, the base of all of the newspapers and TV stations, and the home of the stock exchange, etc. Many of the leaders in one field know each other.  In Canada, these functions are dispersed among several cities, which makes influencing policy a bit more difficult.   History and Policy is based smack in the centre of London and a short bus ride from “the Westminster Village.”

Moreover, the UK is still largely governed by a fraternity of graduates from just two universities (Oxford and Cambridge) where people form lifelong friendships and alliances.  That means there are lots of pre-existing linkages between academe, the civil service, the political class, the press, and so forth we [thankfully] don’t have in Canada, where leaders in these fields come a wider number of universities.  Canada’s more democratic social structure would make it harder for an organization  like History and Policy to influence policy there. You can have a look at short bios of all of the History and Policy staffers here.

Above all, ensure there is ideological and partisan balance in your board of directors. That way your budget will be stable regardless of which political party is in office. I also suggest that you have a mixture of academic historians and non-academics who are sympathetic to the application of history to public policy. The latter might include Hugh Segal, a Tory Senator, Sean Conway (an Ontario Liberal), Bill Graham (federal Liberal), and Chris Champion (Conservative, former Reformer). You should also ensure that the academic historians include a mixture of Canadianists and non-Canadianists.

If you want to contact me by email I can give some more specific advice and tell you a bit more about my abortive project.

Your wrote: “One more note, Histoire sociale/Social History has only committed to keeping Ian’s article open for 2 weeks from the date it was opened up. I sympathize with the serious fiscal constrains of academic publishing in Canada, but I really hope they decide to leave this article open permanently.”

Two whole weeks? Wow… /sarc.

Call for Website Reviewers

12 03 2011

I am relaying this message from
As a growing number of historical resources become available online, the internet is increasingly becoming a site of serious historical research, enquiry and education. Yet it is important to approach information on the internet with caution, assessing its value with a critical eye. is expanding its review section to include scholarly analyses of websites. It is imperiative in this “digital age” to develop the tools necessary to critically engage with this expanding resource base.

If you are interested in reviewing a website that features historical content, please send an expression of interest to

Two New Active History Posts

30 06 2010

Japanese Canadian Fishing Boat Being Seized, 9 December 1941

The blog recently carried two posts that caught my eye. The earlier post is by Laura Madakoro and deals with government apologies for historical injustices such as Japanese internment and Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland. It is a fine piece of work on comparative social memory that is also rather personal. Ms. Madakoro writes: “My grandfather was a fisherman in Tofino (on the west coast of Vancouver Island) when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. His boat was taken by the Canadian government. My father, who was 2 years old at the time, and his parents were interned.”

Cacao Production

The second post links historical with ongoing injustices and is about the use of coerced labour (i.e., slaves) in the production of chocolate. Karlee Sapoznik’s post notes that consumers boycotts against slave-produced sugar were part of the abolitions campaign. She also reports that “up to 40% of the chocolate we purchase, bring into our homes and eat may be contaminated with slavery”. I like this post because it reminds us that slavery is still a live issue, not something that was totally finished in 1834 or 1865.

40% evil? Or just 40% lipids? has become a very good blog.

Historical Perspectives on Oil Spills

27 05 2010

See here.

What Historical Research Can Do For Haiti?

25 01 2010, a website devoted to the practical application of historical knowledge, has an interesting post on how history can contribute to ourstanding of the crisis in Haiti.


7 10 2009
Active History Logo

Active History Logo

On Thursday, 1 October 2009, ActiveHistory.Ca held a conference at York University. You can listen to their discussion here (two files).  Listen to the first half of the ActiveHistory conference; Listen to the second half of the ActiveHistory conference.

30 09 2009

I thought that I would repost this:

“The ( committee is
pleased to announce that we are actively soliciting papers in all
areas of historical inquiry, including but not limited to several
specific targeted areas. We are looking for short papers on important
historical topics that might be of interest to policy makers, the
media or the general public. Papers (approximately 2,000 – 4,000 words
in length) should engage critical issues facing Canadian society, and
must be written for a general audience.

We are soliciting papers on a wide array of themes, including but not
limited to:

* Aboriginal life, communities and treaty issues
* Climate change and the environment
* Economy, development, taxation and finance
* Education
* Gender and sexuality
* International affairs and security
* Medicine, health care and public health
* Trade unions and employment

Editorial guidelines can be found at

Papers should be submitted is a new website to help connect historians with the
public, policy makers and the media.If you have any questions, please contact us at   We look forward to hearing from you.”

Historian Peter Cain on European Attitudes to China

18 09 2009

Historian Peter J. Cain has an excellent new paper on the History and Policy website.  The paper is called “China, globalisation and the west: A British debate, 1890 – 1914”.

Other papers on economic-historical themes at History and Policy include:  “The ‘credit crunch’ and the importance of trust” by Geoffrey Hosking; “Equality and incentive: fiscal politics from Gladstone to Brown” by Martin Daunton; and “The real lesson for developing countries from the history of the developed world: ‘freedom to choose'” by Ha-Joon Chang. (I like how Chang’s paper title makes an allusion to this man).

The website, by the way, is designed to bring relevant historical research to the attention of policy-makers. John Tosh outlines the mission of the History and Policy here. The History and Policy website has inspired a group of Canadian scholars to establish a similar project called ActiveHistory. The Canadian project is evidently in its early stages but looks very promising.

5 06 2009

I would like to promote a new Canadian history resource,

From their website:

“ is a new website to help connect historians with the public, policy makers and the media.  This is a part of an effort to facilitate and disseminate the ideas developed at the  conference “Active History: History for the Future” at Glendon College in September 2008.  The website project is currently being led by a group of PhD Students in the History Department at York University, but we hope to expand the steering committee and editorial support board over the next few months.

We are looking at the British History & Policy Website as a model for this project.

We are looking for historians to join our database and submit papers.

We are also seeking editorial board members.  Please contact us if you might be interested in taking a more active role with this project:”