The death of our Executive Secretary in the 1970s and ‘80s and the election of my successor to 2020, both reported elsewhere in this newsletter, have naturally induced thoughts this season about the long-term trajectories of a learned society – our learned society – over what will soon be 150 years of its own history. Some things have stayed the same; a lot has changed. Actually there were features of the late Victorian historical profession that are eerily familiar today. As early as 1872 we can find one eminent Victorian (Edward Freeman) writing to another (Bishop Stubbs), complaining about a circular on the ‘“subsidy of research”, which I did not understand, and I see that it has grown into a meeting for the “organization of study”, which I don’t understand either. If it means that they will give you and me … something, instead of wasting it on a parcel of idle youngsters in London, I shall not object.’ And already in the 1880s the Society was working with the British Museum and the Public Record Office to raise historical issues of public interest, such as the teaching of history in schools, just as we now work closely with their successors the British Library and the National Archives. Of course we also continue to fulfil the functions that all learned societies seek to fulfil in all times and places: that is, maintaining the infrastructure for scholarly publication, communication and debate, sponsoring public lectures and conferences, publishing primary sources and secondary works, seeking to pump-prime the future of the discipline by encouraging early-career historians with grants to do research and outlets through which to publish their research. Just as we did 150 years ago, we publish our annual volume of Transactions – containing the best in new scholarship by leading figures of our discipline – and multiple volumes in the Camden series of original documents in British history (in the case of Camden for more than 150 years, having inherited an older series from a defunct society).
The biggest change witnessed in the 20th century was the entry of the State into the funding and organization of higher education – hardly a whisper of this in evidence in 1868, and not much more in 1938, but by 1968 the State was responsible for nearly three-quarters of all university funding, and of course (despite the panoply of ‘arm’s length’ bodies designed to protect academic freedom) also demanding more say in how academic research was carried on and even in what directions. I think it is fair to say that the Society did not devote much of its time and energy in those postwar decades of the State’s rise to predominance in the world of higher education to following or seeking to influence government policy. It left that to the arm’s-length bodies, like the University Grants Committee, and although social and economic history was included in the remit of the new Social Science Research Council (later Economic and Social Research Council) from 1965, the Society, reasonably enough, continued to proceed on the assumption that the State had little interest in or impact on historical research. Much of that research was carried on by individuals, with little funding, a good deal of it outside universities altogether, and in some ways the Society became more inward-looking in those decades, carrying on its own scholarly activities with little reference to government, the general public, or indeed to anyone who wasn’t a historical scholar. Joy McCarthy’s reminiscences of the Society’s offices under Jean Chapman’s supervision in the 1970s and ‘80s gives a pungent and accurate flavour of the times – amiable, inertial, traditional, deeply immersed in the practice of history but rather oblivious of the wider cultural and political context.
That began to change, not when the State was increasing its role in the funding of academic research, but when it began to contract that role, during the ‘run-down’ of universities announced by Sir Keith Joseph in the 1980s. The Society didn’t respond quickly to the threats posed by the run-down, and a History at the Universities Defence Group (HUDG) was established in 1982 to lead a more public campaign in defence of historical teaching and research in a beleaguered university system. Nor did the Society respond quickly to the dramatic expansion of the higher-education system (and indeed of the numbers studying, teaching and researching history) that took off from the late 1980s. However, by the mid-1990s, under the leadership of a sequence of very sensitive and acute Presidents, the Society did begin to become much more responsive to the new breadth of activity in historical research and to the new tasks that should naturally have fallen to the country’s leading learned society in history.
Today Council is more fully representative of the range of historians from wherever they hail, new and old universities, museums, libraries and archives – we would like to see, too, independent scholars without institutional bases, who form a large and important part of our Fellowship, putting themselves forward for election to Council and answering our calls for self-nomination to officer positions that we circulate every year. This coming year, for example, we will be seeking a new Literary Director and a new Honorary Director of Communications, and I hope Fellows from all sectors will consider stepping forward and offering to take on these important jobs which, while voluntary, are the lifeblood of the Society’s work. I hope you don’t need me to recite the range of issues that the Society has taken up in the last twenty years in fulfilment of its new, wider brief – not only to service historical research, but to evangelize for it, and to ensure that the counsels of government, funding bodies, the universities and academic bodies across the full range of subjects are made constantly aware of the distinctive needs and flavour of the discipline of history.
In my own time as President we have made special efforts to influence the rewriting of the history curriculum in schools, to ensure that government plans for ‘Open Access’ to academic publications take a form that protects academic freedom and quality (which may be a quite different form for the humanities than for the sciences), and to defend the arm’s-length autonomy of the funding bodies from government’s attempts to impose its own short-term ‘strategic priorities’ on academic research. We have reached out to ever-widening circles to build audiences for serious historical scholarship – putting all of our public lectures and symposia online for free access to the general public, sponsoring workshops and prizes in ‘public history’, and making our own publications ‘Open Access’ in more generous and appropriate forms than government mandates suggest. And we have made renewed efforts to invest in the future of our discipline by extending our grants to early-career researchers (with help from our friends in the Economic History Society and at Past & Present), organizing workshops around the country with History Lab Plus, drafting (also with History Lab Plus) a code of practice for the employment of temporary teaching staff, and working to ensure gender equality in hiring and employment practices in academic institutions.
I do believe that the Society is in a stronger position today than it has been for many years – engaged in a wider range of activities, drawing in more direct participation from its members, using its resources more nimbly and effectively. (And this is a good point to remind you that all donations to the Society continue to benefit from a matching grant from Dr Lisbet Rausing and Professor Peter Baldwin – please do consider making a donation online where every pound you give will be doubled.) Of course new challenges await – not least the year- on-year reduction of the government’s share of higher education funding that we have endured for the last five years and will now endure for the next five. In these circumstances it is only learned societies like ours that can and will step up to defend scholarship. It is a great consolation to me to know that for four of those next five years the Society will be led by a wonderful scholar, someone exceptionally well-informed about the politics of higher education, and an agile and creative strategist. I shall do my best in my last year of office to keep the legacy of my predecessors intact so as to be able to hand over an organization in the best-possible shape to meet any new challenges as well as to continue our traditional role of maintaining infrastructural support for historical research as we head towards our 150th year.