RHS Asks Government to Clarify its Position on Historical Research

21 March 2021

The Royal Historical Society, together with the heads of other leading UK historical organisations, has written asking the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden MP, to clarify the government’s position on the funding of historical research.

An excerpt of the letter has today been published in The Sunday Times (Letters, p.26). The letter comes with the news that Dame Helen Ghosh, master of Balliol College, Oxford, has apologised for the historical acceptance of donations linked to the Atlantic slave trade.

The full text of the letter, together with its signatories:

 

“Dear Sir,

We write to express our concern as historians about ministers’ illegitimate interference in the research and interpretation done by our arm’s length heritage bodies such as museums, galleries, the Arts Council and the lottery heritage fund.

In particular we deplore the position, attributed to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Department in the press recently, that Professor Corinne Fowler’s ‘Colonial Countryside’ project, which explores the links between National Trust properties, empire and slavery, will be barred from funding in future.  As historians, we find this deeply concerning and we ask the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, to confirm or deny whether this is his department’s position.

Academics are protected from such interference by the ‘Haldane Principle’, which accepts that government should set the general strategic direction of public funding for academic research but that ministers must not seek to make directions on individual funding decisions, which are best left to peer review to ensure both quality and independence.  Arm’s length bodies such as the Arts Council and the National Lottery Heritage fund are not so explicitly protected.  Perhaps they should be; Parliament ought to consider this carefully.  But the Lottery Act at least specifies what are ministers’ powers and these do not include determination on individual projects.  The granting bodies, not the minister, have the expertise to determine what projects best fulfil their statutory mission, and both heritage organisations and individual researchers have the legitimate expectation based on long practice that the minister not interfere in those determinations.

The culture secretary has also been quoted as seeking to deny funding to any projects deemed ‘political’.  Not only do we dispute his authority to interfere in funding decisions, we also query his use of the word ‘political’.  It is worth pointing out that the Charity Commission has recently found that the National Trust’s recent investigations into the links between its properties, empire and slavery is compatible with its charitable purposes, i.e. not ‘political’ in the relevant sense of the word. The minister should welcome this finding and make clear that research of this kind, into the connections between heritage, slavery and empire, does indeed fall within the funding bodies’ public purposes, if deemed otherwise fundable by those bodies.

Britain has a tradition of arm’s length funding of education, culture and heritage which has always sought to insulate these spheres, crucial to free debate in a diverse society, from excessive interference by government.  Such interference stifles the capacity of historians to do their work and exerts a wider chilling effect.  It may deter – it may be intended to deter – historians from embarking on difficult or sensitive research.  It certainly undermines and impoverishes our ability to explore difficult issues.  It also runs counter to recent statements by the government in defence of academic freedom.

If anyone is being too ‘political’ here, it is politicians who violate the principles of arm’s-length governance by seeking to dictate what research our heritage bodies can and cannot support.”

Emma Griffin, President, Royal Historical Society
Peter Mandler, President, Historical Association
Peter D’Sena, Vice President, Royal Historical Society
Jonathan Morris, Vice President, Royal Historical Society
Olivette Otele, Vice President, Royal Historical Society
Jane Winters, Vice President, Royal Historical Society
Catherine Schenk, President, Economic History Society
Yolana Pringle, History UK
Jamie Wood, History UK.
Matthew Hilton, Co-Editor, Past & Present
Joanna Innes, Chair, Past & Present
Alexandra Walsham, Co-Editor, Past & Present
Naomi Tadmor, Chair, Social History Society