Ahead of his new book The Control of the Past: Herbert Butterfield and the Pitfalls of Official History, senior Whitehall historian Patrick Salmon talks us through the dangers of government-mandated history and asks- can history ever be truly objective?

‘I do not personally believe that there is a government in Europe which wants the public to know all the truth.’ With these words, in 1949, Herbert Butterfield, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, launched the strongest attack on official history written by any British historian since the Second World War. In his article (republished in History and Human Relations in 1951), Butterfield was actually talking about two quite different kinds of official history, and it is sometimes hard to tell which he hated more. One was narrative history, on which several of his Cambridge colleagues had (he believed) been wasting their talents since 1941, when the government decided to record the history of the Second World War as it was being fought, in two series: military and civil. The other was the publication of British and captured German diplomatic documents from the interwar period.

By the late 1940s a succession of weighty volumes was beginning to fall from the printing presses of His Majesty’s Stationery Office, offering the first authoritative accounts of the great events Britain had experienced in the recent past. Yet all aroused the deepest suspicion on Butterfield’s part. All fell far short of his ideal world of ‘independent historians, choosing their own subjects for research, and allowed by the government free access to the archives’. On the one hand, official historians could never be sure that they had seen all the relevant documents: Butterfield held that there was always a ‘secret drawer’ holding the key evidence, and that this was the one drawer government wished to keep locked at all costs. On the other hand, readers of official history could never be sure they were being given the whole story, because they could not check all its sources and therefore had to take it on trust.

Since the beginning of his academic career in the 1920s, Butterfield had been ‘as a historian against all governments’. All of them, he held, had ‘a seamy side’. But over the winter of 1948-9 he came to believe he had concrete evidence of duplicitous conduct on the part of the British government. In a hurriedly written letter, Desmond Williams, a young Irish member of the editorial team working on Documents on German Foreign Policy, warned Butterfield that the Foreign Office was planning to withhold ‘400 documents on Anglo-German relations’ from the published collection. It was, he said, ‘an appalling story’ and an ‘indication of the incompetent villainy of official historians’. Neither Williams nor Butterfield ever spelt out what this secret drawer might contain, but later evidence suggests that it concerned what has become one of the biggest conspiracy theories of the post-war era (and the subject of an entire episode of the Netflix series The Crown): the dealings the Duke of Windsor might or might not have had with Nazi authorities on his journey through Spain and Portugal in the summer of 1940.


Butterfield had an article on the ‘pitfalls’ of official history on the verge of publication. It was too late to revise it further (he had already made revisions at Williams’s prompting) but he wrote to influential colleagues and sent offprints to some of the most eminent historians of the day: some, like E.L. Woodward, official; others, like A.J.P. Taylor, defiantly unofficial. But he seems to have been less willing to challenge authority in person than in print. The ‘Windsor papers’ were eventually published in 1957, following a determined rearguard action involving, among others, Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother; but there is no sign of Butterfield taking any further interest in the subject. Despite inspiring a fascinating correspondence about what writing official history actually involved (‘I have never been told that there is one drawer which I mustn’t see’, wrote W.N. Medlicott, the historian of the economic blockade: ‘I can either send for a file, or, if I like, go into the registry and get the stuff down for myself.’), the affair petered out quickly:

Butterfield’s warnings about official history still resonate. All too often, independent-minded official historians have expressed frustration in their dealings with officialdom: most famously Sir Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, whose critique of the strategic bombing offensive proved too near the mark for Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris. Yet their four-volume history was published, even if it required the intervention of the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan to make it happen. It is true, too, that Sir Michael Howard had to await the resignation of Margaret Thatcher before his history of strategic deception could appear; but the lesson seems to be that all official histories see the light in the end. And while we are on the subject of Prime Ministers, let’s not forget Harold Wilson, whose enlightened decision in 1966 to launch a new series of peacetime official histories has delivered a wealth of studies ranging from the Channel Tunnel to privatisation and North Sea oil, not to mention Sir Lawrence Freedman’s definitive history of the Falklands campaign.

Butterfield warned of a more subtle danger: that the process of selecting diplomatic documents might legitimate ‘the Foreign Office view of history’ by ignoring, suppressing or simply failing to notice evidence that might point to alternative interpretations. A selection compiled in the shadow of two world wars risked diverting attention from the much longer period during which Russia had been viewed as Britain’s principal adversary, a perspective in which conflict with Germany was no more than a ‘curious interlude of some thirty years’ from 1914 to 1945. And this, in Butterfield’s view, was deliberate, not accidental: it was the secret drawer (much bigger than the one hiding the Windsor papers) that government hoped no one would notice.

The British government, like many others, is still publishing diplomatic documents, and its editors (including myself) do their best to avoid the kind of conscious or unconscious bias of which Butterfield accused our predecessors. We always try to remember that the job of official historians is to explain, not defend, the actions of British governments in the past. But in the modern age of culture wars is anyone – outside or inside government – still listening to the official historians?

It seems many are. There is a huge appetite for history among the current generation of civil servants. In their own time, officials at the Department for International Trade (DIT) have researched the Board of Trade’s involvement with the slave trade over many centuries; at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), study groups debate the history of British colonialism and the rule of the East India Company in South Asia. An audience of several hundred attended my online conversation with Sathnam Sanghera, author of Empireland, earlier this year. The informal ‘Whitehall History Network’ that we launched a few years ago now has around 60 members ranging across many government departments as well as bodies like the NHS and the Post Office. In part, this reflects a welcome interest in the history of the departments and buildings they work in. But in an era where traditional record-keeping is almost non-existent, officials also look to history to help them resolve the policy issues that confront them on a daily basis.

Academic historians have responded to this demand. Organisations like History and Policy, the Mile End Group and the Strand Group have forged close links with departments like the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and No. 10. Yet before cosying up too closely to government they might take heed of the conviction that lay at the heart of Butterfield’s criticism of official history: that academic history – history studied for its own sake and not for any imagined utility – must remain paramount and uncontaminated by any association with officialdom. It was a belief to which he remained faithful to the end of his life; and it is one worth bearing in mind in an era when academic historians are increasingly under pressure to demonstrate the impact of their research in the public sphere.

So perhaps it is time to look again at what official history has to offer. At first sight, the omens are not promising. At the FCDO the Historians have halved in number over the last year; at the Cabinet Office no new official histories have been commissioned since the year 2000 and Sir Joe Pilling’s report on the official histories programme, delivered in 2009, remains archived on an almost inaccessible website, his constructive proposals unanswered. On the other hand, the current Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, is a former student of Peter Hennessy, a powerful advocate of official history; and Professor John Bew, biographer of Castlereagh and Attlee, is the Prime Minister’s chief foreign policy adviser. And the recent announcement that the government is to commission an official history of the Northern Ireland Troubles is encouraging. Some may question the timing, coming as it does so soon after the decision in July to establish a statute of limitations on ‘all Troubles-related incidents’ in order, as the Prime Minister put it, to ‘draw a line under the Troubles’; some have already denounced it as propaganda. But if the record of their predecessors is anything to go by, government will have a fight on its hands if it tries to force future official historians to publish anything that would compromise their professional reputation. No self-respecting historian would be willing to put their name to such a blatant exercise.

Meanwhile, let’s not forget the historical expertise the government already has at its disposal. The in-house historians of the FCDO and the Air, Army and Naval historical branches understand how government works and how to provide historical advice quickly. If they don’t have the answers, they usually know where to look for them. Through their work for ministers and officials on the one hand and their publications and academic networks on the other, official historians are uniquely placed to act as an interface between government and the wider community. We could do a lot more.

Patrick Salmon is Chief Historian at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. He was formerly Professor of International History at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a Foreign Member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. His latest book The Control of the Past: Herbert Butterfield and the Pitfalls of Official History (University of London Press) is out 6 December.