History is written by those who write history

I went to a fascinating discussion on the use and abuse of contemporary history at the RSA this evening.  Andrew Rawnsley was in the chair, with Peter Hennessy, Timothy Garton Ash and Tessa Jowell all on fine thought provoking form.

Part of the discussion touched on the abundance of near contemporary sources compared with even the recent past, with the effective death of the thirty year rule being proclaimed. Timothy Garton Ash argued passionately for the primacy of the first draft of history, written by those able to observe events directly.

I admire his work and writing enormously, but I fear that this is romantic self-delusion. The growth in availability of contemporary and near contemporary accounts, memoirs and diaries appearing in weeks rather than decades certainly gives the illusion of plenty. But I am not convinced that it provides the reality.

I have been an observer and a bit player in enough political events to be able to compare direct observation with daily and weekly press coverage. I cannot think of an occasion when the description matched the reality I had observed.

Sometimes that is the result of the inevitable incompleteness of a necessarily brief account. Often though, things are stated as facts which are simply wrong. Garton Ash stood at Vaclav Havel’s side to watch the velvet revolution unfold. But that is not the vantage point most journalists and historians enjoy for most events. Politics unfolds on the streets by exception, not as a norm. The second hand account is dominant, the contemporary first hand account a rarity, and the disinterested first hand account not much more than a theoretical possibility.

I am a civil servant. I am not going to write the first draft – or any draft – of history. But I can compare the draft I could write with the draft others do write, and know there is an important gap.

I am not ascribing any malice here. All of us shade our accounts, and the account I do not give is no better than the accounts which others do.  But if the accounts which are given have consistent characteristics which separate them from the accounts which are never given, the history which emerges from them will have a consistent distortion. Of course good enough history – and good enough journalism – is infinitely better than none at all. The skills of both journalist and historian are vital to an open society and both Hennessy and Garton Ash – and indeed Rawnsley – are exemplars of what can be done, reaching standards which are well beyond good enough. Perhaps, as Hennessy said, the best use of history is a sceptical state of mind.

In a recursive way, this is of course itself a piece of contemporary history.  I wrote most of it on the bus in the half hour immediately after the event. I hope those who were at the RSA will recognise it as prompted by an experience they shared.  But I warn those who were not, that as an account of that event, it is partial, incomplete and almost certainly inaccurate.

Perhaps in the end I am doing no more than indulging in a bit of post-structuralist whimsy. But it is always worth remembering that history is written by those who write history.