Lessons from History

A new pilot project jointly led by Professor Matthew Flinders at the University of Sheffield and Professor Philip Murphy at the Institute of Historical Research explores how contemporary policymakers can learn from history. 

People crossing Westminster Bridge.

How do ministers know what policies have been tried before? Why do certain policy challenges keep appearing on the political agenda? How are historical insights injected into debates concerning ‘what works? How do we draw down on collective memory and avoid reinventing the wheel? How can historians play a larger role in supporting and informing contemporary policymaking?

A new pilot project has just been launched which seeks to explore these issues. Funded by the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, the ‘Lessons from History’ project has as its focus the papers of former Home Secretary, David Blunkett (Baron Blunkett of Brightside and Hillsborough in the City of Sheffield) who in 2015 donated his personal papers to the University of Sheffield. These comprise over 260 boxes of material stretching from the 1940s to the present day. 

This 6-month project, which is jointly led by Professor Matthew Flinders at the University of Sheffield and Professor Philip Murphy at the Institute of Historical Research:

  • Explores how contemporary policymakers can learn from history. 
  • Is designed to showcase the policy relevance of the arts and humanities and is a key part of the wider SHAPE agenda.
  • Is a joint collaboration between the History and Policy Network based at the Institute of Historical Research and the Blunkett Archives based at the University of Sheffield, with the support of the Universities Policy Engagement Network and British Academy.
  • Will develop a ‘proof of concept’ case study around sentencing policy, using the Blunkett papers to create a set of educational and training materials in a process of dialogue with current and former policy-makers.
  • Aims to prepare the ground for a more ambitious national project drawing on private political papers deposited across the UK.

The ‘Lessons from History’ project is focused on building boundary-spanning research infrastructure at the intersection of history (broadly defined) and contemporary policymaking. As the 2015 report by the Institute for Government demonstrated, history has huge potential for informing contemporary policy making and through this delivering better government and more effectives policies. But that potential is currently not realised due to the existence of several barriers and blockages. 

Lord Blunkett, who chairs the project’s advisory council, explains: 

During my long career in politics I have always been puzzled by two things: the first was the way in which the same policy dilemmas kept popping-up on the agenda, the second was the paucity of historical evidence that policymakers seemed to have at their fingertips about what policy responses had been tried in the past and therefore ‘what worked’. The institutional memory in Whitehall is ridiculously short and the aim of this project is to explore exactly how ‘lessons from history’ might be more effectively utilised.

Angela Haighton, Head of Head of Special Collections, Heritage, and Archives at the University of Sheffield noted: 

The University of Sheffield Library is delighted to support this project. The Blunkett Archives are a rich source of evidence and this project provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate how archival research, and the deeper understanding of the past that it provides, can inform and improve future decision making.

Philip Murphy at the IHR notes:

This important new initiative provides an opportunity to explore the value of private political papers, not just as a source of evidence for academic researchers but as a learning resource for policy-makers. While they are sometimes overlooked in discussions of how we can learn from the past, private papers offer unique insights into the wide range of influences that go into shaping policy.

 A 6-month post-doctoral research fellowship attached to the project has just been advertised by the University of London. The deadline for applications is 12 March. Details can be found here.


  1. The project is led by Professors Philip Murphy (philip.murphy@sas.ac.uk ) and Matthew Flinders (m.flinders@sheffield.ac.uk).
  2. The project is funded by the School of Advanced Studies and is intended to be a pilot project working towards a large AHRC application. 
  3. Lord Blunkett is Professor of Politics in Practice at the University of Sheffield and will chair the Advisory Committee for this project. 
  4. A major event marking the culmination of this project will be hosted by the British Academy later this year. 

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