Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Do a historian's sources mean anything?

So I've been ensconced in the National Archives of Scotland for the last couple of days (on and off). It's yet another archival trip in the day-to-day life of the jobbing historian. Sometimes you feel a bit like a carpenter, whistling away while you work ('this bit goes there, this bit goes there... whistle whistle).

A couple of days in West Register House at one end of Edinburgh's Royal Mile (above)? Nice friendly people helping me find out new things? Yes please.

But what did I dig up? That's the more important work question.

Nothing absolutely spectacular, to be honest. But quite a lot of detail about the workings of post-war governance in the United Kingdom. For a book entitled Governing Post-War Britain: The Paradoxes of Progress (due out next year), that's not a bad thing.

There were some fragments about Labour's Land Commission (1967-71), proving what I'd long suspected: supposedly left-wing Ministers told the big landowners not to worry too much about how radical Labour's actions in power were going to be. That was a find. There was a quite a lot about the Parliamentary Commissioner or Ombudsman, making clear that Scottish civil servants didn't really think the 'superior' Scottish legal and constitutional system needed any help. And there were some documents detailing how sceptical Scottish officials were about 'Educational Priority Areas', set up in the late 1960s to help schoolchildren in disadvantaged areas.

Overall, it was a vivid look into something all post-war historians have suspected: that pre-devolution Scotland went its own way in many policy areas, whatever the supposed 'unity' of the United Kingdom. This strange devolution has been the subject of many a historical article, including those by my old friend and colleague Professor John Stewart of Glasgow Caledonian. I had my first up-close look at the evidence this week.

Did this archival visit change the world? No. Did it change how I see post-war governance a little? Yes.

Bit by bit, piece of the puzzle by piece of the puzzle, the historical mosaic is built up via hundreds and thousands of these journeys. That's their worth.


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