openDemocracyUK

On the Alternative Vote, who speaks for history?

After a provocative letter telling Times readers that 'history teaches us to vote no to AV', a response was coordinated by other historians who together cried 'not in my name'. The two letters are reproduced here along with commentary by Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal, who helped organise the response, on the feeling among historians.
Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal
18 March 2011

A week ago, a group of historians wrote a letter to the Times urging the public to take heed of the sacrifices of past generations in the name of democracy and vote no to AV. You can read the letter below. I found the argument provocative but unconvincing, as a supporter of AV (though like many it’s not my ideal) and particularly as a student of history. 

It hit a nerve that has been irritated for some time. The few historians who have crossed into the mainstream, via TV, topselling books and regular political commentary (principally Niall Ferguson, David Starkey and Simon Schama), are treated by politicians, the media and, some fear, perceived by the public as the voice of all history. Why, seemingly, is Starkey the only historian invited on to BBC Question Time/Any Questions, Schama the only confirmed adviser to Education Secretary Michael Gove, Ferguson our spokesperson on the Arab revolutions?  

No doubt such sentiment is at times motivated by jealousy and the catty rivalries of academia. It is most likely impossible to thrust a handful of figures into the media spotlight while maintaining consensus backstage or in a way that is at all representative: not least because there are very few subjects, if not personalities, that seem to be able to attract a major audience. But there is a genuine cause for concern when the public voices of history are unrepresentative of so many in the field and fail to be acknowledged as such. 

It was particularly surprising to see the name Richard J Evans, my some-time teacher, signed below. Evans had just written for the LRB in condemnation of Niall Ferguson (now his co-signatory) and Better History’s proposals [pdf] for history education. There, he criticises the demand for a ‘celebratory history’ that turns on what Simon Schama (not a signatory) is quoted as calling ‘the uncritical genealogy of the Wonderfulness of Us’. 

But this was exactly the tone of the letter which Evans then put his name to; praising a mythologised parliamentary democracy and its centuries-old lineage while hailing Winston Churchill and its defenders against a threat implied to be without parallel since the fall of the Third Reich - yes, the alternative vote. The letter’s narrative gives little sense of the ‘critical engagement’ Evans wants to characterise history teaching in England. Instead, it is an example of how experts attempt to feed the public their personal interpretation of historic fact, hoping the aura of their intellect, status and, in some cases, celebrity will win our passive consent. 

The object of our response, published in the Times today and reproduced here, is to show that history and historians are not one block legion to be commanded by he (the No to AV signatories were unfortunately almost all he-s) with the loudest voice. We did not intend to act as a counterpart to last week’s group and claim that in fact history teaches us to vote yes to AV, or to institute any specific voting system. Signatories will have their own views on which way to vote on 5 May and why, as some have recorded. Rather, we wanted to remind people (most of whom probably don’t need reminding) that no-one speaks for the force of history, and to take individuals’ arguments on their merits, not on their allusions to the canon of what Michael Gove sees as our glorious 'island story'. If precedent serves as any guide, then as we near the 5th of May the debate will get a whole lot nastier and we will have to be increasingly vigilent of grand claims about a change that while sorely needed is far from revolutionary.

This is our letter:

Twenty-five historians, coordinated by Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, have written to the Times, claiming that AV would be a betrayal of the sacrifice of past generations of democracy campaigners. But claiming to speak for the dead on a referendum they never contemplated seems to us a betrayal of academic standards that we as historians hold dear.

They claim to speak for historians, indeed for history, in defending FPTP. But as on any such serious political question, historians are as divided as the population at large. The notion that “History teaches us to vote ‘No to AV’”, as the Times headline put it, or that it gives any such clear lesson on the rightful configuration of the voting system again leads us to question the signatories’ scholarly acumen in supporting this petition.

Invoking the spirit of Winston Churchill on account of his 1931 objection to AV is a cheap bid for public resonance and bad use of historic example. His opposition to votes for women and to the introduction of direct elections in India make him a poor guide to future voting systems.

It is misleading to claim that under AV one citizen’s vote could be “worth six times that of another”. Instant run-off voting, of which AV is a form, retains the equal vote which the signatories of the Times letter fear is under threat. Further research would have shown that its compatibility with the principle of voter equality has already been tested in court in the US, where it was found that “no voter is given greater weight in his or her vote over the vote of another voter”. 

1.     Dr Joan Allen
2.     Philip Begley
3.     Jane Berney 
4.     Professor Stefan Berger
5.     Dr Lawrence Black
6.     Professor Huw Bowe
7.     Dr Kate Bradley
8.     Professor Christine Carpenter
9.     Professor David Cesarani
10.  Dr Elaine Chalus
11.  Professor Peter Clarke
12.  Dr Tim Cooper
13.  Dr Surekha Davies
14.  Dr Lucy Delap
15.  Professor Richard Drayton
16.  Dr Amy Erickson
17.  Dr Martin Farr
18.  Professor Steven Fielding
19.  Matthew Francis
20.  Dr. Penelope Goodman
21.  Dr. Francis Graham-Dixon
22.  Dr Matthew Grant
23.  Dr Simon Griffiths
24.  Dr Joanna de Groot
25.  Dr David Hall-Matthews
26.  Professor Edward Higgs
27.  Professor Matthew Hilton
28.  Dr Katherine Holden
29.  Professor Geoffrey Hosking
30.  Andrew Jarvis
31.  Dr Michael Jennings
32.  Dr Martin Johnes
33.  Dr Jenny Keating
34.  Dr Charles Littleton
35.  Dr Peter Lyth
36.  Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal
37.  Dr James Mark
38.  Clare Mulley
39.  Dr Scott Newton
40.  Dr Lucy Noakes
41.  Dr Nicola Phillips
42.  Professor Geoffrey Plank
43.  Dr Martin Polley
44.  Professor Bernard Porter
45.  Dr Virginia Preston
46.  Dr Alejandro Quiroga
47.  Dr Pedro Ramos Pinto
48.  Dr Tim Rees
49.  Dr Alastair Reid
50.  Dr James Renton
51.  Dr Sarah Richardson
52.  Dr Mark Roodhouse
53.  Dr Dominic Sandbrook
54.  Dr John Seed
55.  Dr Peter Shapel
56.  Dr Sally Sheard
57.  Dr Virginia Smith
58.  Dr Naomi Standen 
59.  Professor Simon Szreter
60.  Professor Pat Thane
61.  Professor Jim Tomlinson
62.  Professor Richard Toye
63.  Professor Frank Trentmann
64.  Professor Jeffrey Weeks
65.  Professor Noel Whiteside
66.  Dr Troy Whitford 
67.  Dr Chris A Williams
68.  Dr Angus J L Winchester
69.  Professor Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska

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If you are a practicing historian and want to add your name, please email

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