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Does history matter?: Political Scientists, Welsh and Scottish devolution

Finlay, Richard J. (2001) Does history matter?: Political Scientists, Welsh and Scottish devolution. Twentieth Century British History, 12 (2). pp. 243-250. ISSN 0955-2359

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When does history become history? When does it become appropriate to say that a sufficient distance in time has passed to let the historian apply the skills of the trade to best effect? These questions are important because they are central to that border region between history and contemporary studies and the vexed problem of intellectual ownership. The case of Scottish and Welsh devolution is a good case in point. All agree that they were (are) significant historical events, but when does it become appropriate to pass them over to the study of historians? At the moment, their historical significance has been defined by political scientists, largely on the basis that as contemporary political events, they fall within their intellectual jurisdiction. Their expertise in recent events is thought to be of more value than that of the crusty old historians who have to wait until the dust settles before coming to a judgment. All of which presents a conundrum. Can and should historians be able to use their skills to deliver up to the minute analysis on what are seen by all as historic events? If they are historic events, then surely the best people to study them are historians? Understandably there is a reluctance to do this. All the evidence from contemporary events is usually not available, contemporary judgments tend to be fragile and easily overturned by subsequent opinion, the nearer in time, the less objectivity, and so on and so on. It is a risky business and historians tend to be cautious creatures. Yet, in theory, there is no intrinsic reason why it should not be possible. We never have all the evidence, subsequent opinion usually changes, although the process tends to slow down as more time elapses, and no one can ever be truly objective. It should not be any more difficult to give a historical analysis of the devolution referendums of 1997 than of the impact of plague on Cardiff in 1451. Or should it?