Last year, a friend sent me an article on ‘The Perils of the Court Historian’. Court historians, the author wrote, were those who “had muddied their knees in the swamp”; historians-turned-practitioners who made the leap from academia to politics, hoping to “translate success in the intellectual realm to influence in the world of power”.
Months after it was published, the writer of this article was to find himself in Number 10. John Bew had made the jump from War Studies professor to Boris Johnson’s policy unit. He had himself become a court historian. And he was to become among Johnson’s most trusted and longstanding advisers as prime minister.
Bew now has more influence on UK foreign policy than the foreign secretary or, arguably, the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO).
Bew has had a conventional path to joining the class of men who, as the former Kennedy advisor Arthur Schlesinger wrote, “were not just men of the study and the lamp”:
- He was born in 1980, in Belfast. Both his parents were professors in Belfast universities. His father, Lord Bew, served as an adviser to the first First Minister of Northern Ireland, David Trimble, and was made a life peer in 2007.
- In 2007 he became a lecturer in modern British history at Cambridge and, later, War Studies professor at King’s College, London. He went on to write a number of critically acclaimed books, including Castlereagh: Enlightenment, War and Tyranny (2011), Realpolitik: A History (2016), and Citizen Clem (2016), a biography of the post-war Labour prime minister Clement Attlee for which he won the Orwell Prize.
- He joined Number 10 in 2019 to advise Johnson on the British union and foreign affairs, having previously led the Policy Exchange think-tank’s ‘Britain in the World’ project.
Soon after entering Downing Street, Bew was tasked with applying his historical knowledge of grand strategy to write one for Britain: he was to lead the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. He was to define what “global Britain” meant.
But this document, ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’, raises more questions than answers about the current geopolitical crisis:
- It presents a smorgasbord of international threats – climate change, cyberwarfare, election interference included – of which Russia is but one. There’s a promise to exceed manifesto and Nato defence spending commitments, but with a cut in army personnel. And it is too early to tell how these investments in so-called ‘grey-zone warfare’ – building a more intelligence- and data-led military – will help the situation in Ukraine.
- It does take Russia seriously. More seriously than most, in fact, and more seriously – it appears – than it takes China. Bew raised eyebrows at the time of publication for designating Russia an “acute threat” while judging that China warranted only “better understanding”, in a period when fashionable foreign policy types would prescribe a more forceful Indo-Pacific tilt.
- Nato was placed front-and-centre of international security, as was the nuclear deterrent. Both are now rediscovering their importance as a result of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Nato is more unified and the UK has committed to acquiring more nuclear warheads – but just what they might mean for Britain’s geopolitical strategy isn’t clear, and nor is Britain’s evolving role in Nato.
The 2018 article, then, proved curiously prophetic: a historian-turned-practitioner now sits at the heart of government. With the departure from the policy unit of Dominic Cummings and, more recently, Munira Mirza, Bew’s clout will now be even greater.
He wrote in 2018 that “the idea that more history is needed in Western statecraft — particularly foreign policy — has undergone a renaissance”. In Downing Street, he’s said to have insisted that Johnson take time to “take a step back” to listen to experts and consider the broader strategic context of foreign policy decisions. Bew personifies this question of how much history can teach us. Being at the heart of power in this most critical time for grand strategy, he is, surely, the most influential historian in Britain today.