One of the highlights for scholars of contemporary history of that nicely peaceful few days between Christmas and the New Year in the UK has been the annual December release of the latest newly-declassified official files to the National Archives (TNA) at Kew.
I have lost count of the number of years I have rushed out to buy newspapers with coverage of the latest December TNA releases, or scanned the radio listings for a new edition of BBC Radio-4’s UK Confidential programme, which also discusses the newly available files.
Under the Public Records Act of 1958, government departments have been obliged to regularly assess files for declassification and have them transferred to the National Archives, or make it known publicly the reasons why certain files remain classified.
Under the ’30 Year Rule’, files are supposed to be transferred after they are thirty years old, and – in 2010, after a fresh review – this period was reduced to 20 years (a change that is being phased in over 10 years). This was heralded at the time as an important new step towards further openness and transparency by Whitehall, and was certainly welcomed by historians in particular.
However, regrettably, any excitement on the part of historians (myself included) that this was going to lead to a large number of files becoming available each year is increasingly being eroded. In contrast to 2014, for example, when more than 500 files from 1985 and 1986 were made available, the December 2015 TNA release saw just 14 becoming available, seven from 1987 and seven from 1988. This is worrying.
Moreover, it has led to some strong criticisms being voiced by media commentators and various MPs, with some even suggesting that the Cameron government (which is currently also reviewing whether to water down Freedom of Information laws), has somehow succumbed to the more traditional inclination of top Whitehall civil servants to prefer a culture of secrecy rather than openness.
According to The Times newspaper, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, QC, has accused Ministers of ‘obsessive secrecy’ and has demanded to know why the number of files released to Kew dropped so dramatically in 2015 compared to 2014.
Some commentators have voiced suspicions that the current government has become keen to delay the release of certain ’embarrassing’ files from the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. A couple of senior Ministers in Cameron’s government today, for example (i.e. Oliver Letwin and John Whittingdale), were young advisors to the Thatcher government back then. One of the files that has been released contains comments by a young Letwin on spending and ethnicity that would undoubtedly be political suicide if made today. Interestingly, Letwin is currently in charge of the Cabinet Office, which oversees the release of official files, while Whittingdale is Culture Secretary, a position which includes responsibility for the National Archives.
A number of historians were eagerly waiting for new material from the 1980s on the SAS shootings of IRA members in Gibraltar to become available, while others were keen to see files on the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Further material from this period on the year-long miners’ strike and on Anglo-Irish affairs was also expected by historians. Their hopes were dashed.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson firmly denied any Minister has had a direct hand in the small number of files being released this time round, and said it was simply due to ‘administrative changes’ to improve the process of how files are released, with the aim of ensuring that files are published ‘more quickly and more frequently during the year’. Fair enough.
Similarly, a statement from the National Archives at Kew said it was merely down to ‘administrative changes’ and more files would be released during 2016. Let us hope that is indeed the case. Of course, it is very easy to slip into a ‘conspiratorial’ mindset about all this. On the other hand, historians would be wise to remain vigilant when it comes to the decision-making involved in the release of government files.
After all, although we thrive on research into the past, we should not let Whitehall slip back into some of their old habits.
Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University