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A culture of secrecy is obstructing British historians

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Andrew Lownie is one of Britain’s leading literary agents and the author of “Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess,” “The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves” and Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Documents are the lifeblood of historians. And while many of these documents will come from private collections of papers — all with their own problems of access — many will come from public archives. In Britain, this is most notably the National Archives at Kew, outside London.

Subject to some Freedom of Information (FOI) exemptions, in the United Kingdom, government records must by law be deposited in the National Archives after 20 years — but this is not what is happening, and much of it is down to a continuing culture of secrecy in Whitehall.

Whereas in America the assumption is that everything should be released unless there are strong grounds to withhold documents, such as national security or data protection, the complete opposite mindset exists in Britain.

The result is that only a small proportion of public records end up reaching the archives at Kew — and it is to the detriment of both scholarship and transparent government.

My own concerns about historical curation go back to researching a biography of Guy Burgess over a decade ago, where I found huge gaps in the record. There was nothing on his time in the Information Research Department — a secret unit set up at the beginning of 1948 to counter Russian propaganda, which Burgess betrayed months after it was set up. Likewise, there was nothing on his time in the Foreign Office News Department, in the private office of Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin’s deputy Hector McNeil, nor when he was at the British Embassy in Washington between 1950 and 1951— though there were papers for the period either side of his time in Washington for diplomats doing the same job.

My suspicion about an establishment cover-up was confirmed in 2016, when I began researching a book on Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten, the last Viceroy and Vicereine of India. Their letters and diaries had been extensively quoted in previous books, and in 2010, a major fundraising campaign had been mounted by Southampton University to buy their papers.

I was therefore surprised to be told by the Southampton archivist that they knew nothing about these diaries and letters, which were part of a £2.8 million purchase with contributions from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Hampshire County Council and other organizations, as well as through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme.

Eventually, after several years, numerous FOI requests, the intervention of the Information Commissioner who issued contempt proceedings against Southampton University, a so-called Decision Notice was issued in 2019, ordering the materials’ release.

Both Southampton and the Cabinet Office — which had muscled its way in based on a mysterious Ministerial Direction it later dropped — appealed the decision, only to then dump 99.9 percent of the material (over 30,000 pages) on the internet just before the November 2021 hearing. The material they had kept secret for a decade, and fought so hard to prevent being made public, proved to be utterly innocuous.

After I discovered a wartime FBI file that claimed Mountbatten was “a homosexual with a perversion for young boys,” however, I then requested other listed files held on him, only to be told they had been destroyed. When I asked when that destruction had taken place, the American authorities candidly admitted, “After you had asked for them.” Clearly, this had been at the request of the British government, previously unaware that such material existed.

Though the Garda, Ireland’s national police service, accepted that they had car logs for visitors to Mountbatten’s holiday home in Sligo for August 1977 — the month two 16-year-old boys claimed he had abused them — they refused to release the logs on the grounds that they were part of the investigation into Mountbatten’s murder, which had taken place two years later.

Despite Britain’s 20-year rule for the deposit of historical records, I also found that no files on Mountbatten’s 1979 murder had been deposited in archives — neither in Ireland nor Great Britain. The Garda claimed it was still “an active investigation,” even though the bomb-maker had been convicted, served a sentence and was released under the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Later, for my next book, when researching the Duke of Windsor’s time in the Bahamas as governor during World War II, I discovered that while the Colonial Office Files in the National Archives were thin on him, there were mirror copies of the files in the Bahamas too — and these were much more extensive, containing revealing details, such as the duke transferring the Commissioner of Police to Trinidad for murky reasons on the morning of a murder that he was keen to cover up.

Last year, I requested a 1932 police protection file relating to the Duke of Windsor when he was the Prince of Wales. And this time, the Metropolitan Police refused to release the file on the grounds that it would jeopardize the present safety of the Royal Family.

There are many techniques used by Britain’s public authorities to avoid disclosure. They can kick the can down the road for as long as possible, sometimes amounting to over a year. They can keep changing the exemptions deployed as each is challenged and shown not to apply. They can simply not answer requests and hope the requester gives up. They can play with semantics in carefully phrased replies. They can agree to release documents and then do nothing, or redact them so heavily as to make them useless. They can aggregate separate requests and then refuse them on grounds of the costs of compliance. And they can claim a request is vexatious or deploy FOI exemptions, which don’t have a public interest waiver and, therefore, can’t be challenged.

Time and time again, authorities hide behind national security or law enforcement, or they claim not to have material, only to miraculously find it when evidence of its existence is presented. Intriguingly, only the most sensitive documents are ever affected by damp or asbestos. Another favorite trick is to use Section 22 — where the information is held by the public authority with a view to its publication at some future date — but the material mysteriously never finds its way to the National Archives. And a weeder has personally told me that if in doubt when reviewing material, they are told to just use an absolute exemption, such as Section 23, citing national security.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and the Freedom of Information Act are no longer fit for purpose. Data protection responsibilities should be left with the ICO and a new, truly independent regulator on information rights, like Scotland’s, should be set up.

There also needs to be a sea change in attitude in Whitehall regarding secrecy and transparency.

Of course, the balance between accountability and transparency on the one hand and protecting national security on the other is difficult to strike. Once records are released, the genie is out of the bottle. But it is absurd to argue that records, which in many cases are over 60 years old and where the officials involved are dead, should not be released.

If our history is to be written accurately, we need to have all records made available — not just those a government department believes we should have.

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