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Lost files, history thieves and contemporary British history

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Thousands of government papers have gone missing from the National Archives (TNA) at Kew, having been ‘misplaced while on loan’ to government departments, reported Ian Cobain in The Guardian over Christmas. Missing files included declassified documents on some of the most controversial episodes of Britain’s past, including the Falklands War, Northern Ireland’s Troubles and the infamous Zinoviev Letter Affair, widely reported to have resulted in the collapse of Britain’s first Labour government.

The story has prompted much criticism of government handling of public records and calls have been made for government-wide search and an investigation. For some commentators the loss of files prompts questions about government manipulation of the public record to massage the past and hide the skeletons in the closet. ‘The threat of democracy is deeply embedded’, tweeted one historian, while another accused Whitehall of ‘erasing historical documents and our ability to access the past’. This is not the first time government has been suspected of tampering with the records of controversial aspects of contemporary history. In 2011, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) was forced to disclose the existence of the so-called ‘migrated archives’ – thousands of colonial-era papers covering Britain’s imperial past – stored at Hanslope Park near Milton Keynes. Responding to the latest allegations, journalist Siobhan Fenton wrote that ‘Many Britons have grown up believing their homeland saved and civilised the world, while atrocities, genocide and human rights abuses often go unmentioned’. Embarrassing stories were ‘neatly filed away’.

For Cobain, successive British governments have tried to ‘protect the reputation of the British state of generations earlier, concealing and manipulating history – sculpting an official narrative – in manner more associated with a dictatorship than with a mature and confident democracy’. Britain’s politicians have engaged in decades of ‘history theft’.

It makes a great story, yet talk of ‘history theft’ and cover-ups at the heart of Whitehall are exaggerated, and closer inspection suggests cock-up, not conspiracy. In fact the ‘almost 1,000’ files ‘misplaced while on loan’ to government number just 626 records according to TNA’s catalogue. It’s unclear why the newspaper article cited a higher figure. A Freedom of Information request from August 2016 reveals that 48 records – amongst the thousands actually loaned to Whitehall by TNA - were lost while loaned to departments from July 2011 to July 2016. Only three were lost at the FCO. The Ministry of Defence accounted for 19. Figures for the number of files loaned to TNA during the same period are unavailable, but information released under FOI shows just over 23,000 were returned to Whitehall departments between 2011 and 2014. By early 2014, 2,925 remained on loan to government, waiting to be returned. Most of the missing files appear to be long-term losses, not a recent development. For all the talk of conspiracy by Whitehall officials, TNA has also lost a significant number of files; a total of 372 went missing between the summer of 2011 and 2016. It’s unsatisfactory when files go missing, but it’s a fraction of the material available to researchers.

But what about the claims that Whitehall is busy manipulating history to hide past wrongs? Frankly, if the strategy of successive governments has been to mess with history, presenting Britain as the beacon of modern-day liberal democracy, it has spectacularly failed. Attempts to close off contemporary records to researchers here in the UK have been undermined by disclosures elsewhere. Document releases in other countries, oral testimony, private papers, unauthorised disclosures and the work of investigative reporters have created a rich seam of sources for contemporary historians to mine with great effect. For example, before the FCO’s acknowledgement of hidden papers at Hanslope Park, accounts of Britain’s brutal suppression of the Mau Mau in 1950s Kenya had already started to emerge. Caroline Elkins and others made extensive use of government papers to show that British colonial campaigns and the withdrawal from Empire was far from the ‘hearts and minds’ approach of popular imagination. Journalist-turned-historian Keith Kyle was also able to write a magisterial history of the 1956 Suez Crisis and Britain’s collusion with the governments of France and Israel to try and retake a nationalised Suez Canal, even with the closure of some important documents. 

Historians interested in Britain’s intelligence services – the Security Service (MI5), Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) – and other related bodies have also been able to write about what was famously described as the ‘missing dimension’ of contemporary British history, despite government restrictions. While the files of Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) remained off limits until the Waldegrave Initiative of the 1990s, David Stafford was able to write a history of wartime sabotage and subversion using the ‘adjacent’ files of the Cabinet Office, Foreign Office and other government departments. In 1984, historians Christopher Andrew and David Dilks showed the study of intelligence was a serious field of academic work, publishing The Missing Dimension: Governments and Intelligence in the Twentieth Century, followed by Andrew’s own study Secret State: The Making of the British Intelligence Community a year later. Even with the release of MI5 and GCHQ papers to Kew, restrictions on SIS’s history remain. However, even here historians have been able to piece together tales of post-war special operations and foreign intelligence gathering. Despite the continued closure of government files on Operation Ajax/Boot, a joint SIS-CIA operation to topple Iran’s Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, US State Department and CIA documents provide details of Britain’s input. 

Clearly there are still gaps. The history of the British monarchy remains shrouded in what historian Philip Murphy has called ‘obsessive secrecy’, with government correspondence with the Queen, her heir and second-in-line to the throne exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Whitehall has also been less than forthcoming about embarrassing episodes from its past; Andrew Lownie, in particular, has expressed dissatisfaction over access to papers on the ‘Cambridge Five’. There are also gaps in the available archive. On average just five per cent of government papers eventually reach Kew. In the Ministry of Defence, an estimated ninety-seven per cent are destroyed, yet the figure may be smaller in other areas of Whitehall. As with colleagues writing ancient or medieval history, contemporary historians need to accept there are limitations to the archive – we can’t see everything.

So is this part of a government cover-up? In short, no. There will always be limitations on government archives and files will unfortunately be lost. Has this changed the broader trends of British history? The answer has to be no again. As always, historians are encouraged to consult as many sources as possible. Even if the government was trying to stealthily manipulate history, past evidence shows they will not be successful. 

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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