It’s been announced that government records will begin to be released after 20 rather than 30 years. On the whole this is good news for historians but we shouldn’t expect too much, especially from the records of Cabinet.
As Simon Ball’s (1995) research has shown, only rarely do newly released records radically change existing historical interpretations. When it comes to British government, we already know ‘what’ happened and ministers have usually said something about ‘why’ in the media and in their memoirs. On the whole, what new government records do is in fill in the gaps of our existing knowledge of decision making.
Some of the most interesting material in government files relates to decisions not taken but considered. Yet even here there are limits to what we can learn. The full breadth and frankness of discussion gets lost. This is partly because it can take place unrecorded in the bar, in the corridor and on the phone. But even in formal meetings the historic record is not full or accurate.
Richard Crossman’s dairy recorded that cabinet minutes are ‘a travesty [which] do not pretend to be an account of what actually takes place in cabinet’. Yes Minister tried to explain why:
- Minutes do not record everything that was said at a meeting.
- People frequently change their minds during a meeting.
- Minutes, by virtue of the selection process, can never be a true and complete record.
- Therefore, what is said at a meeting merely constitutes the choice of ingredients for the minutes.
- The secretary’s task is to choose, from a jumble of ill-digested ideas, a version that presents the Prime Minister’s views as he would, on reflection, have liked them to emerge.
It then goes further:
- The purpose of minutes is not to record events.
- The purpose is to protect people.
- You do not take notes if the Prime Minister says something he did not mean to say, especially if this contradicts what he has said publicly on an issue.
- In short, minutes are constructive. They are to improve what is said, to be tactful, to put in better order.
- There is no moral problem. The secretary is the Prime Minister’s servant.
As with all humour, it’s funny because there is a grain of truth here and Lowe’s research (1997) has shown the difference between the minutes actually taken at cabinet (something strongly denied by the Cabinet Office) and those published.
The really interesting stuff in the files of government is often not the minutes of the highest levels of government but in the departments. It’s not the material written by politicians but by civil servants and by members of the public writing to government. There historians can mine the National Archives and begin to understand how government works and what people in and outside government thought about what was going on.
Ball, Simon, ‘Harold Macmillan and the politics of defence: the market for strategic ideas during the Sandys era revisited’, Twentieth Century British History, 1, 3 (1995), 78-100.
Crossman, Richard (1975). Diaries of a cabinet minister, volume 1: Minister of Housing, 1964-66, London: Hamish Hamilton and Jonathan Cape
Lowe, Rodney (1997) ‘Plumbing New Depths? Contemporary historians and the Public Record Office’, Twentieth Century British History, 8, 463-91.
Lynn, J. & Jay, A. (1989) The Complete Yes Prime Minister, BBC.