Some quick thoughts on Cabinet minutes, government records and the 30 year rule

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:

  1. Minutes do not record everything that was said at a meeting.
  2. People frequently change their minds during a meeting.
  3. Minutes, by virtue of the selection process, can never be a true and complete record.
  4. Therefore, what is said at a meeting merely constitutes the choice of ingredients for the minutes.
  5. 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:

  1. The purpose of minutes is not to record events.
  2. The purpose is to protect people.
  3. 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.
  4. In short, minutes are constructive. They are to improve what is said, to be tactful, to put in better order.
  5. 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.

 

References

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.

First words in Welsh history (or openings from some random books)

Tonight a new ‘landmark’ series begins on BBC Wales about the history of Wales. I don’t know how far back it will begin but it’s prompted to me to dig out some schoolbooks on the history of Wales and see how they start.

Here are the results of this random exercise:

” History tells us of the deeds of the men of olden time, and their manner of life. These men were our ancestors, and therefore we resemble them, as children resemble their parents: nevertheless, no age is exactly like the one before it; for new things are constantly being discovered, and so the world progresses. Thus, though ancestors of ours have for many centuries lived among the hills of Wales, we should not recognize one of them, if he were to come to life again, but should certainly believe him to be some wild savage.”  J. E. Lloyd, Llyfr Cyntaf Hanes (1893).

“The story of England and Wales is a very long and a very famous one. It is full of deeds of brave and wise men, each of whom loved his own country, and did his utmost for it.” John Finnemore, The Story of England and Wales (1924).

“Julius Caesar invaded Britain twice, fifty-five and fifty-four years before the birth of Christ. He wrote a book about his invasion, but he never came to Wales so his story does not belong to Welsh history.” Mary McCririck, Stories of Wales (1957).

“During the early years of the Second World War, Britain was threatened with invasion from the east across the North Sea, and from the south across the English Channel. Thousands of people left their homes in eastern and southern England, and came to Wales to find refuge from possible occupation by the enemy. It has always been like that. Through the Christian era, and through far longer prehistoric ages, in the face of invasion the people of lowlands have pressed westward into Wales, and the invaders of one age have become the refugees of the next.”  David Frasers, The Invaders (1962).

“Imagine living in a country where the trees drip with human blood.”  Terry Deary, Horrible Histories: Wales (2008)

There are lots of different ways to tell the story of Wales and lots different places it might start. But however and wherever history is started says more about the teller than the subject.

On publishing an academic book

My new book is out. When I say out I mean there are a pile of them sitting in my office next to other piles of stuff. The official publication date is the start of March, although Amazon says it’s out in May for some reason. Academic books tend to creep out rather than get released in a blaze of glory.

Publishing an academic book is a strange experience. You think about the book for a long time before starting it. You do some research and then you write.  You mess around with the structure. You work and rework individual sentences.  You move bits of text around. You delete things and then put them back, sometimes in the exact place where you first had them. You think about it at night, in the shower, in the middle of films.

Somewhere along the line you find a publisher, which may or may not be straightforward. Eventually, some years later, you finish the book.  You’re still not quite happy with it but you send it off.

Months and months later you get the proofs which you read and wish you’d done things differently. But, even though it isn’t quite what you thought it might be, you’re still quite proud. You send them back. You wait a long time. You get some more proofs. You do an index or you pay someone to do one.

More months pass and then a box suddenly and usually unexpectedly arrives. It’s your book with your name on the front. You show your mum, your wife and your kids. They’re quite proud but none of them will ever read it.

Then not much happens. It takes months for reviews to arrive.  If they’re nice you tell people about them; if they’re not  nice it’s because the reviewer hasn’t properly read or understood the book.

You check it on Amazon every now and then (i.e. every day initially) and you get excited when you see it’s climbed 200,000 places in the bestseller list. Then you realize this just means you sold a single copy.

You might see it in a shop.  This is also quite exciting and you may move it to the front of the shelf, cover facing out so the world can see.

Some people do buy the book, some of them even read it, but you have no idea what most people think of it.

In today’s world of instant interaction this lack of interaction is a bit frustrating and a bit odd. But it’s no different to publishing in an academic journal where the feedback is even less and the readership can sometimes be counted on not many hands. Moreover, most blogs don’t, I imagine, have very high readerships either. Publishing on an interactive forum does not guarantee interaction.

Perhaps this new book will be different. It is reasonably priced (only £15.64 at Amazon) and it has a very broad topic. I’m plugging it where I can and various media have promised some coverage.  It will be in a few newspapers and on the radio. Some people may tell me what they think of the argument rather than the cover.

Doing this self-publicity (like this blog) feels a little odd to academics who spent their time buried in an introspective world of teaching, research and paperwork. It certainly draws some sniggering.

For academics, finishing writing is too often seen as the end of a project rather than a stage in the whole research experience.  If we don’t  want people to read our work, why write it at all? Why go through all that frustration and agonizing? Surely not just so we have another publication for our CV?

Perhaps most academics’ reluctance to engage too closely with publicizing their work is down to a fear of just how few people are interested.

In case you missed the subtle link above, you can buy Wales since 1939 from Amazon here. Other online booksellers are available too.  If you live in Wales you might even see it in a shop.

The above is not a literal description of publishing an academic book. There are other parts to the process, not least the publisher’s peer reviewing. There you do get told what others think of either the idea of the book or the book itself. They are not always right.

Sleeper and me

Some thoughts on autobiography and the history of popular music

When I was a student someone bought me Sleeper’s first album for Christmas.  I don’t remember who it was or whether I had asked for it. It’s getting frightening how I can’t remember details of my student days. I don’t recall at all where I got Sleeper’s second album from. I have it my head that I borrowed it from someone but never gave it back. But perhaps I imagined that.

Listening to Sleeper now vaguely reminds me of dancing around a room I had in a shared house and of fancying the lead singer, Louise Wener. She embodied the kind of cool girls who smoked, were recklessly romantic and wore jeans and trainers, girls who were out of my league.

Music is a good jogger of the memory. It’s hardly original to point out that hearing a song can remind you of certain people, places and emotions. But when you repeatedly listen to a song or album its associations get confused.  I liked Sleeper a lot but their records now prompt a jumbled mix of half-remembered associations that are mixed up with other bands from a period when I spent too much time at indie nights. I can’t even remember for sure whether I ever saw Sleeper live.

I am prompted into self-indulgent nostlagia by having just finished Louise Wener’s autobiography.  Its second half, recollections of being a sex symbol in one of Britpop’s key bands, is funny and self-effacing but it’s the first half, the story of being a geeky, music-obsessed teenager in a small town, that makes the book stand out.

Her stories of how music helped her cope with self-doubt, social awkwardness and the ruthlessness of teenagers brought all sorts of things flooding back that I haven’t thought about in a long time. But they also illustrate the power of popular music. Songs are the trigger of memories because they are more than sounds and melodies to have fun to. At its best, music isn’t something in the background of our life events, it’s something that twists and shapes what’s happening in the foreground. It can make us who we are. Wener calls David Bowie ‘the sticking plaster I apply to my teenage awkwardness’. Maybe such power fades as we get older and subsumed by work, family and money, but it’s always there if we want it.

That’s why the history of popular music matters and that’s what historians who write about music should be interested in.  Understanding the form, the fashion and the lyrics only makes sense if we look at how they were received.  Historians of popular culture should concentrate on the audiences rather than bands.

That’s easier said that done because audiences’ memories of music shift and blur.  Some of Wener’s descriptions of seminal moments in her musical life are remarkably detailed and it’s hard not to think that occasionally they are an older, wiser woman looking back on what her younger self probably felt. Indeed, she finishes the book saying she hasn’t made any of it up: ‘It’s all exactly the way I remember it’. Presumably, the implication is that other people might remember it differently.

Events are all about perception. Historians can’t ‘tell it how it was’, because it was always different for different people. The trick is trying to come to generalizations that work, without losing sight of the variations of experience within them.

For some of the groupies in the book, Sleeper were life. For other people, they were just another example of how pretentious Britpop was. For me, they were some great tunes, sang by the kind of unattainable cool woman that I was too nervous to talk to in a dingy Cardiff indie club. Music can be everything and nothing.

British social and cultural history is still lacking a definitive book that looks at the impact of pop music on everyday life. When someone gets round to writing it, Wener’s autobiography will be an excellent source.  It might not be typical of the impact of Haircut 100 or David Bowie on every teenager. It might not even be quite right on Wener herself. After all, all autobiography involves reconstructing incomplete memories and some degree of image management, conscious or otherwise. But in this second element, it’s no different to deciding what music you are into.  Popular music has never just been about the tunes.

Sleeper on Top of the Pops in 1995, a show that is central to the cultural history of post-war Britain.