Bureaucrats in their own words

John Profumo and Christine Keeler, 1963 - R101 - Rillington Place - The Boer War, 1900 - The British Invasion of Tibet - The Judgement of Nuremberg, 1946 - The Loss of the Titanic, 1912 - The Strange Story of Adolph Beck - Tragedy at Bethnal Green, 1943 - War 1914 - War 1939 - Wilfrid Blunt's Egyptian Garden Fox-hunting in Cairo
December 1, 2000

In the early series of The X-Files , a paranoid television drama in which FBI agents chase aliens across the United States, there was a huge warehouse. Every time our heroes Mulder and Scully discovered physical proof that our planet, or at least North America, was teeming with aliens, the evidence would be labelled and placed in this government repository. It was never heard from again. Slowly the camera pulled back and you realised that the warehouse was absolutely immense.

The archive of Her Majesty's Stationery Office - recently rebranded as the more republican-sounding TSO, The Stationery Office - must have a warehouse like the one in The X-Files . Here, since the 19th century, Her/His Majesty's governments have placed official papers they did not want their citizens to see and copies of those it deemed publishable in the public interest. Keen citizens could rush down to the HMSO shop and buy a copy. A small selection of this vast library of official documents has now been made more widely available by being republished in paperback in the series Uncovered Editions.

It is difficult to praise the idea, the format, the selection and the quality of this project too highly. Every teacher and student of history should own a set, especially for the full text of the judgment at the Nuremberg trials, Sir Neville Henderson's final report from Berlin in 1939 and the diplomatic dispatches sent after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

True-crime enthusiasts will enjoy The Strange Story of Adolph Beck and Rillington Place . In both, the real star is the matter-of-fact prose of the police officers and lawyers, the real surprise the level of gullibility that greed will breed and the class prejudice of the British constabulary. In the 19th century the problem seems to have been institutionalised snobbery. Anti-hunt saboteurs will enjoy Wilfrid Blunt's reaction to having a fox hunt cross and damage his garden in Egypt, and voyeurs of all ages will enjoy the original text of the Denning report on Profumo. It is infinitely superior to the film version of the scandal, containing such gems as: "One night I was invited to a dinner party at the home of a very, very rich man. After I arrived, I discovered it was rather an unusual dinner party. All the guests had taken off their clothes... The most intriguing person was a man with a black mask over his face. At first I thought this was just a party gimmick. But the truth was that this man is so well known and holds such a responsible position that he did not want to be associated with anything improper."

Lord Denning reassures us that the man in the mask was not a minister of the crown. Nor, indeed, was the headless man in the Argyll divorce. You could not, of course, make this up. The tone of Denning's report ("sexual activities of a vile and revolting nature"; "it has been suggested that Sir Norman Brook went beyond his province at this point") is superior to anything in That Was The Week That Was .

Film buffs will be rather more disappointed by the real story of the sinking of the Titanic. If Profumo is a classic piece of English period prose, a social document about the 13 wasted years and the beginning of sexual intercourse, à la Larkin, then The Loss of the Titanic and R101: The Airship Disaster prove how much more exciting Hollywood can be than reality. I am not sure that anyone, aside from the hardened enthusiast, will manage to read these two titles through to the end, but they should at least dip into them. Though highly technical in tone, they are tributes to the exactitude of the official mind and the skill of the investigators.

None of these volumes will contain surprises for specialists, but they will be handy compilations and good for teaching, and they will enthral non-specialists. The volumes were selected by their editor Tim Coates, formerly managing director of Waterstones, because they were good stories rather than because they made sense as a series. There are, however, some general conclusions to be drawn from this random selection.

If the government of most other countries in the world had agreed to Coates's publishing a selection like this, it would have asked for some positive stories. The spin would have been: let us have some smooth with the rough, a few wartime heroics with the imperial prejudice, arrogance and stupidity. Is it a commentary on the insecurity or the confidence of our culture that the image that comes across from the foreign policy-oriented volumes presented here is much worse than anything in Carry on up the Khyber?

Real imperialists were worse than any caricature ever invented. William Hague, currently flirting with the kind of Powellite nationalism that the heroes of Ladysmith and the Boer war would have endorsed, would do well to read and learn from these stories. There is hardly an Englishman in these pages who does not exhibit the worst and most unreflected-upon symptoms of a belief in his manifest destiny. This is not to say that they are evil people, merely that they are English and of their generation. The imperialists come out not, as Andrew Roberts would like us to believe, as giants straddling the globe, but as moral pygmies whose arrogance was matched only by their ignorance.

These are the scripts of circumstances and events that come closest in real life to genuine drama. The formula for fiction demands dramatic finishes, the reconciliation of story lines and the triumph of heroes over adversity. History is different, as each of these volumes shows. From the individual evil of Christie murdering his victims at Rillington Place and putting his wife under the floorboards because "that was the best place in which to lay her to rest", to the collective evil analysed in the judgement at Nuremberg, it is clearer than ever that the past is a morally untidy place.

All the Uncovered Editions are linked by being the historical testimony of the bureaucratic mentality. The image of the bureaucrat is one of the many casualties of the 20th century. From Albert Cohen's fussy hero, through Kafka's various victims, to information retrieval in Terry Gilliam's Brazil , it is the faceless bureaucrat who personifies the flaws and the dark side of modernity. Nuremberg showed the way this bureaucratic mentality became the agent of mass murder, and the soulless account of the invasion of Tibet or the sheer bloody-mindedness of the British fox hunters in Egypt showed how it could entirely miss the point of the events it was describing. And yet other pages in these books show the honest virtue of a different kind of application of the will to organise. Though sometimes the perpetrator, the bureaucrat is also the person trying to make sense of the pieces that are left after human evil or incompetence. The bureaucrat is the judicial investigator who organises and assesses the evidence that is to hand when a disaster strikes; the diplomat who tries to articulate a response to an impending crisis on the scale of the first world war and who grasps, in many cases before the politicians, the consequences of the decisions that are being made; and the detective stubbornly burrowing into a set of circumstances that do not quite fit. They right judicial wrongs, or tell a story with a pleasing and necessary precision, like the account of R101 .

These volumes are monuments to the maligned bureaucratic architects who shaped our contemporary world - in part chilling, in part inspiring. Chilling in showing the ability of bureaucrats to be morally blind to the meaning of the codes and laws that the state has asked them to uphold and defensive when a new state holds them to account (at Nuremberg, accused and accuser understood each other because they were both servants of the state, but remained separated by a greater moral grasp of the consequences of actions, as well as by victory). Inspiring and strangely endearing in the way they show the search for order and sense amid the chaos of events, the debris of crime or the aftermath of disaster.

Brian Brivati is reader in history, Kingston University.

John Profumo and Christine Keeler, 1963

Author - HMSO
ISBN - 0 11 702402 3
Publisher - The Stationery Office
Price - £6.99
Pages - 216

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