Secrets and lies

The Culture of Secrecy
March 3, 2000

This is the best book ever written on the history of official secrecy in Britain. It achieves this status because it devotes very little space to the details of the legislation passed in the 20th century: there are a couple of pages on the 1911 act, hardly anything on its successor in 1920, and even less on the supposed "reform" of 1989. Neither is there much on the famous cases produced by the attempts of governments of every political persuasion to enforce this legislation. All of these aspects have been exhaustively covered elsewhere.

The great strength of this book is that it tries to answer the question of why Britain, almost alone among western democracies, has had such a pervasive culture of secrecy. In doing so it ranges much wider than the Whitehall machine and investigates secrecy in other areas of British public life. It is this aspect of David Vincent's work that provides a range of perspectives that is so often missing from other accounts of secrecy. The formal establishment of a pervasive system of government secrecy was paralleled by the growth of professional secrecy as doctors, charity and social workers, lawyers and accountants carved out their own spheres of competence and sought to establish their own codes of conduct and behaviour. At the same time, the widening of the government's impact on society meant that some people lost the right to secrecy. This was not just a matter of intelligence gathering through letter opening, telephone tapping and other forms of surveillance (until the 1980s without any clear legal authority). Individuals claiming assistance from the state found that their private affairs were regarded as open to detailed inspection as never before.

Vincent rightly traces the British culture of secrecy back to the way in which government reacted to the far-reaching economic and social changes brought about by industrialisation in the 19th century. It was a period of "politics without democracy" and, even more important, without radical institutional change. A small governing elite drawn from an extremely narrow educational background of the public schools and Oxbridge constructed their own codes of behaviour in which formal rules were not required because the status and standing of an individual depended on the approval of his very limited number of colleagues. Government was therefore a semi-private matter for the elite. The problem the elite faced was that, as the functions of government expanded, people from outside this narrow background had to be co-opted into the system at more menial levels and they could not be relied upon to play by the unwritten rules. In the late 19th century the attempt to codify the elite's rules of behaviour failed to bind lesser mortals and eventually legislation was required to enforce these rules.

The basis of that legislation reflected prevailing modes of behaviour. The elite could be relied on to know when they could authorise themselves to release information. As the Franks committee found out in the early 1970s, nobody in Whitehall could explain how authorisation was obtained except that those at the top "knew" when it could and could not be done. The Official Secrets Acts were used almost entirely when unimportant information was released by people lower down the state hierarchy. That system survived because of the self-confidence induced by victory in two world wars. Vincent traces the origins of its collapse to the Suez debacle. However, it was not the large-scale and systematic government lying that took place before and after the attack on Egypt that started the breakdown, simply failure. By the late 1980s the government had to admit that the system of official secrecy had comprehensively broken down.

The culture of British government included almost no elements suggesting that it should be responsible to a wider public, an attitude reinforced by the government's near-total control of Parliament. The attempt to construct legislation on freedom of information was designed to change the existing culture of secrecy.

It is at this point that Vincent must wish that his publishers could work to quicker deadlines. His book concludes with the 1997 white paper Your Right to Know and states that with it "the subject of this book was consigned to the past". The events of the past two years have instead shown that the culture of secrecy is alive and well. Cynics had long argued that it was perfectly possible to pass a toothless Freedom of Information Act that provided no enforceable rights to obtain more information. Only a few in this group would have believed that a reactionary home secretary, in alliance with the vested interests in Whitehall, would have the chutzpah to introduce such legislation and actually widen the scope of official secrecy at the same time.

Clive Ponting is senior lecturer in politics, University of Wales, Swansea.

The Culture of Secrecy: Britain 1832-1998

Author - David Vincent
ISBN - 0 19 820307 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 364

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