Saturday, January 01, 2005

Secrecy - when civil servants attack

This may be the last year of a traditional British New Year ritual, the ceremonious release of government records previously kept secret. Traditionally, confidential files have been sealed for differing periods of time depending on Whitehall's view of their potential for embarrassment, whoops, security importance - the vast bulk are held for 30 years (the thirty year rule) before being handed over to the national archive for any journalist, whoops, fool to read. The upshot was that on New Year's Day every year, the secret files of thirty years before were released in a gush. Some newspapers make a point of picking over them for scandal, which at least helps to lift the New Year's hangover.

From now on, though, with the Freedom of Information Act in force, the files ought in theory to be accessible much more speedily. A good thing, but one that will mean an end to the traditional New Year's box hunt. Well, enough of that. In today's Grauniad, Richard Norton-Taylor crows over the release of papers detailing the Whitehall panic that broke out when he achieved a scoop by getting hold of confidential economic forecasts back in 1974. What is especially interesting is the resonance with today, especially the comparison between the permanence of the civil service and the transience of almost anything else. Back then, the Treasury officials who ran Wilson's semi-planned economy and who diligently hunted Norton-Taylor's source included Alan Budd, who only this month reported on the David Blunkett affair from within his hard-right Home Office, and Steve Robson. Him! Robson later served Margaret Thatcher and John Major by heading up the Treasury privatisation team, and went on to invent the Private Finance Initiative and the structure of the privatised railways. Instead of being lynched, though, he was knighted and finished up heading Partnerships UK, the taxpayer-funded body set up to promote - well - Private Finance Initiatives.

God almighty, from the nationalisation of British Leyland and the EEC renegotiation to publicly funded champagne with EDS executives. You would think that nothing at all remains of the Britain of the 1974 files - what with frantic efforts to keep Richard Nixon from coming on a state visit, bizarre schemes to break the Loyalist power workers' strike by driving the Ulster power grid from a nuclear submarine, and coalition talks with the Liberals over the possibility of a greater role for workers in management (this from the Conservatives!) - except only the civil service. It strikes me that there is a fine line between the principled independence that the civil service prides itself on, and a sort of bankrupt willingness to serve the powerful, rather like the German general staff's ├╝berparteilichkeit. If you make that trip from Wilson in '74 to rail privatisation in 1996 and PR for PFIs in 1998 - does that show impartiality, or corruption?

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