Book review: The dark soul of government

THE CULTURE OF SECRECY: BRITAIN 1832-1998 BY DAVID VINCENT, OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, pounds 25

BRITAIN'S INFORMAL governing arrangements have traditionally been celebrated as a bulwark against the despotic ways of Continental regimes, even though they have been kept in place since the days of Burke much more as a safeguard against democracy itself. We see now that they fail to protect us from poor government, and deny us the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. They are exceptional largely as a sign of democratic backwardness.

Secrecy is integral to any regime, but it has been utterly fundamental in Britain. The very flexibility of the state which is the hallmark of our governance depends on concealing the powers of our rulers. The refusal to write down our constitution is the greatest state secret of all.

David Vincent's fascinating study of the history of official secrecy since 1832 urges us not to condemn the past or to mock the present, but to understand the laws, structures and "bundles of attitudes, values and conventions" that serve official secrecy. I cannot be so philosophical. Government that denied the public full knowledge of BSE, that withheld the rules that regulate ministers' behaviour until the Nineties and that censors the media through secret D-notices, is to be mocked and condemned.

But it helps to understand, and Vincent's account is enjoyable and illuminating. He rarely strays away from the conduct and culture of the state, and especially the British civil service. But he finds time, for example, to celebrate Baroness Thatcher as a pioneer of openness (in local government), to dissect the collision of private and public worlds in the trial of Oscar Wilde, to describe Marie Stopes's rage over the concealment of information about birth control, and to mock the Victorian Home Office's opening of letters to stop foreign porn defiling public schoolboys; and he refrains from condemning Asquith's leaks of critical information about the 1914-18 war in love letters to a young woman - even though the disclosures could have led to thousands of deaths.

What emerges is the astonishing continuity of state practice. Its ideological key was the decision to give the new meritocratic civil service of the 1850s an ethos akin to that of the displaced aristocratic placemen. The standards of the new "regime of cram" were personified in the figure of the gentleman, who would combine the virtues of trust and competence with discreet respect for the confidences of his calling.

This "honourable secrecy" did not amount to an oath of silence. Official secrecy was designed to control, in its own interests, the teeming mass of information at the state's disposal. Senior politicians and officials had licence to spill the beans when they chose, but not the lower orders. It was only when the "mechanicals" began leaking information that the state came to pass secrecy laws. Though these acts - the most infamous of which was Asquith's 1911 Official Secrets Act - were presented as defences against foreign enemies, their real purpose was to silence enemies within the state.

The longevity of the gentlemen's regime has been remarkable. Governments of every colour have found the combination of flexible powers and equally flexible secrecy a persuasive argument against reform. Yet the social conditions and political realities that made the regime possible in Victorian Britain do not obtain any longer. The public is better educated and less deferential. The conventions of secrecy have been replaced by a premium on candour. Even the confidences of marriage are, as Margaret Cook has displayed, now breached for political and personal ends.

Most crucial of all, the political marriage of competence, trust and secrecy has been broken for ever. People no longer believe that the way we are governed works, and they have lost faith in their politicians. The Scott report (of which Vincent strangely makes little) confirmed the dishonourable uses of secrecy by civil servants and ministers alike, colluding to arm a tyrant who gassed, murdered and oppressed his own subjects. Scandals and sleaze forced John Major to draft in a judge to write a new ethical code to replace the outworn gentlemen's agreements. Now we expect the worst and expect the state to adopt open mechanisms to prevent it.

I do not share Vincent's confidence that this Government's Right to Know White Paper represents a new epoch. Over Jack Straw's live body! Labour ministers were outraged by the proposals, and the forthcoming Bill was wrested from believers in the Cabinet Office and handed over to traditionalists in Straw's Home Office. However, gradually and painfully, excessive official secrecy will be worn down. Our hope must be that the overweening executive powers that it has concealed and buttressed will crumble away with it.

Stuart Weir

The reviewer is joint author of `Political Power and Democratic Control in Britain' (Routledge)

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering