Leading Article: End this insulting culture of secrecy

THE REVELATION that Nazi-trained homing-pigeons on spying missions were the target of the British Army Pigeon Special Service Section (membership: two peregrine falcons) during the last war is just one of many stories that have come to light thanks to a slightly more open attitude to the release of old government files. It is a fascinating tale. But it is one, along with the stories about Mata Hari's spying and Harold Wilson's putative plan to make us the 51st state of the USA, that it might have been nice to know about before now.

There are still secrets from the First World War that will remain locked away until 2018. The papers on the abdication of Edward VIII may remain closed until 2036. Contemporary accounts of George III's porphyria will remain unseen. All this reveals again the powerful culture of state secrecy that still conceals the trivial and the vital alike.

There is something offensive about the attitude of those who think that we cannot cope with our own history. But more offensive still is the notion that we cannot cope with the present. As things stand, we shall have to wait 30 years to know the real basis on which a British Cabinet will decide on our entry into the euro. Nothing could be more condescending, or more dangerous.

It does not have to be this way. The publication of the minutes of the Chancellor's meetings with the Governor of the Bank of England show that openness can make for good governance. We have been promised a strong, liberal Freedom of Information Bill. The indications are that the proposals are being watered down by the Home Office. But opening up government is essential for the modernisation of the state. After 25 years of Labour manifesto promises about openness, we expect more than news about two wartime falcons, no matter how intrepid their exploits.