Eden's lessons of Suez revealed, 37 years on: Secrets emerge in huge clear-out of public records

DAYS before he resigned as Prime Minister in January 1957, Sir Anthony Eden wrote urgently of the need for Britain to work closely with Europe, to slash its spending on defence and the Welfare State, to halt the drain of talent to America and to concentrate on becoming a technological power.

Eden's sweeping thoughts on the future of Britain were set out in a remarkable private memorandum to Cabinet colleagues which is full of echoes for today's politicians. Although it is 37 years old, it has only been released to historians in the past few weeks and, but for a recent change in government policy, it could have remained secret for a further 60 years or more.

The first 'lesson of Suez', Eden wrote, was that 'if we are to play an independent part in the world . . . we must ensure our financial and economic independence'. And 'since we have no raw materials but coal, this means that we must excel in technical knowledge'. Too many of the country's scientists, and too much government money, was being devoted to defence, Eden wrote. Many naval bases abroad should be closed, and the army in Germany cut in half.

''The most anxious fact on the home front,' he wrote, 'is I think the alarming increase in the cost of the Welfare State.' While spending on education could be justified as underpinning industry, much of the rest was 'less directly related to our struggle for existence', while high taxation was driving entrepreneurs and scientists abroad.

Concluding, Eden said that Britain was likely to be driven towards closer co-operation with Europe, but he warned, prophetically, that the European governments might not welcome a British approach. The timing and conviction of Britain's overtures to Europe would be all-important.

As a record of a prime minister's views on his country's future as it emerged from crisis, it is a document of great importance. Keith Kyle, the historian of Suez, describes it as Eden's 'last will and testament'. Professor Peter Hennessy, an authority on post-war government, believes that 'everybody who writes about Suez, about Eden, or about Britain's role in the world in the Fifties and Sixties is bound to quote it, whether they be academic historians writing books or undergraduates turning out essays'.

Yet Mr Kyle and Prof Hennessy have only known about the 'lessons of Suez' document for a few weeks, and until this year there was no plan to release it to the public for decades, possibly not until after the year 2056.

Public Record Office (PRO) document PREM 11/1138, as it is now known, is one of roughly 6,500 state papers or files which the Government has opened in the past year, overruling decisions to hold them back for security or other reasons. The documents cover an enormous variety of issues, from Rudolf Hess to early Commonwealth conferences, from allegations that RAF pilots were held prisoner in Russia after the war to Anglo-Irish relations in 1921, from the Nazi occupation of Jersey to Pearl Harbor. Thousands more documents are in the pipeline, to be released in the coming months.

Historians who have been examining the new releases at the PRO in Kew, south-west London, react with enthusiasm and occasional excitement. Mr Kyle, for example, has been able to confirm that barely six weeks before the Suez crisis erupted, Nasser, the Egyptian leader, wanted to come to London for face-to-face talks with Eden.

The trigger for the release of all these papers was an invitation to historians last year from William Waldegrave, the minister responsible for open government, to identify secret files which they felt should be opened.

Normally, the papers of the various government departments, when they are no longer useful to officials, are 'weeded' to remove uninteresting material and then closed for 30 years, after which they are opened to public scrutiny at the PRO. Certain categories of papers are excluded, notably those relating to national security, those which might cause distress or danger to individuals and those containing information acquired upon a guarantee of confidentiality.

For years historians had complained that far too much was held back, and they were able to identify cases where the reasons were ludicrous. The file on civil unrest in Tonypandy in 1911, for example, was kept secret for 75 years and it was long suspected that the reason was to protect the reputation of Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary. When the file was opened, it was found that the 'sensitive' material it contained related to special police overtime arrangements.

Another example was raised recently in the House of Lords. The records of a defunct Foreign Office body, the Information Research Department, remain closed after 40 years although Lord Mayhew, who ran the department as a young man, insisted to fellow peers last month that they contained nothing sensitive.

He said the Soviet Union knew what the department was up to, 'because one of my less happy actions at IRD was to appoint to this secret department an official who showed at interview a most remarkable grasp of Soviet propaganda. This was Mr Guy Burgess.'

When Mr Waldegrave, keen to prove his commitment to British glasnost, asked historians to name files overdue for opening, the response was swift and effective. After a meeting in London last November, organised by the Institute of Contemporary British History (ICBH), a list was drawn up and passed to the minister.

The result has been impressive, and it has been made possible by a general attitude of greater flexibility. One suggestion made at the ICBH meeting was that, where a long document contained a short passage of sensitive material, an American practice of 'blanking out' should be adopted. A copy would be made with the passage replaced by blank space, and this could then be released.

The idea was accepted and Eden's 'lessons of Suez' is an example. It contains a blank space adorned with the handwritten words: 'Passage deleted and retained under Section 3 (4)'. In all likelihood the missing sentences deal with intelligence; they will remain secret as long as the Government wishes.

Another change has been the abolition of a bureaucratic Catch 22. Government departments wishing to withhold a file past the 30-year limit have to defend their case before an impartial body called the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Public Records, which includes reputable historians among its members.

The committee, in the past, could challenge officials over any particular file, but in assessing the case they were at a disadvantage: they did not have security clearance so they were not allowed to see what the file actually contained.

That is now to change. The Lord Chancellor, Lord MacKay, announced last month that either the chairman of the committee, or one member (who will presumably be subjected to security vetting), will be allowed to inspect contentious files.

Although untold numbers of files older than the 30-year limit still remain secret, historians are encouraged by the changes and by the continuing clear-out of papers. But does it all matter? Can a load of tatty documents in dusty files really be worth all this administrative effort and all this ministerial and parliamentary time?

Brian Brivati, secretary of the ICBH, offers a spirited response. 'The importance of this development extends beyond the narrow confines of professional historians; it is a process of maturing as a democracy,' he says. Some files show past governments behaving badly, and later generations of politicians should not be allowed to protect them. In other cases openness serves the Government's interests, for the truth in the files can kill off conspiracy theories encouraged by secrecy.

He also has a more basic argument: 'Historians have to earn a living. I do not think this is such a ghastly thing to admit. The PRO is for many of them the source of their livelihood.'

This week in London the ICBH will hold a second conference on PRO releases, sponsored by the Independent on Sunday, to review the impact of the Waldegrave initiative and compile a fresh list of files still waiting to be opened.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
Life and Style
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions