The Rough Drafts of Official History

By McLynn, Frank | New Statesman (1996), January 10, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Rough Drafts of Official History


McLynn, Frank, New Statesman (1996)


Another disaster, another inquiry. But Frank McLynn finds that the reports, without fail, always protect the establishment

In 1901 some British army officers arrogantly pursued a fox that had taken refuge in the garden of the poet and traveller William Scawen Blunt, even though his walled demesne was known to be out of bounds to all outsiders. When Blunt's servants resisted the incursion, they were arrested and sentenced to prison terms. Blunt's increasingly vociferous protests got him nowhere. The military took up a Latin American position whereby the slightest breath of criticism of a disreputable major was an affront to the "honour" of the entire army.

This particular defence of the army as sacred establishment cow is revealed in William Blunt's Egyptian Garden: fox hunting in Cairo, one of the Stationery Office's new "Uncovered Editions" - book versions of official reports of a range of 20th-century causes celebres.

From a historian's point of view these "blue book" reports, edited by Tim Coates, are primary sources, but they are in no sense archival or secret; it is just that hitherto they have not been available in bookshops but had to be bought at HMSO or consulted in the British Library. Easy accessibility to such material is another step in the painfully slow progress secrecy-crazed Britain has to make towards genuine freedom of information, and for that reason alone the first 11 volumes should be welcomed.

The most interesting reports deal with the footnotes of history, rather than the main text, and show officialdom at its worst. Cynics say there is a threefold set of guidelines for bureaucrats. When in charge, ponder ("more research is needed"); when in trouble, delegate; when in doubt, mumble or obfuscate.

Even the reports least interesting to the professional historian may intrigue the general reader. The Boer War: Ladysmith and Mafeking, 1900, for example, tells us nothing new, for these documents were used by Thomas Pakenham in his best-selling account of the South African conflict. But it is not often the "intelligent general reader", if such a mythical beast exists, has the opportunity to hold in his or her hands the kind of primary documentation the academic so relishes, such as the particulars of the diet enjoyed by the besieged garrison. The same applies to The British Invasion of Tibet: Colonel Younghusband, 1904. The "biffing" given the luckless Tibetans by British imperialism at its zenith, eerily anticipating the fate that would be meted out on the roof of the world by the Chinese communist invaders 55 years later, has been comprehensively explored by Patrick French in his outstanding biography of Younghusband.

The origin of the two world wars takes us into more interesting territory. Niall Ferguson's recent book suggests it may have been a mistake for Britain to go to war in 1914, while John Charmley, Andrew Roberts and others have taken the A J P Taylor thesis on a notch or two and queried whether war with Germany in 1939 did not presage the downfall of the British Empire. Two of the 11 blue books show British statesmen wrestling with the problem. War 1914: Punishing the Serbs underlines the Foreign Office's extreme irritation that a war between the Central Powers and Russia, which would in turn embroil Britain and France, Should begin over Serbia. The British tried very hard to pour oil on troubled waters and the FO's detachment over events in the Balkans in 1914 could have been emulated to advantage by Clinton and Blair earlier this year. War 1939: Dealing with Adolf Hitler rehearses the dreary circumstances in which Britain went to war in September 1939 over Poland, having failed to do so the year before over Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain rationalised his appeasement by describing Czechoslovakia and Benes's resistance to Hitler as "a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing". But Poland was an even farther away country of which we knew even less. …

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