The Culture of Secrecy: Britain, 1832-1998

The Culture of Secrecy: Britain, 1832-1998

The Culture of Secrecy: Britain, 1832-1998

The Culture of Secrecy: Britain, 1832-1998

Synopsis

The Culture of Secrecy is the first comprehensive study of the restriction of official information in modern British history. It seeks to understand why secrets have been kept, and how systems of control have been constructed - and challenged - over the past hundred and sixty years. The author transcends the conventional boundaries of political or social history in his wide-ranging diagnosis of the `British disease' - the legal forms and habits of mind which together have constituted the national tradition of discreet reserve. The chapters range across bureaucrats and ballots, gossip and gay rights, doctors and dole investigators in their exploration of the ethical basis of power in the public, professional, commercial and domestic spheres. Professor Vincent examines concepts such as privacy and confidentiality, honour and integrity, openness and freedom of expression, which have served as benchmarks in the development of the liberal state and society.

Excerpt

Secrecy first came to my attention when I was working on the history of reading and writing. the most direct application of the skills of penmanship which the early nineteenth-century elementary schools were trying to teach was correspondence, and thus I turned to the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840. As I pursued its implications, I came across the first great controversy over official secrecy which erupted four years later when the government was forced to defend its clandestine practice of letter-opening. the implications of the debate which took place both inside and outside Parliament form the subject matter of the study that follows.

The Culture of Secrecy is, in this sense, the other side of the coin of the growth of literacy and of later technologies of communication, the obverse of the process by which the minds of the mass of the population were opened to unprecedented resources of knowledge and imagination. This is not, however, a study merely of the darker aspects of this long revolution. Secrecy is as integral to a liberal democracy as openness; the latter indeed could not exist either as a concept or as a practice without the former. the word itself has acquired such negative connotations that it is necessary to resist the instinct to condemn past practices and mock more recent behaviour. At times this is not easy. When we remind ourselves that in the 1980s it was still the case that every scrap of official information was potentially a legally enforceable secret, that sane, respected statesmen could still refuse to name the directors of the secret services whom all our enemies knew as intimates, there is little need to deploy the past to make strange the present. a central concern of this book is to recapture the logic and function of arrangements whose survival merits at least the respect if not the approbation of those who study them. the task is to understand the forces which created the particular configurations of blocked communication which characterized the making of modern Britain.

The title is as much a question as a description. the notion of a culture of secrecy is seen here not as an object to be delineated, like a war or an election, but rather as an explanation to be interrogated. It is evident from the outset that an account which confines itself to laws and their making will illuminate very little. But equally it is clear that the notion of culture has frequently been used to evade or obscure the historical identity of systems of controlling the flow of information. At each stage the relation between institutional structures and the associated bundles of attitudes, values, and conventions needs to be carefully articulated. If it is the case that informal controls were, wherever possible, preferred to statutory regulations, then we need to know why, and we . . .

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