Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

Last week, I went to a party in No.10 Downing Street to relaunch its official website. In his speech of welcome, the Prime Minister said something quite bold. Because of Freedom of Information (FoI), he explained, officials and ministers are increasingly reluctant to put on paper what they actually think. He is right. If you know that your views may suddenly be released early to the wider world, your confidence, in both senses of that word, is undermined. So you express your views orally (which means that they can never be part of wider, formal discussion within government), or not at all. As with so many efforts at open government, the effect is perverse. Toiling away at the Thatcher papers in the government archives, I am often struck by the frankness of internal communication in the 1980s. Policy disagreement is strong and clear, which proves that some trust existed. Mr Cameron says he is trying to set an example by writing what he thinks on the memos he receives. That is good, both for government and for history, but it is one thing for the boss to take that risk, another for the underlings.

Part of the reason for a higher level of trust was technological. Mrs Thatcher was the last Prime Minister never to see an email while in office. Her papers were collected and filed according to a simple principle which anyone can understand - these are the papers that landed on her desk. Obviously, they were quite widely copied within government, but on nothing like the scale or with the speed of emails. The old principle of filing cannot be followed now. Anyone who tries to write about Tony Blair as I am writing about Mrs Thatcher will have far too much material about what does not matter and far too little about what does.

The history of how we are governed in the 21st century will be far more chaotic and obscure than that of the 20th.

This affects not only history, but also actual methods of government.

In his new novel Uncommon Enemy (Simon and Schuster), Alan Judd - this paper's motoring correspondent, among his many talents - has his hero Charles Thoroughgood return to MI6 (now, fictionally, the Single Intelligence Agency) from retirement: 'The change in recordkeeping was striking. The old paper system, rigid, cumbersome, labour-intensive and tedious, had been enforced by middle-aged women in registries who mercilessly pursued careless young officers for failing to sign off minutes, complete contact notes or file telegrams. Often needlessly duplicated, it had at least the advantage that it always told the story . . . narrative disappeared when files went electronic.' Charles's chief, the last of the old school, says, 'We have become an intelligence service which no longer knows what it knows, and has no way of recovering what it once knew, which is a slow suicide.'

Modern government's lack of institutional memory has technological causes, but its effect is anything but modern: in the exercise of real power we are reverting to the capricious habits of a 17th-century court. …

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