The Culture of Secrecy: Britain, 1832-1998

By David Vincent | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE ∣ THE PROBLEM OF SECRECY

Secrecy Becomes Modern

In the beginning were poppy seeds and grains of sand. During the spring of 1844, a well-connected Italian exile in London, Joseph Mazzini, started to send himself letters containing minuscule ingredients in order to discover whether the British Government was opening his correspondence at the behest of the Austrian ambassador.1 When the envelopes arrived empty, he arranged for the radical MP Thomas Duncombe to present a petition to the House of Commons protesting at the introduction of 'the spy system of foreign states', which was 'repugnant to every principle of the British constitution, and subversive of the public confidence, which was so essential to a commercial country'.2 The subsequent refusal of the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, to confirm or deny the practice drove Duncombe to make the first modern attack on official secrecy:

the answer of the right hon. Baronet was, that he must firmly but respectfully decline to answer any question on that subject. If a Secretary of State, or the Government, were justified in screening and sheltering themselves behind this official secrecy, he wanted to know what became of that responsibility of which we heard so much when any measure was submitted giving more extensive powers to the Secretary of State or the Government?3

The revelations about postal espionage provoked what Graham's biographer called a 'paroxysm of national anger'.4 It was the major political scandal of the year, stimulating widespread comment in the daily and periodical press, and much gleeful satire in the recently launched Punch. The cause of Young Italy and its persecuted leader received enormous publicity, although Mazzini him-

____________________
1
J. Mazzini, Life and Writings of Joseph Mazzini ( new edn., London, 1891). iii. 188: [ J. Mazzini], "'Mazzini and the Ethics of Politicians'", Westminster Review, 82 ( Sept.-Dec. 1844),242. Mazzini's most recent English biographer confirms the substance of his fears. D. Mack Smith, Mazzini ( New Haven, 1994). 41-4.
2
Hansard, 3rd series, LXXV, 14 June 1844, col.892.For an example of what he was talking about, see the account of contemporary practice in Russia: R. Hingley, The russian Secret Service ( London, 1970), 33-5.
3
Hansard, 3rd Series, LXXV, 24 June 1844, col. 1264
4
T. M. Torrens, The Life and Times of the Right Honourable Sir James R. G. Graham ( London, 1863), ii. 348.

-1-

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The Culture of Secrecy: Britain, 1832-1998
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Contents xi
  • Chapter One - ∣ the Problem of Secrecy 1
  • Chapter Two - Honourable Secrecy, 1832-1870 26
  • Chapter Three The Road To Regulation, 1870-1911 78
  • Chapter Four - Public Knowledge, 1911-1945 132
  • Chapter Five Citizenship and Secrecy, 1945-1972 186
  • Chapter Six - Secrecy and Reform, 1972-1989 248
  • Chapter Seven - ∣ the British Way 311
  • AFTERWORD 321
  • Bibliography 329
  • Index 357
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