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Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:52 pm on 5th February 2008.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Leader, House of Lords, Spokesperson in the Lords, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 7:52 pm, 5th February 2008

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Bew, my first duty is to thank my noble friend Lord Rodgers for initiating this debate. In the day-to-day hurly-burly of politics, how we preserve government archives and how we prepare official histories may not be the top of the agenda. But history does matter and my noble friend does us all a service by providing an opportunity for us to debate this topic tonight. As he told us, he has direct experience of the Official History Programme, serving as he does on the committee of distinguished privy counsellors who have oversight of the programme. Healey, Howe, Rogers—quite a formidable trio. I would like to be a fly on the wall at some of their meetings.

I have had a lifelong love of history. I had the privilege of studying English social history at University College London under Professor Joel Hirschfield. I am still a subscriber to History Today and a devotee of the History Channel and the programmes of Professors Schama and Starkey on television. I am always suspicious of politicians who show no knowledge of or interest in history. As Winston Churchill once observed:

"It is an error to believe that the world began when any particular party or statesman got into office. It has all been going on for quite a long time".

And so it has. But we are in danger, if we are not careful, of neglecting the raw material of history. If we do, we will rely too much on diaries and instant memoirs, as has already been mentioned.

I have to declare that I have never kept a diary and that I have no intention of publishing a memoir. I am not a great fan of diaries as an historical source. It is like asking a football player to report a football match he is playing in. I know from my limited experience of writing a diary for The House Magazine that you become a kind of servant to the diary. The need to seem central and relevant to events makes the diarist an uncertain witness. On the other side of the fence, the idea that one or more colleagues may be scurrying home after a meeting to record their version of events cannot lend itself to free and frank discussion or great mutual confidence. As has been mentioned, we now also have the "reductio and absurdum" of the process with the publication of Mr Alastair Campbell's diaries, which, as we know, are the expurgated version because the details of the relationship between Mr Blair and Mr Brown are too lurid for contemporary eyes.

Of course official histories have their drawbacks, too. They always live in the shadow of being compared with Winston Smith plying his trade doctoring history in the Ministry of Truth. Even if we do not view them as part of a 1984 nightmare, we have to take on board the views of Barry Coward, president of the Historical Association, who said:

"Official histories are a bad thing because they can be used for establishing government purposes and can be re-invented to support the official Establishment".

He goes on to warn:

"History should not be used as a tool of Government".

Such a warning should be taken on board. We do not want establishment history written by establishment historians. However, the official programme has set in train a programme of scholarship. It will not be the last word, but it will be invaluable to future historians. Jonathan Pepler, chair of the National Council on Archives, said:

"NCA would ... want to put on record its appreciation of the quality of recent official histories. One of the best examples of these being last year's, "The official history of Britain and the Channel Tunnel", by Dr Terry Gourvish".

In reality, what we are discussing tonight is another aspect of open government. It goes hand in hand with an effective Freedom of Information Act and the ending of the culture of secrecy in Whitehall. That is why it is important that policy on freedom of information and on archives and records should be a seamless garment. I have visited the National Archives at Kew and was very impressed with what I saw. But I am only an interested amateur. So let me put on record the view of Professor Peter Hennessey of Queen Mary college, London, who believes that it is the best national archive in the world. So the question is: how do we preserve this great national treasure? And I am referring not to Professor Hennessy but to the National Archives.

First, I believe that the programme of official histories should be encouraged and maintained. And perhaps I may make a suggestion, as it has been mentioned already. I should like to see a study of the history and role of special and political advisers in Whitehall. I was once told that such implants go back at least as far as Lloyd George's time. A proper study would expose many of the myths and shibboleths about their role in governance.

Secondly, there is a need to ensure that the work and efficiency of the National Archives at Kew is not weakened or undermined by the extra calls made by implementing the Freedom of Information Act. Can the Minister assure the House that there is no "robbing Peter to pay Paul" switch of resources and that Kew will not suffer such cuts to service freedom of information demands?

Thirdly, we all look forward to the review of the 30-year rule under the chairmanship of Paul Dacre. I must confess that when I first heard that Mr Dacre had been asked to undertake this study, I thought it was like asking Jack the Ripper to undertake a review of street lighting. Nevertheless we look forward to the review, and I note what the Prime Minister said when announcing it. He stated:

"It is an irony that the information that can be made available on requests on current events and current decisions is still withheld as a matter of course for similar events and similar decisions that happened 20 or 25 years ago".

There was a good example of that last weekend when it was reported that an apparent tiff between Sir Anthony Eden and Churchill about the timing of Churchill's retirement had been kept secret for 50 years. It seems extraordinary that that should be so. A number of the embargos on the workings of government, the security services and royalty belong to a different age.

Publication can create the danger of embarrassment, as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, said. The 30-year rule recently coughed up a memo that I sent to Jim Callaghan in 1977 advising him strongly not to see the troublesome Back-Bench Member for Hull, Mr John Prescott. By the time this all surfaced, Mr Prescott was Deputy Prime Minister. But I am absolutely sure that it did not change his view of me one jot to know that 30 years ago I had been doing that.

We are all living longer, the Freedom of Information Act is becoming a reality of open government, and we will all have to come to terms with accepting the consequences of our actions when in government. However, as the Hutton and Butler reports have shown, sofa government—where major decisions are taken without a paper trail—and the increasing use of new communication technologies mean that the archives may not always tell the whole story. It is 30 years since the then Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, asked his predecessor, Harold Wilson, for a review of record-keeping in Whitehall. In terms of how government is carried on and records kept, that was another age. I should therefore like to see, once we have the Dacre report and its recommendations, a more broad-based review to follow up the Wilson committee of 30 years ago. Such a committee could also look at the need and capability of preserving voice and visual records as well as e-mail traffic.

As I said, history is important. It is important for all our citizens to know who we are and the events that have made us what we are. In my teens I was stimulated by the Granada programme hosted by Brian Inglis called "All Our Yesterdays". I still think that it is a key part of citizenship that we understand where we are and what our history is. It is key that we encourage both record-keeping and openness of government. My noble friend Lord Rodgers has stimulated a very worthwhile debate. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bew, that I would love to come to a full hour-long lecture by him on the subject. But I will leave that matter for the moment.