Fire and flood

by Henry Farrell on December 27, 2017

Relevant to the scandal in Britain about material being ‘lost’ from the National Archives, this bit from Margaret Levi’s book, _Consent, Dissent and Patriotism_ (p.13)

More arcane is the account of a small fire that destroyed relevant materials from World War I and World War II in the Australian War Memorial. The representatives of the British government operate under strict rules of secrecy concerning a very large amount of military-related material and they uphold these rules rigorously. The Australian government operates with a greater openness. The problem arose because in the Australian war memorial were records that the British deemed secret and the Australians did not. The problem was resolved by the British, or so my reliable source tells me, by planting a mole archivist in the War Memorial. This mole lit a small fire in the relevant stacks and disappeared.



J-D 12.27.17 at 11:18 am

James Hacker: How am I going to explain the missing documents to the Mail?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: (handing Hacker a memo)[/i] Well, this is what we normally do in circumstances like these.
James Hacker: (reads from memo) This file contains the complete set of papers, except for a number of secret documents, a few others which are part of still active files, some correspondence lost in the floods of 1967 … (stops reading) Was 1967 a particularly bad winter?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: No, a marvellous winter. We lost no end of embarrassing files.
James Hacker: (resumes reading) … some records which went astray in the move to London and others when the War Office was incorporated in the Ministry of Defence, and the normal withdrawal of papers whose publication could give grounds for an action for libel or breach of confidence or cause embarrassment to friendly governments. (finishes reading) That’s pretty comprehensive. How many does that normally leave for them to look at? How many does it actually leave? About a hundred?… Fifty?… Ten?… Five?… Four?… Three?… Two?… One?… Zero?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Yes, Minister.


Collin Street 12.27.17 at 1:10 pm

See, I always thought that if you lost documents courts were supposed to presume that they were… unhelpful… to your case, and for example do things like strike out any defences you advance that rely on matters that would be clarified by documents you lost.

But it turns out that these are actually discretionary powers, probably for precisely this reason, and british courts are notoriously supine on national security matters.

But really you have to ask youself: why are british bureaucrats so fucking fragile and insecure that they need to hide documents rather than accept that they fucked up? What other effects does this insecurity have on policy outcomes, what shitty policies are pressed on with because the bureaucrats too embarrassed to admit mistake?


SusanC 12.27.17 at 2:09 pm

If you’re running a library with a very large amount of archival material, you probably don’t have the resources to digitize all of it. A heuristic along the lines of “if a government department wants the file back, it’s probably important enough to be worth scanning” might work wonders —- as you’ve then got the online version when the government looses the paper copy. (Or the archive can hang on to the paper, and tell the government department to read it on line if they’re interested).


Glen Tomkins 12.27.17 at 3:28 pm

The British govt definitely has a habit of keeping embarrassing secrets centuries past everyone involved being quite dead and buried. What are they worried about?

I ran into an example researching the Battle of New Orleans and the end of the War of 1812. As of the 1990s, the last time I looked at the question, Her Majesty’s Govt was still keeping secret the instructions its predecessor in 1815 had given the plenipotentiary sent to the US that year to sign the treaty ending the war, depending on whether or not the Senate ratified the document, and with whatever changes or provisos the US might make before signing. It is suspected that his instructions included the insistence that the treaty would not require GB to hand back New Orleans, had General Packenham managed to capture the city before the date of ratification. But almost two centuries later, this was still thought too shockingly sensitive a matter for public revelation. None of this came to pass, however, because Packenham was killed and his army repulsed, so NO was never lost.

They slipped up though. In issuing the official refusal to disclose the instructions given to Lord Sherborne, the British govt did reveal that he was actually given two sets of instructions, one to the govt of the US, and a second to the Hartford Convention. That body was a meeting of delegates from the New England states, which had long opposed the war, and were considering secession if it were not ended. The idea seems to have been that Packenham would capture NO, and Sherborne would announce in Washington that His Majesty’s Govt would not have to give it back under terms of the treaty. The US govt would then either ratify the treat as is and accept the loss of NO, and the effective loss of the whole Louisiana Purchase, or it would reject the treaty and try to continue the war. If the latter, Lord Sherborne would make his way to Hartford and negotiate a peace with a seceded New England, as well as support for that fledgling republic.

This, in 1990, was thought still too hot to handle. Maybe in 2090 it will be sufficiently distant. Or maybe Trump will so torpedo our relationship with GB as to make a little thing like planning the dismemberment of the US a truly trivial matter.


JRLRC 12.27.17 at 4:55 pm

Something like that was and still is frequent in Mexico. More than a few contemporary governors get rid of accounting problems using “fire and flood”, mostly fire. If they incinerate certain documents, those documents can´t fuel accountability problems. Then, fires happen! No accountability, no accounting; no written or available accounting papers, no real and true accountability or less chances of it. That reveals the level of corruption and the institutional and cultural debt of the mexican democracy.
These “acts of disappearing” can get worse and more ridiculous… Not many years ago, a governor of a state called Puebla (Mario Marín Torres is his name) staged a robbery to “his” own financial department: some weekday, in the middle of the day, in plain sight, a little group of men easily took dozens of millions of pesos from the vaults in the government building offices. Just like that… Nothing happened afterwards.


ph 12.29.17 at 2:32 am

Very interesting, and somewhat depressing.

@ 4. Thank you for this. I’d rather hoped that the acts of more than a century ago could be regarded as the ‘historical record,’ rather than national secrets.

More understandable, from Henry’s linked Guardian piece:

In 2012 the Guardian disclosed that 1.2m documents were being unlawfully kept at a high-security compound in Buckinghamshire. The cache of files came to public attention when the FCO was forced to admit it had withheld thousands of colonial-era papers after elderly Kenyans took a case to the high court, following their detention and torture in the 1950s during the Mau Mau rebellion.

Britain in Kenya, and we can forget about the more recent American fixations on that nation’s history, has been struggling to deal with post-colonialism and the real and purported crimes of the British colonial government there. That something bad happened in Kenya, and how bad, depends very much on who is speaking. Which leads to another Guardian piece by Thomas Frank.

The invested demand a particular version of a truth – usually one that absolves us of any criminal and financial liability, that allows us maximum free future action, and that allows us to pursue present and future goals, almost always at the expense of accuracy.


Pavel A 12.29.17 at 4:56 pm

Pretty sure this article answers the question:

tl;dr the UK is destroying evidence of its own past colonialist atrocities and also more recent imperialist atrocities committed by its allies (US extraordinary renditions program).


Glen Tomkins 12.30.17 at 1:05 am

Thinking about why GB might still want to keep official secrets concerning the War of 1812, it occurs to me that maybe the answer is the stereotype of “perfidious Albion”. It’s not that the events of 1815 embarrass anyone still living, or a party still in office, but that if GB was conniving in the dismemberment of the US in 1815, well, that fits in with the idea that GB is perfidious Albion, the great power that sits back in splendid isolation, plotting the destruction of even its closest friends of last year, if that is thought to be in the national interest of keeping every other power on the planet weak and divided against its neighbors.

Concern about such a stereotype of the nation’s diplomatic strategy might not motivate ordinary people, but perhaps to a certain sort of civil service, technocratic, deep state, permanent govt (pick your stereotype) player in govt, it might loom large enough to make them want to conceal evidence of His Majesty’s Govt of 1815 conniving against the national existence of a power that is now a close ally. If we’re talking about WWII, or even WWI, maybe there are still persons or parties to be protected, but perhaps at least part of the motivation for covering up even these more recent activities is the preservation of the national reputation. Albion is still perfidious, of course. Been like that, as we say in New Orleans.


Sonny Jim 12.30.17 at 8:13 am

My understanding is that FCO files that should be being made publicly accessible under the 30 year rule are in fact being gone through line by line by “consultants” at the FCO facilities outside Milton Keynes. These consultants are largely retired FCO civil servants and diplomats and are in some cases reviewing files produced by operations they themselves were involved in during their careers. Let’s just say that the activities of these “subject matter experts” are neither historical, nor indeed archival, best practice.


hix 12.30.17 at 1:28 pm

The US is sort of the opposit in that regard, isnt it? Things, no matter how embarassing tend to get public in an official non denial manner pretty fast. Which as a start would be great. Expect that it doesnt seem to change anything either.


Chris Borthwick 01.01.18 at 10:31 am

Actually, the Australian archivists are
(1) very closemouthed about anything that has sensitivity in the Australian context;
(2) very closemouthed about anything the Americans want covered up (and the Americans want everything involved with them covered up, including things they’ve released to Americans; it’s just a matter of putting the Australians in their place)
(3) quite possibly willing to release anything putting the poms in a bad light. But that’s about it.

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