It may be top secret, but you need to know… (This is where the Bond Theme, or the Mission Impossible one, and we all slink around the house with our hands in gun shapes. Or maybe I do, by myself, that works too.)
We all want to know what is underneath those redacted lines. We all want to know what they don’t want us too. It’s human nature, right?
The government have been playing hide and really don’t try and seek with their documents for over a century now. The first statue being brought out in the 1800’s. However, the most notable has recently celebrated its centenary: The Official Secrets Act 1911. It was brought about due to the global political instability of the time – the build up to WWI. The British government did not want the Kaiser finding out about their dealings; however this Act, which was seemingly meant only for security purposes, seeped over into everyday life through the infamous s.2 of the 1911 Act. S.2 was worded in such a way that anything that an official was not specifically allowed to divulge became an official secret, this covered so many mundane things and thus you can see where the secrecy of our government derived from. Good intentions gone wrong. Sounds like a line from a cheesy Eurovision song.
Between WWI and WWII another two Acts were brought out, however none affected, or I should say amended, s.2 of the 1911 Act. An example of official secrets being used at their best can be seen in the recently released Imitation Game staring Benedict Cumberbatch. It is noted in the film that not even some of the most senior members of government were allowed to know that the Enigma Code had been broken so that the Germans would not find out. It also shows that they had to let some of the attacks through so that it was not obvious that the Code had been broken. These are prime examples of Official Secrets being used for security purposes, what the Official Secrets Acts were supposed to do.
This era of secrecy continued and was exacerbated by the Cold War. KGB spies and and defectors amongst the diplomats only made matters worse. Knowledge was power and it wasn’t for sharing… It can be noted that the use of official secrets within departments outside of security had become exponential, namely in matters that were merely private and not secret. I’ll try my best not to exaggerate… Probably half of the matters that were made secret were of no use to the KGB what so ever. So, was this secretive nature really needed?
It took over 80 years for s.2 to be repealed. The Official Secrets Act 1989 was passed during the Thatcher years and more notably towards the end of the Cold War.1989 saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end of the USSR with revolutions (on the whole, bar one) which peacefully ended the communist rule. The Act confined criminal sanctions to security and the intelligence, defence, international relations, information obtained in confidence from states or international organisations, information that could be used to incriminate someone and other things such as special investigations and the monitoring of communications. Amusingly, it seems like the Act still covers quite a lot, but that just shows you how much the infamous s.2 had really covered.
It has been commented that an air of openness amongst governments and cabinets has been created. Some say it is due to the European Convention on Human Rights, although this openness can also be seen through the change in rules such as the now thirty year rule, previously fifty years under the Public Records Act 1958, which was amended by the 1967 Act. There is even talk of this rule being brought down to 15 years! Whether this actually happens or not is another matter… Other significant changes include the change of the official lines about MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, which had always been closed in times of peace. However, as we all know now (and probably suspected all along), they are always active and always have been. Perhaps to your dismay… Especially with this latest report released by the CIA concerning the interrogation of terror suspects.
Whilst there are still a lot of secrets about and things we don’t know it is slowly changing. I highly doubt it will ever be as it was, and probably for the best in today’s society of paranoia encased in an online presence of supposed transparency.
Until next time,
PS. A lot of this information was taken from this amazing radio programme. Take a look!!!