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Cabinet confidential

What government ministers say in cabinet and its committees is confidential, ‘and their documents are therefore ‘classified’ and bear security markings’, as a file from the Cabinet Office, downloadable from the National Archives, CAB 181-6, sets out.

It may be a comfort to read that no matter what the era, people still made mistakes: “… Cabinet documents are sometimes lost in transmission and in Departments; and there have been incidents where copies have been left in vehicles, clubs etc.” Or, as the file went on, documents may have been burned by mistake (in the days of open fires) or destroyed as ‘secret waste’. Every case, the official file insisted, must ‘be fully investigated before duplicate copies are issued.’

Or, the room at the Cabinet Office that sent out documents might be told that a minister hadn’t received his papers; but they had been sent. Often, the file admitted, papers may have gone to the wrong person, or been ‘mislaid’. If they didn’t turn up in a search, ‘it may be necessary for the Cabinet Office Security Officer’ to ‘make further inquiries’ or even to ‘seek the help of the Security Service’.

As the file’s title, ‘precedent book’ suggests, government for centuries – arguably since Thomas Cromwell, minister of Henry VIII – has been all about doing things in a particular way, bureaucratically, so that whoever are the personnel doing the administering, they do not have to ‘re-invent the wheel’. That the bureaucracy dates back to times of monarchical rule is suggested by the fact that according to the file documents were marked ‘property of his Britannic Majesty’s government’, as set out by the then Liberal Home Secretary, Lord Rosebery. While the archaic word ‘Britannic’ persisted, so did the idea persist that documents were copyright, and copyright belonged to ‘his majesty’. Which suggests that the file undated CAB 181-6 in fact dates from before 1953, though after 1950. In other words, in the days of paper documents and before faxes, photocopiers, let alone email, which complicated document formats and their security.

That the pieces of paper were the Crown’s property was taken literally; the file asked ministers to send any papers not required back ‘say, at intervals of three to six months’. And in any case on leaving office, ministers had to return all Cabinet documents to the Cabinet Office. That some departments needed to hold on to papers longer than others, the file admitted, and the file carefully stated that ‘pressure is not normally brought on Departments to return unwanted documents’. However, this rule was evidently broken by some; the file quoted for example Hugh Dalton who resigned as Chancellor the Exchequer in 1947 (for leaking, even though inadvertently, his Budget beforehand) and who took with him ‘copies of a substantial number of Cabinet papers’. As the file put it, ‘it was decided in the circumstances not to take special steps to recover these documents’. And the file’s list of which ministers retained documents between the 1930s and 1945 included such senior figures as Churchill, Attlee, Eden and Bevin, besides Dalton.

Security implies secrecy, and for good reasons besides not giving away anything to enemies of the realm. The file raised the principle that documents of one administration ‘should not be accessible to another which is of a different political complexion’. Presumably because a new Conservative government might use a document by the previous Labour government and vice versa; although here too the file acknowledged that the rule might be ‘qualified in practice’.

The obligation to keep secrets – ‘no publication’, not even of extracts – permeates the file; in passing the file noted that Privy Councillors take an ‘oath of secrecy’.

It wasn’t until the publication in book form and serialised by the Sunday Times under editor Harold Evans of the diaries of Labour Cabinet minister Richard Crossman after his death in 1974 – after long and legal resistance from Government – that politicians were able to publish their diaries of what went on in Cabinet. Ironically other colleagues of Crossman – Barbara Castle and Tony Benn, to name two – turned out to be diarists too.

Bureaucracy had to know what to do and how to do it in detail, even down to what part of the piece of paper you marked its security classification – secret or top secret, generally, for Cabinet proceedings.

Interestingly, April 1944 saw Britain copy its ally United States’ markings – top secret was the American term, and it replaced the British ‘most secret’. In May 1949 the Ministry of Defence began ‘placing the security marking in a central position at the top and bottom of each separate page of a document’, again, ‘identical with the current United States method’.

Intriguingly, while Britain remained a NATO ally of the USA, the file noted that some documents it might be ‘important that United States representatives should not see’; these were marked ‘GUARD’. A country evidently can have secrets even from its closest ally.

With security has to come consistency, so that the politician or bureaucrat can keep paperwork in order, down to indexing, as every document must have its own reference; besides the security marking done in a uniform way, so documents had to have a serial number and a copy number (to assign responsibility if a copy went missing), a date a memo was signed, numbered pages, and so on.

As for the minutes of a meeting, the file said: “Where a subject discussed by the Cabinet is of particular secrecy the Cabinet minutes may contain only a token minute, the substantive minute being prepared in the form of a Confidential Annex and given a very restricted circulation,” and classed as top secret, normally. And ‘when a matter discussed by the Cabinet … is of exceptional secrecy and delicacy no record at all may be made’. Such a record ‘very occasionally’ might be kept in a sealed envelope only to be opened by the prime minister or minister concerned.

The same consistency had to go into the printing (by a press at the Foreign Office, run by HM Stationery Office) of Cabinet documents such as memoranda (‘or, if there is insufficient time for printing, reproduced by stencil duplicating’). Again, detail had to be just so – memos printed on ‘pale green foolscap paper’.

The file went into great detail about who would get what paperwork, and stressed the need for ‘special care in circulation and handling’, usually only to the monarch and ministers; not even junior ministers, unless a junior minister attends Cabinet if the senior minister is absent.

The military chiefs of staff get copies of memoranda ‘on military and strategic matters’; in the Second World War, by common agreement a ‘total war’ when all affairs of the country mattered to the war effort, the chiefs got copies of all Cabinet memoranda. Likewise, officials during the 1939-45 war more often got copies of Cabinet memos; in peacetime, only the heads of departments.

As all this implies, the secure distribution of paper documents is vital, and the file duly covers how ‘two sets of distribution boxes and keys are in use for the transmission of secret documents between the Cabinet Office and Departments and between Departments’. Documents to ministers went in black boxes; and comments to the bureaucratic heads of departments in green boxes. ‘Top secret’ documents inside were also in envelopes ‘sealed with a special label’. If the person due to receive such documents did not have a box key, they would receive a document in an envelope, ‘double envelopes being used for Secret and Top Secret documents’. Other files covered the issue of box keys’; and long-distance and overseas sending of any documents.

Rules are, however, made to be broken, as the file acknowledged; the general rule was that Cabinet documents could not leave the country; but they were frequently, for example during the war when Prime Minister Winston Churchill and other senior decision-takers went abroad to meet Roosevelt and Stalin; the file instead gave the example of ministers attending a Geneva conference in 1932; and King George VI receiving documents to update him while returning from a visit to North America. And some documents went – securely – to British embassies, notably the ambassador in Washington, regularly, to inform. The usual reason to restrict documents was security; but also to ‘avoid misunderstanding’, if a reader saw one document but not another.

In 1939 and 1940, government wondered what to do ‘in the event of an emergency’, probably at that time aerial bombing forcing an evacuation. The file recalled: “Older documents should either be left in strong rooms of safes, if the buildings were still to be guarded day and night, or, that failing, destroyed by fire, a note in general terms being kept of the documents so destroyed.” Meanwhile, old Cabinet documents were stored in the basement of the Cabinet Office in Richmond Terrace, off Whitehall; when the basement was having alterations in January 1939, the records went to Scotland Yard. Some documents were removed out of the city to Elstree in April and May 1939; and further out to Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire in 1940.

Pictured: at the National Archives, November 2019, a reproduction of Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet table.


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