Socialist Worker

National Archives release protects state secrets - and shows up the ruling class

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2635

Former Tory prime minister John Major (right) backed up bigots

Former Tory prime minister John Major (right) backed up bigots (Pic: quixotic54/Flickr)

National Archives records released this week saw most state secrets remain secret. Fewer important documents are released every year.

And this year, the National Archives withdrew thousands of files relating to Britain’s nuclear weapons and atomic energy programmes from public view just days before the release date.

The material included over 1,700 files dating from 1939 up to the 1980s. The National Archives said the government’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority instructed it to remove them.

But other documents that were released give some insight into how the ruling class works.

Murdoch and the media

The Tory government was worried about Rupert Murdoch’s attitude to it in 1993.

Media tycoon Murdoch held “very biased views” on Britain’s affairs owing to regular phone calls with then Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, according to newly released government documents.

Files from 1993 show that cabinet ministers were discouraged from attending an event celebrating the launch of new Sky TV channels.

Then home secretary Michael Howard went anyway.

He wrote to prime minister John Major, “I hope I need hardly say that I fully share your dismay at their behaviour since the election. But we shall need them at the next election.

“And given the unpalatable (to them) nature of some of the things we are likely to be doing quite soon - Calcutt (VAT?) - the case for some harmless, costless gesture such as attending the dinner seems to me quite strong.”

A briefing prepared by press secretary Gus O'Donnell from August 1993 ahead of a meeting between Major and Murdoch reads, “I was surprised to learn, given the worldwide scale of his business, that he phones Kelvin MacKenzie most days to keep up to date on the British scene.

"God alone knows what Kelvin tells him, as he is often very poorly informed.”

Fears over rail strike

Rail workers held a series of national strikes in 1994. Cabinet minutes noted “a number of sympathetic to the Government and [newly-privatised network firm] Railtrack positions in the press”.

“The opposition’s ambivalence to the dispute” was noted and seen as something the government could “continue to exploit”.

The government wanted to keep any settlement low as previously a high pay award “such as the ambulance dispute of 1989” had a knock on effect.

Most of the cabinet minutes were concerned with stopping various select committees of MPs from looking at the dispute.

Major backed bigot Mary Whitehouse

Prime minister John Major wrote in glowing terms to support bigoted campaigner Mary Whitehouse. He wrote, “Your campaign has played a crucial part in highlighting the widespread concern that we should not lower our standards of what is acceptable viewing on film, television and video; and you have been instrumental in warning of the perils if these standards fall.

“You yourself are one of the best examples of how it is possible in a free country like Britain for a private citizen with energy, initiative and commitment to carve out a distinctive and valued niche in our national life.”

This came after Major supported the banning of the only film ever to be censored in Britain under blasphemy laws.

The then prime minister felt “sufficiently strongly” about the case of Visions of Ecstasy to want to pull out of the European Convention on human rights. The 18-minute video depicted Carmelite nun St Teresa’s sexual fantasies about Jesus on the cross.

It was judged unfit for distribution by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) because of its treatment of a “sacred” subject.

Defending state violence in Ireland

Three unarmed members of the IRA, Sean Savage, Daniel McCann and Mairead Farrell, were murdered by the British Special Air Service in Gibraltar on 6 March 1988.

Irish state papers reveal that, in a secret memo, foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe had asked that a message be conveyed by Ambassador Fenn to the Irish government about its statements regarding engagement in Northern Ireland.

“The message was to the effect that the British are concerned the Irish are imperfectly precise in the use of the word ‘violence’.

“They do, however, ask that the Irish government should recognise the difference between violence used by those whose aim is to overthrow the state and violence arising in the operations of the security forces, within the law and for the public good.”

Despite the fact the three were unarmed, a subsequent inquest in September 1988 into the deaths returned a verdict of “lawful killing”.

Another 1988 document release shows Margaret Thatcher in an “unusually intense” meeting with Irish taoiseach Charles Haughey.

The two met on the fringes of a European summit in Hanover where Thatcher warned, “We can’t have the border open as it is now.”

Haughey rebuked Thatcher saying the Irish government received “no credit” for the work it had been doing. He referred to a number of IRA attacks.

“You had Lisburn. You had Enniskillen,” he said. “These are not failures of our making.

“These are things that happen within Northern Ireland where your security forces operate.

“There is no way we can patrol 500 miles.”

Thatcher added, “I don’t know what to do about the border. When the troops went to Northern Ireland, they were welcome. It has all been so useless...”

A press release dated after the meeting said that “a great deal of useful work had been done”.

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