Royal family are even more secretive than MI5.

Oct 31, 2016

Jenny Hocking has been researching and publishing some vital information about the dismissal of the Whitlam Government by Sir John Kerr . In that research, she has been denied access to the papers.  She is taking legal action in the Federal Court against the National Archives to release correspondence between Sir John Kerr and the Queen.  (See ‘The Palace Letters‘)

In The Times, Ben MacIntyre writes about the secretive nature of the British Royal Family. See his article below from The London Times of October 28, 2016. John Menadue.


Refusal to release letters and diaries means its relations with Nazi Germany, for instance, are still not public knowledge

A vast splurge of royal history is coming our way, with the release next week of The Crown, the dramatised story of the Queen from her wedding to the present day. Spanning six seasons, in 60 episodes, it is the single biggest and most expensive bio-epic ever made.

Yet it is an incomplete story, because the royal archives remain closed to the public, accessible only to approved scholars, rigorously controlled by unaccountable royal archivists: a glaring, profoundly undemocratic anomaly in an age of supposed openness.

MI5 now regularly reviews and releases its files to the national archives; the royal family feels no such obligation. The most prominent family in the world remains more secretive about its past than the Security Service.

Held in the Round Tower at Windsor Castle, the royal archives consist of more than two million documents covering 250 years of royal history. “The Royal Household is committed to transparency,” declares the royal website, “and to making information available, where appropriate.” The royal household alone defines what is “appropriate”.

For decades, academics have chafed against the way the archive is run, which allows only selected scholars access to certain parts of the collection, and suppresses royal history that might reflect badly on the institution of monarchy. There is no publicly accessible catalogue, so researchers can only request files already identified in the footnotes of works by “authorised” writers. Fishing without a permit in royal historical waters is strictly forbidden.

This restricted access is justified by royalists on the grounds that this is a private archive and that the royals have a right to defend their privacy like any other family.

The royal household is not defined as a public body, and therefore is not obliged to release its files under the 2000 Freedom of Information Act.

Therein lies the central ambiguity of the Queen’s position, being at once a constitutional figure and a private person. The monarchy infused and deeply influenced British public life throughout the 20th century, most emphatically in its first half. Successive monarchs and other members of the royal family have played crucial political roles in our past.

The royal household is not obliged to release its files under the 2000 Freedom of Information Act

The history of the royals is also the history of Britain, and it belongs to the British people; what the royals regard as their history is truly ours and of overwhelming public interest. The royal household has never seen the archive that way, and the story of the sometimes stumbling royal progress through the 20th century has been heavily edited by the royals themselves.

“I am much against destroying important letters,” wrote Queen Victoria, yet ordered her youngest daughter Beatrice to rewrite her journal, deleting “painful passages”, and burning each original volume as she went. Virtually all the private papers of Edward VII were burned on the orders of Queen Alexandra. Princess Margaret destroyed hundreds of letters collected by the Queen Mother.

However, there is still much inside those archives that should be fully opened to the light of scholarship. They undoubtedly contain revealing information on Prince John, George V’s mentally disabled and epileptic youngest son, who was removed to a farm on the Sandringham estate and died young. Similarly, papers relating to Edward and Mrs Simpson and the abdication crisis remain inaccessible to the public.

The most controversial part of the archive, though, relates to the interwar years, when members of the royal family, in common with others of the British ruling class, were great admirers of Hitler. Some of the more embarrassing material is believed to have been filleted out and destroyed in 1945, but undoubtedly a great deal survives that would elucidate, once and for all, the complex relationship between the royals and Third Reich, a key to understanding British foreign policy in the run-up to war.

The royal family needs to take a leaf out of MI5’s book and open up its past to public scrutiny. In the wake of the Spycatcher scandal, the Security Service came to the realisation that excessive secrecy was damaging its credibility. In the absence of documentary evidence, historians were forced to rely on snippets of gossip and rumour, occasional explosions of scandal, and the semi-reliable accounts of disgruntled former employees. (These are precisely the same sort of sources that tend to inform royal stories.)

Starting in the 1990s, MI5 began to release its files to the National Archives on a systematic and logical basis: releasing nothing that could affect national security, compromise the secrecy of other organisations or embarrass living individuals, but everything else, warts and all. MI5’s extraordinary role in the Second World War is now largely declassified, but last year the Security Service also released files on the spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, whose escape to Moscow in 1951 was one of the most spectacular cock-ups in spy history.

The royal archives should be placed in the public domain in the same transparent way: material genuinely distressing to living persons could be excluded but everything of political relevance should be released under the 30-year rule. This would hugely benefit the royal family too, by enabling its 20th-century history to be written on the basis of hard evidence rather than speculation and rumour.

That seems unlikely to happen soon, for the royal archivists seem more concerned about brand management, secret-keeping and damage limitation than history. Last year’s discovery of home cinema footage showing a very young Elizabeth performing the Nazi salute (which any historian worth their salt would publish) prompted outrage among royalists, and a promise to investigate how the material had been obtained from the royal archive.

The results of that investigation, if one ever took place, have never been revealed: a secret inquiry, into a secret archive, by a most secretive organ of state. Comments are subject to our community guidelines, which can be viewed here


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