Alex Deane is a Square Mile Common Councilman and Head of Public Affairs at Weber Shandwick
You may have noticed that there was a debate in Parliament last week about papers relating to the “Shrewsbury 24”. No attempt at a summary of the relevant facts will entirely satisfy either side (and you can always head over and read the Hansard passage for a very full airing from both) but in brief, hopefully neutral terms, let’s try this: in 1972, during the course of wider union/employer/government disputes, there was a dispute and strike in the building trade in Shrewsbury (and elsewhere). Many unionists went to Shrewsbury to picket. Some were arrested and prosecuted. Some were convicted, most seriously of offences relating to “conspiracy to intimidate.”
Government papers relating to the incidents and prosecutions have remained undisclosed – indeed, secret – ever since. Concerns about political interference in the prosecutorial process have been raised many times by the Left in general and the individuals concerned in particular. Campaigns for disclosure of relevant information held by the state have been unsuccessful to date, and attempts to access relevant material (including those relating to individual people by those people, under the Freedom of Information Act) have failed. As a result, David Anderson’s debate was held in the House of Commons on 23 January. It concluded with an overwhelming vote by MPs to disclose the papers – but this vote is not binding on the Government. Following the example of all governments since (including, obviously, Labour governments), the option remains open to the Coalition to claim that these papers must not be released for reasons of “national security”.
I am a Thatcherite. I am glad that the Conservative Party, bravely led by Margaret Thatcher, fought and won the battles with the overly powerful and undemocratic unions during the years that followed Shrewsbury. I believe that our country would have remained in perpetual decline without that fight, and it was the winning of it that spurred our nation on to free market success. So suffice it to say that I really have nothing in common with the militant unionists and left-wing MPs involved in the campaign on this matter. That is both unsurprising and probably something of a relief to them. But on the wider principle concerned, about the right to access information held by the state, I’m afraid that I find myself wholly in agreement with them.
Open and transparent government is essential in a free society. It is this principle – supposedly cherished by both halves of this Coalition government, committed as it is to transparency – which underpinned the Freedom of Information Act, a bold leap forward in the accountability of the state, which all parties ostensibly support. That universal support is correct. Belief in the general principle of access to state proceedings by the people, so that the state is accountable to us rather than imposed on us, is as much a belief of the right as the left – indeed, preference for the supremacy of the individual and scepticism of the power of the state might properly be thought to be more the domain of the right, if anything.
However, it is of course the case that it is easy to pay lip service to such beliefs, but that one can be beguiled by a civil service, or others with relevant specific conflicting interests or more general preference for the accrual of state powers, into letting specific examples go by – especially when they affect those with whom one has little in common or for whom one has little affection. These temptations are to be resisted. The removal of important universal protections are always most likely to begin with those one does not like, after all. That should put you on your guard, rather than appeal to you, even if only in terms of self-interest rather than in upholding your own beliefs – for, in the end, their rights are your rights, too.
In any case, when, for reasons of genuine national security, that openness must be curtailed, it ought to be so curtailed for a finite period – that period being as short as possible commensurate with the ongoing need for security. What can such a need possibly be in this case? The Government is rightly considering lowering the 30 year rule on disclosure of state papers to 20 years. Here we are concerned with material which is some 40 years old. It would seem to be contrary to the welcome direction of policy in this field, as well as flying in the face of logic, to withhold this material even now. As Tom Watson, perhaps not someone quoted with approval on this site with great frequency, rightly said in the course of the recent debate: “The Stasi published their files after the Berlin wall came down in 1989. I think that we can publish ours now.”
Some have pointed to the reviews conducted by successive Lord Chancellors of whether the material should be disclosed as sufficient guarantee of the appropriateness of this decision. But that is not only not good enough – indeed, in my view it is quite dangerous. Blind faith in those empowered with decision-making capabilities lends itself over time to perverse decisions and (with no offence meant to anyone concerned – the point is made about the principle) it makes corrupt decisions more likely over time, too. That you think X or Y is a “good chap” or “bound to get it right” isn’t good enough to let the oversight to which their power should be subject lie fallow. Indeed, to repeat the above point made specific here – you should fear the case of the “good chap” who tells you it’s all right without letting you see why. It’s when it seems most seductively sensible simply to let others get on with it without troubling yourself to act or care that your freedoms are being eroded most quickly.
Secret justice is no justice at all. Proceedings, or manouverings behind proceedings, being hidden over time constitutes an ongoing injustice.
I say all of that as a Tory. Had I been on one of the juries concerned, hearing the evidence they heard, I don’t imagine I’d have done anything other than convict those accused (albeit, perhaps tellingly, given the age of the incidents that would be most unlikely, as they occurred seven years before I was born – and in the year that the MP for Shrewsbury, Daniel Kawczynski, was born). But, as I say, whilst deeply unsympathetic to their cause, I find it simply impossible to conjure up what the national security concerned might be in hiding the decisions taken by officials and elected persons relating to the prosecution of builders in Shropshire 40 years ago. What technique of surveillance or undercover work might possibly justify non-disclosure after this passage of time? Any technique will be outdated or universally known about. Any individual involved in undercover work can have his or her name redacted from the papers which might otherwise be released. Consideration of the wider disclosures rightly made in recent times of papers relating to Northern Ireland, where on any view those concerned were more dangerous, makes a mockery of any such claim to national security concerns.
No, no matter how sympathetic one is to the victims of flying pickets and how unsympathetic one might be to militant unionists, pensioners or otherwise, there’s no real conceivable legitimate reason not to disclose these papers. So what might the real reasons for non-disclosure be? They are manifold – and, despite the age of the case concerned, they are not simply historical or academic in nature.
Taking them in turn, it might be a case of successive governments seeking to avoid embarrassment whether it be in relation to links to donors or officials within the prosecutorial process or otherwise (and indeed, at this stage, it’s rather antique embarrassment at that). If so, that simply isn’t a good enough reason to withhold such material. It might be a case of seeking to avoid admitting government liability – but if the state has done something wrong, it should admit it. If it is a case of governments of both sides over time colluding to hide the improper use of executive power, it is utterly wrong (consider the recent use by the Home Secretary of entirely unscrutinised executive powers to confiscate passports for an unhappy example of where such facts might be relevant in modern times). If it is being done so as to ease such use of unaccountable executive power and access to the decision-making processes of prosecution within our justice system by governments in future times, then it is downright dangerous, too.