Sunday, 6 July 2014

Whitehall's missing files: you'll need a historian for that

The famous diplomatic historian A.J.P. Taylor used to call them his 'green fingers' - the sense that he could find what he was looking for in a pile of paper files, wherever it was hiding.

He might have been of some help at the Home Office right now, since that great department of state stands accused of having little knowledge of how one vital sheath of papers, files or records has gone missing. No-one seems quite sure how many have dematerialised, or what was in them, but they might or might not cover one of the most nasty, distasteful and downright frightening sets of allegations to swirl around our stories of the 1980s - that there was a very high-profile paedophile ring operating out of Westminster, one which contained a number of very high-profile names.

No-one should be too surprised about this. The construction of robust record-keeping practices, and indeed the whole field of child protection and criminal sexual offences, were taken much less seriously in those days than they are now - which tells you something about the age we're talking about. And the final roster of the missing and the destroyed papers might look something a bit less like the 'industrial' scale of loss and negligence that Keith Vaz, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, has spoken of. But there's going to be a lot of paper-chasing going on across Whitehall for quite some time to come. There might well be something extremely nasty lying just beneath the surface here - and it's the police and government's job to find out just what has been going on.

Recent revelations about the true nature of the post-war Irish state have been fuelled by historians' ability to look coldly and coolly through archives, and it's an example that could be copied elsewhere. Here, too, the historian might lend a hand, since who is that can link different record series filing numbers to newer ones? Ferret out apparently incidental papers in files not apparently linked to this case at all? Think laterally enough to determine where dossiers may have been hidden or mislaid? Use old catalogues to see where the gaps are? The civil service still does contain some official historical sections, more to provide some light on long-term questions that to hunt through the archives - but it used to contain more, and it's a pretty good bet that the Home Office now wishes it had a battery at its disposal.

Historians have already proved their worth in similar cases - for instance, the Leavesden Hospital investigation into whether posthumously disgraced predator Jimmy Savile had abused patients there. Though that possibility still cannot entirely be ruled out, one historian with a special interest in the hospital was able to interview workers and work through archives to conclude that it was unlikely enough not to warrant further investigation (opens as PDF; see pages seventeen and thirty-two in particular).

Taylor also once said that the great historian was like a really well-organised filing cabinet - he or she would always be able to find and source what they knew. Or indeed what others knew, and when. That's a skill we could do with while we're dealing with this extremely serious set of allegations. It's something that historians could bring, actively, acutely, and here and now, to the service of public policy. 

It is to be hoped that their expertise is not ignored.