Sunday, 3 May 2015

Historians and Coalition Governments

From LSHG Newsletter #55 (Summer 2015)

Not Behind Closed Doors: Historians and Coalition Governments 

Image result for Coalition, written by James Graham

On Saturday 28 March on Channel 4 aired a play, Coalition, written by James Graham, about how the 2010 Government was formed in May of that year.

While I wouldn’t go quite as far as Adam Ramsay  ( ) in suggesting that the Tory media has been prepared for a May ‘coup’ where Cameron is installed in No.10 one way or another even if Labour has more seats, statements such as that by Danny Alexander that whether there is another Tory-LibDem Coalition is in the hands of electors do need to be questioned. Coalition is not an option either on the ballot paper or something any party is campaigning for.

It’s too soon for historians to form a judgement on the impact of the last five years of Government, not least because it will still be several decades yet before a range of official papers is available. Recent years have seen a range of measures around data protection and freedom of information that have provided some kind of framework on how information is held about people, what is held and how people can access this. As Graham underlined in an article about his play in the London Evening Standard (23 March) very little is ever likely to be officially known about the five days of discussions in May 2010 that led to the Tory-LibDem Coalition.

Graham writes ‘what happened in those rooms was not recorded. No minutes were taken. The civil servants were sent out of the room’. He goes on ‘if we ever want a truly accurate record of what happened, it’s not the official archive that will do it, we’ll need to be rounding up BlackBerries’.

Historians rely on archives for much primary research, but of course they are not the only source. Participants in the 2010 talks have written accounts of them and some have clearly talked to Graham as he was writing
the play. Official records are usually a note of key points and decisions rather than blow by blow accounts but even so their absence removes an important part of the research framework for a modern political historian seeking to establish the realities of political power in early twenty-first century Britain.

The disdain for keeping official records has been underlined since by stories that Ministers such as Michael Gove used private e-mail addresses for official exchanges precisely to avoid these being captured as part of the record. Of course one can overplay the importance of this. In the days before e-mail that same exchange might have been had face to face (with no witnesses) or perhaps over the telephone where it was possibly less likely to be captured. One might ask why Governments ever kept records. It was certainly not so that future generations of socialist historians could find out what they had been up to!

The answer is that the ruling class relies not just on the memory of individual figures but on a bureaucratic structure that keeps records of events and decisions. So, for example, if the issue of a Coalition does arise again in May, Civil Servants should have been able to check back for the framework of how this was done in 2010.

The experience of 2010 does suggest that for the purposes of historical research and so that our successors can get to find out what went on in Government, there does need to be some further measure to ensure appropriate records are kept. Perhaps there needs to be an official Government history department, overseen by elected MPs, specifically charged with making sure that a proper record is kept of all meetings and events.

It sounds tedious but aside from its historical value, it is also about democratic transparency and accountability. In an open society the process of Government should not be going on behind closed doors.

Keith Flett

A version of this post appeared in the Morning Star on 7 April

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