Gossip with footnotes: Peter Hennessy at NGLIS on the 20 year rule and ‘Writing the history of one’s own time’

Peter Hennessy’s entertaining talk for NGLIS last week focused on the value of Government records for contemporary historians, and the vital role that Information Professionals play in making these publicly available.

Last summer, Government records from 1983 were the first to be declassified under the new '20-year rule' which means that official papers will be made public sooner than they have been in the past. Previously files were embargoed for 30 years and were released by The National Archives at the end of every year. The change to the rules means that two years’ worth of records are to be released each year from now until 2022. Once this backlog is cleared the National Archives will revert to a single annual release of Government papers. This all being in the face of confidentiality being "in the very calcium of a Whitehall policy-maker’s bones".

Peter Hennessy first expressed gratitude to the unsung heroines and heroes of the Civil Service – those Records Managers and other Information Professionals whose job it is to maintain, assess and make available government records to the nation. He described this body of records as the finest collective memory of any government anywhere, giving historians an insight into procedures and thought processes that go into central decision making. If archives are frozen history, the job of historians to get the limbs to move a bit, the body to breathe and government documents to talk to us – which is another way of looking at Voltaire’s suggestion that “History is a pack of tricks the living play upon the dead.”

He reflected on the irony of the assumption by various minsters that the implications of the Waldegrave Initiative, Freedom of Information, the Dacre Review and associated projects would be “resource neutral”- echoing Carl Sagan’s warning not to confuse hopes with facts. Let's hope more Information Professionals are able to get actively involved in the new release of records over the next decade.

I first came across Hennessy’s work when I was an Assistant Librarian in HM Treasury in the 1990s. His Whitehall Watch column in The Independent was required reading at the time, and his then recent history of Whitehall was a vital source book (one mischievous footnote, attributed to William Armstrong, claiming that the role of the UK Civil Service was “the orderly management of decline” was a proverbial rabbit that we pulled out of the hat surprisingly frequently). 

If, as Hennessy says, history is basically gossip with footnotes, he gave us a feast of history. For a more detailed insight into his position on government records, there is a very informative interview in the February edition of the British Academy Review.  Alternatively, you can listen to a podcast of his speech at the National Archives from last summer. 

This was the latest of a series of innovative and very enjoyable events organised by NGLIS, following on from a Comedy Night and a Jazz & Poetry evening this winter.


– Donald Lickley

* Peter Hennessy is the leading historian of post-1945 Britain, and amongst numerous public roles, is both Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary University and as Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield, a crossbench member of the House of Lords.

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