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Britain’s Secret History: Historians Challenge UK Government

University of Warwick Professor David Anderson is among a group of eminent historians who are considering a legal challenge against the FCO for allegedly failing to comply with their statutory obligations under the Public Records Act 1958 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000, with regard to the ‘Special Collections’ – some 1.2 million historical files that are currently held by the FCO. They will ask the FCO to set out in detail how they plan to put these documents into the public domain, and to provide a relevant and practicable timescale for the release of the documents, following which they will seek advice as to whether the FCO’s proposals do indeed comply with their statutory obligations.

Other historians joining Professor Anderson in this challenge include Professor Richard Drayton of King’s College London, Oxford’s Professor Margaret Macmillan, and Professor Sir Richard Evans and Professor Sir Christopher Bayly of the University of Cambridge.

The case is being led by the London legal firm Leigh Day.

Professor Anderson’s legal challenge to the government follows the revelation that the FCO holds some 1.2 million files in its depository at Hanslope Park. These records had neither been declared to The National Archives, in compliance with the Public Records Act (1958), nor been listed for search purposes as required under the Freedom of Information Act (2000).

The historical files, some going back to the mid-nineteenth century, include extensive materials on British foreign relations during both World Wars and the Cold War, along with important papers on Britain’s relations with the European Economic Community, as well as papers concerning later imperial exits from Rhodesia and Hong Kong. The basic inventory that has so far been produced of these materials also indicates that the so-called ‘special collection’ contains over 4 linear metres of files concerning KGB spies Burgess and Maclean.

The discovery of this vast hidden archive follows upon Professor Anderson’s work on the Mau Mau reparations case, in which an out-of-court settlement was achieved last year, with the British government paying compensation to more than 5,000 Kenyans who were the victims of British tortures and abuses during the 1950s. In the Mau Mau case an intervention by Professor Anderson, acting as an Expert Witness to the court, led to the disclosure of 1500 files relating to Kenya, and over 7,000 files concerning 36 other former British colonies. The last of these materials was released to the public at The National Archive in November 2013, and are now known as the ‘Migrated Archive’.

Since then, further investigations, led by Guardian journalist Ian Cobain, have revealed that other government departments are also hoarding papers that should long ago have been passed into the public domain. In November 2013, The Guardian disclosed that the Ministry of Defence was unlawfully holding more than 66,000 historic files at a warehouse in Derbyshire, including papers from the army’s activities in Northern Ireland.

The government has been aware of the problem of these illegally-held collections over the past two years, since the first hearing of the Mau Mau case in April 2011. No action was taken, however, until November 2012, when the justice secretary Chris Grayling issued a blanket authorization for the files in the FCO’s ‘special collections’ to be held for a further period 12 months so that matters could be resolved. No announcement of this authorization was made at the time, despite the fact that this action acknowledged the illegality of the position. Finally, on a quiet Friday afternoon just before Christmas 2013, Foreign Office minister David Lidington issued a written statement to parliament referring to a ‘large accumulation’ of documents that it would take government several years to clear. This was the first acknowledgement of the full extent of this immense problem.

If the 1.2 million files in the FCO’s ‘Special Collection’ are released at the same pace that the Hanslope disclosure of only 8,500 files was tackled over the past two years, then it will take the government 340 years to ‘resolve’ this problem. This is the reason for the intervention by Professor Anderson and his colleagues.

 For further information please contact:

Professor David Anderson
Department of History , University of Warwick
Tel: 024 76150991


Peter Dunn, Head of Communications, University of Warwick,
UK Tel: 024 76 523708 Mobile 07767 655860 email:

PR9 PJD 3rd February 2014