While the majority of people were distracted by visions of dancing sugar plums and Jack Frost committing acts which would now be deemed wholly inappropriate in the workplace, the British government admitted that almost a thousand files relating to the Troubles, the Falklands War, and the Zinoviev Letter (a document probably forged by intelligence officers as part of a plot to bring down the first Labour government in 1924 - see above) were ‘nowhere to be found.’
Thousands of government papers have been removed in the last six years from the National Archives in Kew, where over eleven million documents are stored, and returned to Whitehall. Although the National Archives insist that government departments are ‘strongly encouraged’ to return any loaned documents, the government is under no legal obligation to do so. A Freedom of Information request submitted in 2014 found that 9,308 files had been removed from the archives and returned to government departments in 2011, 7,122 files in 2012 and 7,468 in 2013.
This week it appeared that just under a thousand files, each containing dozens of documents, had simply gone missing whilst in the government’s possession. The Foreign Office told the Guardian that they had managed to locate some of the files, but others remained missing. In most cases the entire file has been ‘mislaid’ whilst being removed from the public eye and taken back to Whitehall, however there are also cases where individual documents have been removed from the file and subsequently disappeared.
One file which has disappeared in its entirety was that which contains and relates to the Zinoviev Letter, which was published by the Daily Mail four days before the 1924 General Election after almost certainly being leaked by MI6 officers to the Conservative Party. The letter, purportedly written by Soviet Comintern President Grigori Zinoviev, called upon the British Communist Party to mobilise sympathetic forces within the Labour Party in order to encourage stronger relations between Britain and USSR. The purported objective of the letter was thus to encourage an ‘agitation agenda’ amongst the British working class. The letter is now accepted to have been a forgery and a direct attempt by MI6 officers to bring down Ramsay MacDonald’s government.
More troubling is the apparent loss of papers which hold assessments for government ministers on the security situation in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. Other missing files concern the British administration in Palestine, tests on the polio vaccine, the long-running territorial dispute between the UK and Argentina and the 1978 murder of a dissident Bulgarian journalist named Georgi Markov who was killed after being shot in the leg with a bullet containing ricin while crossing Waterloo Bridge.
For some, this news will not be regarded as anything new. Historians long been distrustful of the Foreign Office: in 2013, the Guardian disclosed that the department had unlawfully hoarded over a million historical files at a security compound outside Milton Keynes. A few years after that, the Ministry of Defence refused a Freedom of Information request on the basis that the articles requested - which concerned such subjects as UK arms deals with the friendly nation of Saudi Arabia, UK Special Forces operations against Indonesia and interrogation techniques - were housed in an old building and therefore may have been exposed to asbestos. The MoD then denied that it was using the possible presence of asbestos as an excuse to continue suppressing the files. If such is the case there must be questions asked over how many civil servants are at risk of exposure to asbestos, and what exactly the government is doing to protect the health of the people working for it.
It seems fitting that 2017 ended with another news story which appears to have been written by Armando Iannucci. One hopes for the best, which in this case would be that civil servants really are as incompetent as those portrayed on BBC2.