Historians and the Contemporary Record

In 2010, I attended a conference on the history of the 1970s held by the Centre for Contemporary British History at the Institute of Historical Research in London and it was noted by several presenters that the last decade had seen a number of books on the ‘history of the 1970s’ published. These decade-long surveys all covered similar areas, except for possibly Dave Haslam’s No Abba, and were usually written by journalists, not historians. What was noticeably absent from these popular histories was the extensive (or even substantial) use of archival records.  To the group of historians assembled, this was particularly frustrating as we all knew that a significant number of records relating to the 1970s, at least in Britain, were now available for public viewing. At the time of the conference, we were able to see documents relating to the first six months of Thatcher’s Prime Ministership at the National Archives at Kew.

In the past few years, I have started to see survey histories of Britain in the 1980s and histories of Thatcher’s Britain, which will be hindered by the same problem – a lack of archival data to complement the published record and oral testimony (if taken). I reviewed Richard Vinen’s Thatcher’s Britain back in 2010 for the Flinders Journal of History and Politics and wrote that this was the best effort a historian could do in outlining a history of Thatcherism without access to the archival material and in some ways, Vinen’s book was a service for historians as it highlighted areas for future discovery within the archival record. Now that the files for 1980 and 1981 (and some of the files for 1982 and 1983) have now been opened by the National Archives, we are getting a much better idea of the inner-workings of the first Thatcher Government and an understanding of key historical events, such as the Falklands War, the beginnings of monetarism and the 1981 riots (particularly useful in comparing with the riots that broke out in 2011).

While the National Archives in the UK is legislated to adhere to the 30 year rule, with exceptions, I am not sure whether the Public Records Act applies to non-government records. In my research, the papers of the Communist Party of Great Britain are all open until 1991 (when the Party folded) at the Labour History Archive and Study Centre, within the People’s History Museum in Manchester. I have also accessed files from the 1980s relating to the Socialist Workers Party and the Anti-Nazi League at the Modern Records Centre in Warwick, as well as documents of anti-deportation campaigns in the 1980s in the Runnymede Trust archives at Middlesex University, the Institute of Race Relations archive in London and the Steve Cohen collection at the Race Relations Archive at the University of Manchester. (Incidentally in Australia, the National Archives of Australia are working, year-by-year, to open all documents after 20 years, rather than 30. This means that each January, two years worth of records are released)

However, while the Public Records Act may not apply, legislation covering the privacy of data relating to specific individuals may result in non-government records remaining closed. This is the problem faced by historians of the contemporary era – the amount of data being collected by the government and private institutions has greatly increased over the last fifty years, but researchers may not be able to access this data for years to come, due to privacy concerns. This also relates to government records. When investigating immigration control measures used by Britain during the 1970s, I was not allowed access to two files, one from the Home Office and one from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. When I requested access to the files through FOI, I was told that I could not have access to the FCO document, relating to files on migrants screened at the British High Commission in Pakistan, for two reasons:

Section 40 exemption: this section exempts personal information about a ‘third party’ (that is, someone other than the enquirer), if revealing it would break the terms of the Data Protection Act 1998, or if the person that the information relates to would not have a right to know about it or a right of access to it under that Act (because of its exemption provisions). The 1998 Act prevents personal information being released if, for example, it would be unfair or at odds with the reason why it was collected, or where the individual whom the information was about had properly served notice that releasing it would cause major and unnecessary damage or distress.
S40 (2): The exemption applies here as some of the information contained within the file constitutes the personal data of living persons,  the release of which would contravene the first data protection principle, in that personal data must be processed fairly and lawfully. The information in the file is classed as sensitive personal data because it is made up of information regarding identifiable people’s family histories, medical information, and reasons for wishing to immigrate . Release of this would be deemed to be unfair as there is no expectation that the information would be released during the lifetime of these individuals.

Alongside my research in the UK, I have recently been in correspondence with the National Archives in Germany, concerning the death of a suspected RAF member, and have found some similar problems. I have been told that for privacy reasons, files relating to some individuals are closed for 30 years after their death and sometimes for 110 years after their birth. I am currently in process of applying to get these files opened.

Laura Clark Brown and Nancy Kaiser have written about the difficulty faced by historians looking at records of the contemporary historical era in a chapter, ‘Opening Archives on the Recent American Past: Reconciling the Ethics of Access and the Ethics of Privacy’ in an edited collection by Claire Potter (of Tenured Radical fame) and Renee Romano, Doing Contemporary History. (You can read the chapter on Google Books, but you should really purchase the book from here) Brown and Kaiser explore how modern ideas of privacy intersect, and often conflict, with the historians’ use of the archival record.

These difficulties are even more pronounced for historians interested in national security issues. When I was at Kew in July this year, I was starting a research project on the intersection between national and border security in Britain in the 1970s. While I found a lot of interesting material, I was surprised by the number of files that remained closed. I thought I would list them below (just for interest’s sake):

BT 394/23 – National Aviation Security Committee: papers, minutes and agenda

BT 394/27 – Aviation security: working group on study of security measures

BT 394/28 – Aviation security: Cabinet official committee on terrorism

BT 394/29 – Aviation security

BT 394/33 – National Aviation Security Committee (NASC)

BT 394/39 – National Aviation Security Committee (NASC): circular 1/77

BT 394/40-43 – National Aviation Security Committee (NASC): full set of committee papers for 1973-77 regarding security measures

BT 394/44 – Aviation security

BT 394/47 – Aviation security: Protection of Aircraft Bill 1973;

BT 394/48 – Aviation security: Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provision) Act 1976;

BT 394/49 – Aviation security

BT 394/50 – Aviation security

BT 394/60 – National Aviation Security Committee (NASC)

CJ 4/1752 – Border security: Police/Army co-operation between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland; reports of incidents and measures taken; Ministerial and official contacts with new Irish government and policy implications

DEFE 70/63 – Northern Ireland border control

FCO 8/4091 – Immigration of Iranians to the UK: passports and visas

FCO 93/840 – Visa applications for UK by Libya

HO 325/29 – Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO): proposal to establish an office in London

HO 325/80 – Immigration Act 1971: implementation in relation to citizens of Republic of Ireland; consideration of entry by an Irish citizen who entered the United Kingdom by crossing the border into Northern Ireland prior to entering Great Britain; role of police

PREM 16/660 – SECURITY. Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP): threat of terrorist activity at LondonHeathrowAirport

The National Archives website provides links for researchers to pursue FOI applications in order to open these files. However I have not yet applied for any of these files to be opened.

Should historians make more use of FOI? One of the problems may be ‘public interest’. I believe that journalists use this reason to make many FOI requests, but with historians (and other academics) the importance of (and public interest in) a particular document might not be immediately recognisable. Another problem is that how many historians know how to make an FOI request? I only put in my request to the FCO and HO because the National Archives provided links to a quite user-friendly online form. Requesting documents from other government agencies might be a more difficult process. I think training in FOI might be a valuable service that universities might think about looking into. A third problem is that FOI, I believe, only applies to government agencies – how do we access the records of non-government entities?

Do you know of any successful instances of academics using FOI to obtain classified records? Have you had problems with accessing files from the contemporary era? Comments below would be welcome.


  1. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to use the FOI to obtain access to data from the Metropolitan Police about the policing of anti-apartheid protests in London in the 1980s. Despite an intervention from the Information Commissioner’s Office, nothing has shifted.In hindsight, with proper training in using FOI requests, I could have worded the request differently and may have got some material released (I may yet try again). Interestingly the National Centre for Research Methods in the UK tried to organise a training event on usig FOI requests in research last year, which I signed up for, but it was cancelled due to a very low number of bookings. I agree that more robust training would aid researchers in many disciplines.

  2. […] As we have written, the archival record is key to uncovering the past abuses by the British state and as this blog post argues, the need for historians to assist in bringing the archival record to the public’s knowledge is increasingly greater. The recent past should not be arbitrarily off-limits. And if the government is reluctant to open its records, historians should learn from journalists and endeavour to make FOI laws work for us. […]

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