29 December, 2005

Little things

The annual opening-up-of-Government-archives under the 30 Year Rule has revealed its usual slew of the equally intriguing and trivial.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the fact that, according to the people at the National Archives themselves, 75% of stuff dating from 1975 is already in the public domain thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. Nowadays the documents that turn up at the end of each year are merely going to be those transfered as a matter of course, rather than those whose surpression has been ended by law. Expect the kind of revelations about the "real" story behind numerous national crises that have bubbled up since the Act was passed to continue surfacing on a monthly, if not weekly basis, from now on.

Of the batch of stuff that has just been released, the most alarming documents are surely those which refer to what was to happen were the country subject to a nuclear attack. Hospitals would be emptied, bunkers manned by civil servants, a state of emergency declared - but it'd all be OK because "art treasures from London and Edinburgh would be saved by being sent to slate mines in Wales." Never mind the welfare of the population - let's get those Constable landscapes underground, dammit!

By contrast, the most timely documents relate to Harold Wilson's 'Little Things That Mean A Lot' campaign, wherein the erstwhile PM tried to improve his standing and that of the country via cheap, specific, single issue initiatives like creating a new Bank Holiday, bothering to tell taxpayers how their rates were spent, using empty office blocks for other purposes like housing the homeless, and protecting local breweries from national chains - all of which are still relevant today and all of which would still rank as obvious votewinners.

Harold Wilson is often derided by historians and politicians as a cynical, gimmick-obsessed Prime Minister who did little to sort out the real state of the nation. In reality, as these archives show, he was more in tune with the real nation than most PMs of the 20th century, and was exceptionally smart when it came to using his office to do genuine good.

On top of that he fought five general elections and won four of them. Although he did almost lead the country into, according to another document, "wholesale domestic liquidation". I say almost. That actual honour was saved for Margaret Thatcher.


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