Menu Close
A British Army soldier on lookout in the Falls Road area of Belfast in 1969. PA/PA Archive/PA Images

The missing papers at the National Archives may not be a grand conspiracy after all

Thousands of government papers have apparently gone missing from the UK National Archives. Declassified documents covering some of the most controversial episodes from Britain’s past, including the Falklands War, Northern Ireland’s Troubles and the now infamous Zinoviev Letter Affair were among the missing files, having been officially “misplaced while on loan” to government departments. Some have claimed this is evidence of a government cover-up, but the truth is probably more mundane.

Others papers returned to government from the archives based at Kew, Surrey, include papers on Britain’s control over the Mandate of Palestine, sensitive records on defence agreements between the UK and Malaya and documents on the 1978 killing of dissident Georgi Markov by Bulgarian spies in central London. The number of missing files ran to “almost 1,000”, according to The Guardian.

The story prompted criticism over government handling of documents released into the public domain and led to questions of a possible cover-up by departments trying to manipulate the past. Labour’s shadow cabinet office minister Jon Trickett called for an investigation and said the British public deserved to know “what the government has done in their name”. The Scottish National Party also demanded an inquiry.

Amnesty International and Reprieve also expressed concerns about the possible loss of papers dealing with human rights violations, especially by the British state in Northern Ireland. Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland programme director demanded “a government-wide search”.

History theft

Journalist Siobhan Fenton linked the controversy to attempts to rewrite Britain’s colonial legacy, adding: “Britain has long failed to acknowledge the horrors that its colonialism and imperialism have wrought on the world.”

And The National’s Martin Hannan even claimed that the Zinoviev Letter (a forgery at the heart of a plot to destabilise Britain’s first Labour government in 1924) was “among the missing documents” – even though copies of the letter can be easily found at Kew.

In fairness, this isn’t the first time that government has been accused of withholding sensitive papers. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) was found to be hoarding colonial era records in the so-called “migrated archives” following legal action by Mau Mau veterans tortured by the British authorities in the 1950s. The FCO subsequently released this material to the National Archives.

But are the new claims of “almost 1,000” missing files actually accurate? In short, no. Figures from the National Archives suggest the number is far smaller than that put forward by The Guardian’s Ian Cobain. Government departments can request the return of documents sent to Kew for several reasons, including writing official history and exploring departmental precedents.

Both the Public Records Act 1958 and Section 46 “Code of Practice –- records management” under Freedom of Information, asks departments to ensure the “safe-keeping and security of records in their custody”. Departments are encouraged to return files as soon as they have been used. Figures obtained under Freedom of Information show that government departments asked for just over 23,000 files between 2011 and 2014. As of early 2014, 2,925 were yet to be returned.

So how many have been lost?

The National Archives catalogue shows just 626 records – far fewer than the thousands initially suggested. These contain documents from across government, including the FCO, Home Office, Ministry of Defence, Board of Trade, Treasury, Office of Works and many more (some 63 public bodies).

Another Freedom of Information request reveals that 48 records were lost while on loan from July 2011 to July 2016. The Ministry of Defence (19) and Metropolitan Police (ten) were the worst offenders. The FCO accounted for just three. It is unclear when the other almost 600 files went missing, but these could have been lost over a longer period of time, the figures suggest.

To place this into some context, a total of 372 records went missing for unspecified reasons in the vaults of the National Archives between the summer of 2011 and 2016. Figures obtained by the BBC show this number could be as high as 402, including files on nuclear collaboration with Israel and correspondence with Winston Churchill. That’s out of nearly 11m records – 0.01% of the collection.

Searches of the online catalogue show that one Home Office file on the Zinoviev Letter, three on Britain’s relationship with Malaya and several highlighted by The Guardian have been lost. Claims that “many” of the missing papers refer to the Falklands are inaccurate. Just one Treasury file on the development of the Falklands is missing. None refer to Britain’s controversial response to the Mau Mau uprising or the colonial campaigns in Malaya, Cyprus or Aden.

On watch for Mau Mau fighters.

Given Amnesty’s concern over the loss of papers on Northern Ireland, only one file – a Ministry of Defence assessment in the early 1970s – has been lost. Many of the missing reports on Communist Party infiltration in the 1950s can be found in MI5’s declassified papers or those of the Cabinet Office, already available to researchers elsewhere.

For all the talk of government lies, many of the files relate to more mundane matters. Among the lost papers are records on the Channel Tunnel, Norwich Airport, a map of Princes Risborough, kneepads in coalmines (of interest no doubt to researchers in these areas, but far from the government cover-up suggested by some).

For a historian, the loss of government records is troubling but the claim that government is manipulating history by losing documents is an exaggeration. Historians already have the ability to write on controversial aspects from Britain’s past – Zinoviev, Mau Mau, Cold War surveillance and others – using papers at the National Archives, as seen by the growth of historical research on these subjects and many more. If government is supposedly trying to alter history by “losing” historical papers, it’s not doing a very good job.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 139,400 academics and researchers from 4,242 institutions.

Register now