Andrew Lownie on making the Mountbatten diaries and letters public, and the importance of writers’ access to archives.

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Documents are the lifeblood of historians. They provide the bricks to build our picture of the past. So when I started to research my joint biography of Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten in 2015, I was looking forward to reading their diaries and letters – crucial for understanding what they did, who they saw, how they felt.

The diaries and letters had been extensively quoted in books on the couple by Philip Ziegler and Janet Morgan, and had been available to researchers until 2011, when they were bought for £4.5 million under the Acceptance in Lieu scheme and with grants from, amongst others, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Hampshire County Council.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, to discover that the archivists at Southampton University, who had bought the papers, claimed to know nothing about the diaries or letters or how I might access them. I put in a series of FOI requests that eventually led, in December 2019, to the Information Commissioner (ICO) ruling that the diaries and letters should be made publicly available. Southampton and the Cabinet Office, the latter of whom had assumed a role in withholding the material, appealed the decision, and a hearing will be held on 15 November to decide the issue.  

Along the way, both Southampton and the Cabinet Office have been evasive, repeatedly missing statutory, regulatory and self-imposed deadlines for responding, and ignoring correspondence from me, my lawyers and the ICO, to the extent that the ICO took the unprecedented step of commencing High Court proceedings for contempt against Southampton. I also discovered that the very same individual at Southampton who had incited the Cabinet Office to “close” the diaries and letters, had then proposed an arrangement with the Cabinet Office himself to edit a ‘scholarly’ edition of the 1947 diaries. That edition is purportedly due out next year, but neither the individual concerned, the Cabinet Office, nor Southampton University are prepared to comment. 

My book on the Mountbattens was published two years ago; the material is too late for me. But I have continued my fight on the basis that the diaries and letters are crucial historical documents that should be open to researchers; in support of the principles of academic freedom and access to archives; and against abuse of state power. It should be an important issue for all writers, which is why I am delighted that English PEN, on whose committee I once sat, should have taken up the issue alongside the Royal Historical Society and various parliamentarians.

I covered my own legal costs for six years, but my money ran out this summer. However, I was able through the commercial platform CrowdJustice to raise the £50,000 necessary to help take the case through to the hearing. At the same time, the media began to take an interest and questions began to be asked in Parliament, leading to an Early Day Motion signed by more than 20 MPs across the political spectrum. I still need to raise a further £35,000 to conclude the proceedings, and am hoping that, seeing the importance of the issue, people will contribute.

In response to enquiries, the Cabinet Office first claimed they were bound by undertakings signed by Mountbatten in 1969, until it was pointed out that those undertakings did not relate to private diaries and letters but to public documents – so called ‘strayed archives’ – that he had accrued in the course of his service career. None of the agreements even mentioned Edwina. 

The Cabinet Office then argued – incorrectly, as it’s a civil, not criminal, case – that the matter was sub judice. The Cabinet Office Ministers Chloe Smith and Julia Lopez refused to answer a series of parliamentary questions, including about the cost to the public purse of suppressing these diaries, which had originally been bought specifically to be open to the public. All requests for a meeting with a government minister by MPs and the Royal Historical Society have been refused.

Originally, Southampton claimed that a ministerial direction imposed a statutory prohibition, hence the Cabinet Office’s involvement. In fact, the Cabinet Office was wholly ignorant of the ministerial direction’s existence until a month after the acquisition of the papers was completed in August 2011. Until I started making FOI requests in 2017, the Cabinet Office – which is now taking centre stage in suppressing the diaries and letters – had shown no interest in vetting any of the Mountbatten materials. Indeed, it had shown no interest in them at all. Philip Ziegler, the official biographer, was allowed to take the papers home to work on them. 

The Cabinet Office should be playing no role in this saga. It is Southampton who owns the papers and who is bound to give access to them under the Freedom of Information Act, unless it can withhold it under an exemption. What Mountbatten agreed in the 1960s is now irrelevant.

Having argued earlier this year that it would take years to vet and digitalise the diaries and letters (they had had a decade to so, but had done nothing), Southampton has, over the last few months, quietly made available most of Dickie’s diaries to 1968, Edwina’s up to her death in 1960, his letters to 1960, and hers until 1949. There are still redacted pages and missing years – and I have not even broached the Edwina/Nehru correspondence – but it’s a start.

This whole episode raises many questions. Why is the Cabinet Office trying to censor our history? What is in this couple’s personal diaries and letters, which remain “closed”, that is so sensational as to justify the Cabinet Office racking up such a large legal bill? Is trying to suppress private diaries and letters – some from a century ago – bought with public funds really what governments should be doing? Why have both Southampton and the Cabinet Office been so uncooperative – not just with me and my lawyers, but also the ICO and the courts, failing to respond to important requests for information, only partially releasing material, and obscuring the genesis of the ministerial direction? A failure to comply with my subject access request under the Data Protection Act led to the Cabinet Office – that is, the taxpayer – having to pay my associated legal costs.

Southampton has questions to answer, too. Why is it blocking access to archive material that, according to its own claims, is of international historical importance, purchased with public money and for which public tax income was forfeited? Why is it censoring private letters and diaries ostensibly on behalf of the government, for which there is no legal justification, in what seems an unquestioning relationship between an academic institution and the state? 

I believe the Mountbatten diaries and letters are an invaluable source for twentieth-century historians, and important principles are at stake relating to censorship and the abuse of power. There is an important role for all of us – not just parliamentarians and the media – in making available the missing Mountbatten diaries and letters, and in ensuring such an episode never happens again.

Andrew Lownie has been a bookseller, publisher, journalist – writing for the Times, Telegraph, Wall Street Journal, Spectator and Guardian – and since 1988 has run his own literary agency specialising in history and biography. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, he is President of the Biographers Club, sits on the board of Biographers International Organisation and is a Trustee of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

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