Christmas 2010

Je Ne Regrette Rien

Douglas Hurd

In 1988 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was persuaded that the government should introduce a Bill unveiling for the first time the existence of MI5 and defining its duties. A few months later the same government introduced a reform of the Official Secrets Act. This removed the great bug of official information and placed it outside the range of the criminal law. For example a budget leak no longer came within the definition of the official Secrets Act. Six years later she likewise agreed to unveil the existence of MI6 in a further act of parliament.

As it happened, I was the Minister for steering all these measures through the House of Commons, first as Home Secretary and then from the Foreign Office.

I also supported William Waldegrave’s parallel move to liberalise the release of much Secret Service information. A little to my surprise, and happily so, those who were most concerned about the need to keep such material secret had their voices drowned out by the professionals in each service, who recognised that their secrecy was unlikely to be protected much longer. They themselves, for operational reasons, wanted to shed what had become the burden of supposed secrecy.

Now the leaks from WikiLeaks make us look again at the whole argument about policy.

From this avalanche of leaked cables a number of points arise.

First they are overwhelmingly trivial. Gossip about the conversations of Prince Andrew certainly falls into that category. Much has been made of the comments by the Governor of the Bank of England on the inexperience of incoming coalition Ministers. But these remarks were made when they were strictly true in that neither David Cameron nor George Osborne had ever held a Ministerial position.

Likewise anyone who visited the Middle East would quickly have become aware that the Arab World was deeply concerned about the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons.

These leaks force us to a conclusion about the motives of the press in exalting their importance. The press would rather be faced with closed windows, which it was easy to smash rather than a more transparent system. But at what rate has the thunder of WikiLeaks to decide which stories should be released in the public interest and which should stay hidden?

In many walks of life, and certainly in diplomacy, there is an overwhelming case for the exchange of private information on the basis of mutual trust. No great harm Has in fact been done by this avalanche of leaked information, but inevitably, if it continues, it will gradually undermine the basis of trust which underlies such exchanges.

Lord Hurd of Westwell, British Foreign Secretary, 1989–1995, and is President of Montrose Associates.