THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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4 posts categorized "Government publications"

22 September 2020

Nuclear history: Triangulating sources and government secrecy.

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Joshua McMullan examines the ongoing security review of the ES and AB series at the National Archives in the context of oral history interviews recorded for 'An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry'.  

Photograph of Peter Vey at the Chernobyl nuclear power station complex in 1988Peter Vey at the Chernobyl nuclear power station complex in 1988, as part of an international delegation led by Lord Marshall. Courtesy of Peter Vey

On the 13th July 2018, senior civil servants from the Ministry of Defence requested that files pertaining to the UK nuclear programme, located within the ES and AB series at the National Archives, be ‘temporarily withdrawn’ from public viewing. The MOD stated this was necessary in order to conduct a security review of said files and, while reviews of this nature are common, the scale is not. As someone researching the UK’s civil nuclear programme’s public relations strategy, the review put a significant hurdle in the way of my work. However, by listening to oral history interviews held at the British Library and conducted with people who worked for the nuclear industry I have been able to continue my research. I have also been able to connect these interviews to other archival sources, including files at the National Archives I was able to access before they were closed off for review. From this work I suggest the government will find it difficult to make secret aspects of nuclear history that were, and are, public. 

In particular the interviews with former managing director of the Central Electricity Generating Board, Sir John Baker, and former head of public relations at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and then CEGB, Peter Vey, have added a lot to my research and my understanding of how the industry worked, both from an organisational and technical point of view. This includes John Baker’s remarks on storing nuclear waste; including the industry’s policy on storing low level nuclear waste, as well as discussions over where future waste disposal sites might be located. In Peter Vey’s interview we learn of how he arranged lunches between Chairman of the UKAEA Sir John Hill and journalists, as well as how the UKAEA believed the BBC held a bias against them. Due to his past work for the UKAEA, Vey’s insights show us what kind of information might be held within the AB files. 

John Baker on storing nuclear waste (C1495/14/07)

Download John Baker on storing nuclear waste transcript

Peter Vey on the BBC (C1495/51/07)

Download Peter Vey on the BBC transcript

We can further summarise this is the kind of information held in the AB files by looking at other archival records held at the National Archives, including PREM 19/3656 that details the UK response to the Chernobyl disaster. This file includes comments from former Deputy Chairman of the UKAEA, and at the time Chairman of the CEGB, Lord Walter Marshall, who wrote to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher advising her what to say and, crucially, what not to say regarding the design of UK nuclear plants. Lord Marshall’s advice was intended to avoid potentially awkward comparisons between the UK’s nuclear programme and that of the Soviet Union. We can also look at reviewed AB files such as AB 38/2164, which details the UKAEA’s public relations response to Chernobyl. In this file we can see the institutional mindset of the UKAEA, which had created a video claiming that an accident like Chernobyl, ‘could not happen here in the UK.’ Internal memos state that the video was not for the general public as it was ‘too technical’, and that an alternative video produced by the CEGB was more appropriate. Vey’s interview brings these documents together when he speaks of how the organisations that made up the industry collaborated to mitigate public concern over the dangers of nuclear power. We learn of how members of the industry viewed the public as well as which technical aspects of UK reactors they believed the public might be concerned with if the information became common knowledge. All of this is information I expected to find in the AB files.

Peter Vey on UK response to Chernobyl (C1495/51/11)

Download Peter Vey on UK response to Chernobyl transcript

By triangulating a variety of sources, including the oral histories held the British Library I have been able to continue with my research despite the ongoing security review of the AB files. However, the availability of so many other sources of evidence does raise an important conundrum for researchers and the government. Even with the MODs decision to retract what was once public information it will prove very difficult to remake the information into a secret when there are thousands of other sources available. Academics such as myself have been able to read and listen to a multitude of different people who know a multitude of different things and to distil it into our work. I am not the first to research the UK nuclear industry, and there are other researchers who are faced with this same hurdle. However, the real challenge is not for us who must navigate around this hurdle, but for the government. If they do decide to re-make swathes of information secret, they will face an impossible challenge of tracking down every source of recorded information in an attempt to close them off. This would include oral history interviews such as those with Sir John Baker and Peter Vey.

Joshua McMullan is an AHRC CDP PhD candidate at the University of Leicester and the National Archives looking at civil nuclear public relations in the 1970s and 1980s

Sir John Baker and Peter Vey were interviewed for the National Life Stories project 'An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry'. Their interviews can be listened to at BL Sounds. For more information on the UK response to the Chernobyl disaster see the blog 'Chernobyl: Perspectives from the British Nuclear Industry

08 February 2019

Where our laws are drafted: 150 years of the Office of Parliamentary Counsel

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On 8 February 1869 the Board of the Treasury met to discuss “the drafting or preparing of Bills introduced into Parliament on the part of Her Majesty’s Government.” The Treasury minute goes on to note “the advantage of bringing all important Government Bills under the view of one person,” and being “pleased to direct that the office as proposed shall be constituted to be called the “Office of the Parliamentary Counsel”.

The Office of Parliamentary Counsel has grown from one man and his assistant in 1869 to consist of a staff of 60, including some 50 experienced barristers and solicitors. Led by Elizabeth Gardiner, the team’s job is to assist government departments in preparing Bills.

In a BBC interview Gardiner remarked that, "what they used to say was that every Labour government legislated more than a Tory government but that every government legislated more than the previous one, of that colour.”

The experience of Patrick Macrory, director of Unilever, seems to corroborate that view. He worked as an assistant at the Parliamentary Counsel Office during the late 1940s under Granville Ram (known as the ‘Maestro’) and alongside Harold Kent who later became Treasury Solicitor.

Interview with Patrick Macrory, C408/005, Tape 1, Side 2, 00:23:18 – 00:24:31

In this excerpt from her 1988 interview for NLS Legal Lives, Baroness Hale explains how parliamentary draftsmen contribute to the work of the Law Commission on law reform.

Interview with Baroness Hale, C736/008, Track 4, 00:17:29 – 00:20:52

Baroness Hale
Baroness Hale. University of Salford Press Office [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Those currently working in the Office of Parliamentary Counsel are facing unprecedented challenges, drafting legislation to accommodate the constitutional novelty that is Brexit.

Blogpost by Emmeline Ledgerwood (@EmmeLedgerwood), AHRC collaborative doctoral student with the University of Leicester and the British Library Oral History department. Her PhD research is looking at governments’ attitudes to the management and funding of scientific research, 1970-2005. 

21 November 2018

Choosing to stand: what makes women run for Parliament?

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On 21 November 1918, women gained the right to stand as parliamentary candidates with the passage of the one-page Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, 1918.

A scan of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) ActCredit: Parliamentary Archives

In the hundred years since the Act was passed, 491 women have been elected as MPs; that figure is only just higher than the 441 male MPs in the current Parliament alone. Understanding those numbers is not just about analysing how the electorate behaves at the ballot box or studying the preferences of party selection committees. It involves an appreciation of what comes before all that, an individual’s decision to step forward as a candidate.

A recent survey in the UK [‘An Analysis of Political Ambition in Britain’, Allen and Cutts 2018] showed that only 10% of the population have ever considered running for political office or think they would run for office in the future. Within that 10%, there is a clear gender gap in political ambition, with British men more than twice as likely as British women to consider putting themselves forward as a candidate.

Women who were MPs during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and interviewed for the History of Parliament Oral History Project (C1503), speak about the thought processes and critical influences that drove or inhibited their political aspirations. Their stories demonstrate that the concept of ‘political ambition’ usually develops out of factors such as family upbringing, level of education, occupational background, age, minority status and recruitment by their peers.

Growing up in a politically active family is a consistent predictor of political ambition, and many of these interviewees had relatives in the House of Commons, but this sometimes added to the challenge of entering national politics.

A photograph of Hilary Armstrong standing in an officeHilary Armstrong, credit: The British Library

Hilary Armstrong (North West Durham, 1987-2010) felt her biggest hurdle to becoming an MP was demonstrating she had independent views to her father, Ernest Armstrong, who she succeeded in the seat, while Emma Nicholson (Torridge and West Devon, 1987-97) decided to bide her time until her father Sir Godfrey Nicholson retired from political life.

A portrait photograph of Emma NicholsonEmma Nicholson, credit: The British Library

“Well my father was still in Parliament and there was nothing I could do … because the whole task was to support my father’s work first and foremost. I waited until my father left completely before thinking well, maybe I can now have a go.”
[Interview with Emma Nicholson, C1503/62 Track 1, 0:51:50 - 0:52:24]

As a child Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme, 1986-2001) was teased because her father, Ness Edwards, was the local MP, making her very wary of becoming one herself.

Interview with Llinn Golding, C1503/60 Track 1, 0:17:00 - 0:17:32

Only a few of those interviewed for the collection spoke about wanting to become an MP from an early age. Marion Roe (Broxbourne, 1983-2005) started thinking about it when her family commitments began to ease off.

Interview with Marion Roe, C1503/71 Track 1, 0:04:36 – 0:05:45

For the majority of these women however, the idea of running for Parliament was planted by someone else, and the current campaign for a 50:50 Parliament recognises the impact that being asked can have on a woman’s political aspirations, as illustrated by Alice Mahon.

“I got persuaded really by trade unions, I was on the trades council and … I went to the regional Labour party in 1980 and I just got bombarded with people saying you’ve got to stand. Tony Benn was there … he said the same. Barbara Castle came up to Halifax …. she came straight out with it, she said ‘Well they’re talking about somebody for the seat, I hope you’re going to put in for it?’”
[Interview with Alice Mahon, (Halifax, 1987-2005). C1503/30 Track 1, 0:17:18 - 0:18:15]

A portrait photograph of Ann TaylorAnn Taylor, credit: The British Library

Other women such as Ann Taylor (Bolton West 1974-1983, Dewsbury 1987-2005) and Helen Jackson (Sheffield Hillsborough, 1992-2005) realised they could do as good a job as any other candidate, becoming more confident in their own capabilities.

Interview with Ann Taylor, C1503/81 Track 1, 0:46:11 – 0:46:53

Interview with Helen Jackson, C1503/124 Track 1, 1:15:46 -1:16:33

A photograph of Rosie Barnes standing in a living roomRosie Barnes, credit: The British Library

Then there is the chance opportunity when a by-election comes along, from Nancy Astor winning the Plymouth Sutton by-election in 1919 to Rosie Barnes’ success in Greenwich in 1987 (Greenwich, 1987-92).

“And then of course events being as they are, they don’t always follow the pre-conceived plan so there was the by-election and I won and Jo wasn’t even two. It was a bit of a shock to the system actually ...because I had never thought of being an MP, I’d never been a councillor, I hadn’t had any ambitions to be an MP, I was just supporting the Social Democratic Party by standing. But of course when the election came I thought to myself I’ve got to behave like a winner because unless you behave like a winner you couldn’t possibly win.”
[Interview with Rosie Barnes, C1503/132 Track 1, 0:47:14 - 0:47:54]

As Barnes’s story confirms, what we call political ambition is often the product of chance, and for many of these interviewees, their journeys to Westminster started with a simple question: ‘Have you thought about standing?’

Blogpost by Emmeline Ledgerwood (@EmmeLedgerwood), AHRC collaborative doctoral student with the University of Leicester and the British Library Oral History department. Her PhD research is looking at governments’ attitudes to the management and funding of scientific research, 1970-2005. All the interviews featured are from The History of Parliament Oral History Project and can be listened to online at Bl Sounds.

26 June 2018

Fulton at 50: how civil service reform affected government scientists

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On 26 June 1968 Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced to the Commons the publication of the Fulton Report, the outcome of the first major inquiry into the civil service for more than 100 years.

Fulton front page

Fulton committeePhoto credit: Contemporary Record, 2 (2) 1988, p.49

The committee, appointed in 1966 to examine the service’s structure, recruitment, training and management, were a mixture of senior civil servants, MPs, academics and representatives from industry and the trade unions. Their task, according to Wilson, was to “ensure that the service is properly equipped for its role in the modern state”. One of the criticisms of its scope was that it did not look at the relationship between Ministers and their civil servants, the focus of a recent report from the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.

Here Fulton committee member Norman Hunt describes the work of his team 1:

Norman Hunt (M5929)

Out of this intense scrutiny exercise came a list of 158 recommendations, the sheer volume of which hindered the report’s implementation. Some were promptly put into effect, such as the creation of a Civil Service Department and enhanced training provision through a Civil Service College, while others, for example the hiving-off of public services, took decades to filter through.

One of the report’s conclusions was that “many scientists, engineers and members of other specialist classes get neither the full responsibilities and corresponding authority, or the opportunities they ought to have.”2 The civil service was built around a framework of vertical classes which inhibited the movement of specialists into the upper tiers. Consequently, management of the civil service was concentrated in the hands of generalists who rose up through the administrative class.3

Lord Fulton (T5341)

One of the more immediate changes post-Fulton came with the introduction of a unified grading system aimed at bringing coherence across the classes. This created resentment among some civil servants who felt they had been downgraded. Anthony Kelly, a materials scientist working at that time at the National Physical Laboratory, is one example.

Fulton person 1Photo credit: The British Library

Anthony Kelly (C1379/54/12)

Nevertheless opportunities for career progression opened up as a result of the report. Roger Courtney, who was to become director of the Building Research Establishment, appreciated the changes that came out of it.

Fulton person 2Photo credit: The Building Research Establishment

Roger Courtney (C1802/01/09)

For him, the new Senior Professional Administrative Training Scheme (with its memorable acronym SPATS) led to a job at the heart of government in Cabinet Office.

However while the report’s aim of getting more specialists into management positions looked good on paper, in reality it was not so straightforward.

Sir John Charnley, an aeronautical engineer at the Royal Aircraft Establishment who went on to manage Ministry of Defence research programmes, explains the issue:

Fulton person 3Photo credit: The British Library

John Charnley (C1379/30/16)

This tallies with Roger Courtney’s assessment:

Roger Courntey (C1802/01/09)

Fifty years later, the challenge of getting more scientific expertise into the policy-making environment remains a question debated at a national level, while historians continue to evaluate the Fulton report's long-term impact on today's civil service.

Blogpost by Emmeline Ledgerwood (@EmmeLedgerwood), AHRC collaborative doctoral student with the University of Leicester and the British Library Oral History department. Her PhD research is looking at governments’ attitudes to the management and funding of scientific research, 1970-2005.


1  Crowther-Hunt, Norman, Government and the Civil Service [1], 16 October 1976. British Library catalogue reference M5929. Copyright BBC.

2 The Civil Service [Fulton report], (1968), Volume 1, para. 17, p. 12.

3 Fulton, John, Fulton Report on the Civil Service, 28 June 1968. British Library catalogue reference T5341. Copyright BBC.