From: Sir Humphrey Appleby
To: Bernard Woolley
I understand your anxiety about the new government’s fixation on what they are pleased to call ‘transparency’, but you are distressing yourself unnecessarily. It afflicts all incoming administrations. It used to be called ‘open government’, and reflects the frustrations they felt when they were in opposition and could not find out what was going on, combined with an eagerness to discover and publicise the deception, distortions and disasters of their predecessors.
But it does not last beyond the first few months. As time passes they realise they have more to lose than to gain from public knowledge of what they are up to. Each month increases their tally of catastrophic misjudgements, pathetic deceptions, humiliating retreats and squalid compromises. They very soon come to understand that sound and effective government is only possible if people do not know what you are doing. The Freedom of Information Act was the greatest blow to firm and decisive administration since the execution of King Charles I. We are gradually but steadily pruning its worst excesses, but it takes time.
Quite soon our new masters will realise that secrecy may be the enemy of democracy, but it is the foundation of government. Where would we be if Eisenhower has succumbed to calls for transparency about our plans for D-day? It is not a coincidence that ‘secretary’ originally meaning a humble clerk, the repository of secret information, has come to designate so many of the highest offices – Secretary General, Secretary of State, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and (if I may say so) Permanent Secretary. We should of course give the greatest possible encouragement to the idea of transparency, but in any particular case we will continue with our established practice of making public only that information which is already known or can easily be found out some other way.
(Sir Humphrey Appleby KCB CVO)
© Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, 7 September 2010