From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Keeping the Secret

Sir Paul Nurse

After the performance of the confused Matt Hancock over the weekend (see yesterday’s diary), the premium on a figure of trust and competence has risen still further.

Step forward Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner, director of the Francis Crick Institute, former president of the Royal Society, chief scientific advisor to the European Commission.  Here at last is a figure whom a local radio presenter would not be able to reduce to incoherence in a few short minutes.

His contribution to the Covid-19 debate on Sunday should be taken seriously.  The issue to which he drew attention was excessive secrecy in government decision-making.

I have written a book on this subject.*  I argued that the birth of the modern state following the 1832 Reform Act was accompanied by the development of the doctrine of ‘honourable secrecy’.  Politicians and civil servants controlled information on the basis not of law but culture.  Honourable men could be trusted to decide what to say and when not to say it.  For as long as the state machine remained small, this system worked on its own terms.  The government apparatus was, for its times, both competent and honest.  But when, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the civil service expanded and drew in officials who were not gentlemen, and still worse, not men at all, then a law was required to discipline junior staff.  The definition of what was a secret was left in the hands of senior officials and their masters.  The continuing growth of the role of the state in everyday life eventually required further legal clarification, resulting in a revised Official Secrets Act in 1989 and the 2000 Freedom of Information Act (FOI).

But entrenched habits die hard.  What bothers Nurse are two aspects of the old culture.  The first is that despite twenty years of FOI, official information is still seen as the possession not of civil society but of politicians and their advisors.  They are free to decide when to release it, and even to admit that it exists at all.  In the words of Henry Taylor in 1836, ‘A secret may be sometimes best kept by keeping the secret of its being secret.’ 

The second is the instinctive feeling that open debate impedes rather than enhances policy-making.  It invites disruptive commentary by the ill-informed or the ill-intentioned.  It distracts and delays the work of those charged with taking action.  Better to leave the moment of full openness until some later inquiry.

Thus SAGE, the key advisory committee, chaired by two scientists who are now government employees, sought in the early stages to deny information on who were its members unless they were subject to unwarranted lobbying.  Its advice on key areas of policy remains confidential.  “It sometimes seems” said Nurse, “like a ‘black box’ made up of scientists, civil servants and politicians are coming up with the decisions. … It needs to be more open. We need greater transparency, greater scrutiny and greater challenge to get the best results.”  Rather than the scientific culture of critical debate informing government, the political process had muzzled science.

The consequence, as so often in the past, was that the wrong decisions were made and then covered up to prevent embarrassment.  On the rolling shambles of coronavirus testing, for instance, Nurse charges that, “They seemed not to want to admit that they weren’t prepared, that they were unable to do the testing properly, because that would have been an admission of failure from square one.”

As in other areas the response to the coronavirus has exposed rather than transcended deficiencies in public life.  And as elsewhere, this matters not just for the management of the crisis but for the future of society more generally.  The pandemic is just one example of how complex policy decisions will need to be fully informed by scientific information which is itself a matter of constant debate. 

The discovery of how far secrecy is still ingrained in the official mind is an open threat us all. 

*The Culture of Secrecy.  (Oxford University Press, 1998)

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