Today
Fri 17 September 2021

David Hencke reports on the long-running battle of historian Andrew Lownie against the Government over the release of documents which were bought on behalf of the public for millions of pounds by Southampton University

The hidden hand of the Royal Family is behind the Government’s determination to stop the publication of some of the diaries of Lord Mountbatten, which were bought on behalf of the nation for £2.8 million by Southampton University in 2010, Byline Times can reveal.

The dispute over the publication of the historical documents between the historian and author Andrew Lownie – who wrote a 2019 biography of the controversial figure and his wife – and the Cabinet Office will come to a head at a tribunal before the Information Commissioner in November.

The Government has already spent vast sums of money appealing against the documents’ release to the public – but neither the Cabinet Office nor Southampton University will disclose the full cost to the taxpayer. Southampton has already used £43,000 to hire a QC, but has said that it does not know how much its internal legal department has spent. Meanwhile, Lownie has put £250,000 of his own savings into the ongoing battle.

Lord Louis Mountbatten was the maternal uncle of Prince Philip and a second cousin of the Queen. He served as the last Viceroy of India and was in charge in the colony ahead of its independence and partition. The open relationship of Lord Mountbatten and his wife, Edwina, has been widely documented – as has her affair with India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

The fight to secure the release of all of their diaries and correspondence started when Lownie began researching his 2019 book, The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves. When Southampton University said that it could not provide him with access to the documents he requested – which he knew to be part of the documents the institution had bought from the Broadlands Archive in 2010 – he took his case to the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham.

But, despite winning the case and the documents being approved for publication, at every stage the Cabinet Office has blocked this. The Government has also – unusually – not revealed the text of a ministerial direction which was given to Southampton University, stating that some of Lord Mountbatten’s documents must be kept secret unless permission is given for publication by the Government.

Behind the opposing parties and the back-and-forth information judgments, however, is the shadowy role of the Royal Household, representing the Queen and the Royal Family, intent on keeping the contents of some of Lord Mountbatten’s diaries a secret.


Selective Secrecy

The dispute over the diaries relates to the interpretation of the original 1969 undertaking, inherited by Southampton University, by Lord Mountbatten not to allow the public release of the papers until they had been vetted.

The Cabinet Office has taken this to mean all of his papers and diaries. But the Information Commissioner interpreted this to mean only the official papers in his various roles in government, which he had kept separate from the diaries.

The undertaking specifically states that the documents should not be released “without the express permission of the Prime Minister of the day through the Cabinet Secretary”. But this explanation – given by current Cabinet Office Ministers Chloe Smith and Julia Lopez in reply to questions from MPs on the subject – has been blown apart by an issue that arose during Margaret Thatcher’s time in Downing Street in 1985, when she was preparing to hand over the ownership of some of the Mountbatten documents to Southampton University.

Thatcher wanted to ensure that the university did not make them only available to scholars – but to the general public. However, Cabinet Office and Downing Street documents show that, while she was nominally in charge, the Royal Household was in fact pulling the strings.

A handwritten note on one document states: “Prime Minister. I wonder if Sir Robert Armstrong [the then Cabinet Secretary] should ensure that the Royal Family have no objection. Subject to that, agree this loan?”

A document filed under the Royal Family in The National Archives

Thatcher was adamant that the public should have access to the documents and wrote in her own handwriting: “I shall not move anything to Southampton unless it can be properly available to the public.”

It took another four years before the loan agreement was implemented.

More evidence of royal influence came a number of years later, in a 2011 email to the Cabinet Office from Professor Chris Woolgar, who was the chief archivist of the Broadlands Archive – where all of the Mountbatten documents were originally kept following the couple’s deaths.

Prof Woolgar wrote to the Cabinet Office drawing attention to two parts of the diaries which he proposed should be kept secret for 10 years. They referred to the Royal Family and Indian independence and partition, during which time Lord Mountbatten was the country’s Viceroy.

“I don’t believe these should be available for researchers, possibly from as far back as the mid-1930s, given their many references to the Royal Family (which I can spot),” Prof Woolgar wrote.

The Cabinet Office would then have consulted the Royal Household and a 10-year ban followed – including on what was regarded as sensitive material on India and Pakistan.

In an extraordinary turn of events in 2018, Prof Woolgar – who was also then the Emeritus Professor of History and Archival Studies at Southampton University – proposed writing a book on the Mountbattens’ diaries for 1947-48, covering Indian independence and drawing on all of the information he had proposed should be classified. Documents show that the aim was for him to produce a scholarly work to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Indian independence.

In an email on 24 January 2018, written by the Cabinet Office to Southampton University, it was made clear that the material he recommended to be classified was to be vetted by the Royal Household: “I now have representatives of the Foreign Office and the Royal Household who have agreed to arrange for someone to come and do an initial assessment of your material in February.”

This duly happened in March of that year. Since then, the university, Prof Woolgar, and the Cabinet Office have all declined to answer any questions on whether the book is being written.


No Answers

Professor Chris Woolgar has now resigned from Southampton University, though he still uses a university email address.

Neither he nor the university responded to Byline Times’ questions on why he had a proposal for a book covering the very period of Lord Mountbatten’s diaries that he ensured was kept exempt from members of the public – including other historians – but which he presumably would have had access to as the chief archivist at Broadlands and as Emeritus Professor of History and Archival Studies at Southampton University.

As Andrew Lownie’s battle over the release of the Mountbatten diaries has continued, Southampton University has – surreptitiously – begun to release more and more of the diaries at the heart of the saga to the public. At the time that Lownie originally applied to see the documents, he was told that it would take years to vet and release them all. Now, the majority of them have been published in a matter of weeks.

Three of the remaining undisclosed diaries are those relating to to the period on which Prof Woolgar proposed to write his book.

He told Byline Times that “this particular business has been long and complex”.

“The tribunal in November offers a way of resolving some important issues in a way that one hopes will be definitive,” Prof Woolgar said. “I would not wish to address questions in advance of that point and that forum, and I am not authorised by the university to speak on its behalf in this matter other than in that formal context.

“Some parts of the tribunal in November will be held in public and I would urge you or colleagues who wish to pursue the subject further to attend. I would see the greater good in the overall resolution of the matter, and I look forward to it.”

A spokesman for Southampton University told Byline Times that, as part of the agreement to receive the diaries and correspondence of Lord and Lady Mountbatten from the Broadlands Archive, “the university was directed to keep a small number of the papers closed until we were otherwise advised”.

“The university has always aimed to make public as much of the collection as is possible whilst balancing all its legal obligations,” he added.

The Cabinet Office said that the claims made by Byline Times are “untrue”.

“All documents the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher agreed to be published have been as part of the 1989 loan agreement with Southampton University,” it said. “The Mountbatten diaries in question were not part of the loan to Southampton University. This case is currently before the Information Tribunal. We will not comment further whilst legal proceedings are ongoing.”

The Information Commissioner and Buckingham Palace did not respond to a request for comment.

If the Cabinet Office loses again in November, it may appeal to an upper tribunal.

OUR JOURNALISM RELIES ON YOU

Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.

Thank you for reading this article

New to Byline Times? Find out more about us


SUBSCRIBE TO THE PRINT EDITION

A new type of newspaper – independent, fearless, outside the system. Fund a better media.

Don’t miss a story…

Our leading investigations include Brexit, Empire & the culture war, Russian interference, Coronavirus, cronyism and far right radicalisation. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.

More stories filed under Empire and the Culture War

More stories filed under Reportage