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Politicians must practise openness

Every January, historians, journalists and members of the public are treated to the release of historical government files.

Such a process is clearly in the public interest – disclosure shines a light onto key government decisions of yesteryear and helps separate fact from fiction.

However, a cross-Border row has now been triggered over when sensitive files of previous administrations should be published.

For the UK Government, files are transferred to the National Archives after 30 years – it will be reduced to 20 this year.

For the Scottish Government, which manages the pre-devolution files of the old Scottish Office, a more liberal 15-year rule applies.

Under this regime, the last Labour government's devolution files from 1997 should have been released last week. They were not.

This is because UK officials halted their publication after requesting an inspection of the documents.

It is not difficult to imagine why the Scotland Office may be nervous. Publication of the files is expected to reveal how former Cabinet ministers tried to water down Donald Dewar's devolution prospectus. The revelations would no doubt give the SNP ammunition ahead of next year's referendum.

Given that Scottish devolution was a radical policy, it is natural and inevitable that Cabinet figures would express robust opinions behind closed doors.

The anxiety over the proposed release may be understandable, but effectively blocking it was the wrong move. Instead of accepting a limited amount of fallout from the publication of the files, the Scotland Office has given the impression there is something to hide.

The episode also exposes the inconsistent attitude to transparency of both governments, with the SNP taking a liberal approach to openness when it come to information about previous administrations, but not to itself.

For instance, the Scottish Government's attitude towards freedom of information was rightly mocked when ministers refused to say whether they had taken legal advice on an independent Scotland's relationship with the European Union.

Openness and transparency, so often trumpeted as goals of successive governments, are too important to be undermined by political manipulation.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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