The Official Secrets Act (Gt. Britain, 1911)

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The Official Secrets Act (Gt. Britain, 1911)

One of the strongest inducements to British persons who work for, or have worked for a government department connected with the Foreign Office is the Official Secrets Act, a piece of legislation designed to prevent disclosure of any confidential government information to a potential ‘enemy’. This last word carries any amount of applicable meanings.

The original Act was published in 1911, and sections One and Two were hurried into force when the Great War became imminent. The scope of Section Two was considered too broad, because implantation would allow the Government to suppress disclosures even if they could not harm the national interest. Indeed the conditions of this Section were so severe they made convictions almost impossible to secure.

In 1989 an amended Official Secrets Act removed Section Two, and narrowed the list of people to whom the abolished Section applied. It also specifies how different types of information must be treated, thus clarifying the legal protection of official information.

Successful prosecution is dependent on whether such a disclosure affects or damages national interest. The 1989 Act is still severe, though less draconian than the 1911 version, though persons who sign it are still given to understand that the Act’s authority extends from the moment of signing until death.

The O.S.A was obviously intended to force people working in sensitive government departments to keep their mouths shut, and especially not to leak secrets either to other nations’ representatives, or their own national press. The infamous Oxbridge spies revealed to an astonished British public during the War and in the Fifties and Sixties most have signed the Official Secrets Act, which makes their actions seem implausible, or at least stupid, but Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt et al, plus dozens more whose names are an open secret in Grub Street, defended what they saw as their right to give or sell secret information to possibly aggressive countries, which include the United States just as much as Russia or China.

Most states, civilized or not, have their own version of the British Act, though infringements are frequent, and convictions few.

By | 2014-04-01T13:32:11+00:00 November 14th, 2013|British History|0 Comments

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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