U.K. Holds Back Historic Files on EU as It Prepares for Brexit

(Bloomberg) -- As Prime Minister Theresa May prepares for the next round of Brexit negotiations, her government has held back publication of secret files relating to the creation of the European Union.

The documents from 1992 were due to be released Friday at the National Archives under British rules that allow government papers to enter the public domain. Out of 495 files from the prime minister’s office that year, a total of 114 were held back. Of those, 12 related to European policy.

U.K. Holds Back Historic Files on EU as It Prepares for Brexit

The main opposition party was quick to pounce. Jon Trickett, a high-ranking Labour politician described it as “profoundly shocking, particularly given the current state of the national debate.”

May’s government has had a series of problems with information around Brexit. Last week, after months of ministers trying to keep them secret, the government published an assessments of how different segments of the economy will cope with leaving the EU. Lawmakers commented that the documents contained little that couldn’t be found on Wikipedia.

Not Deliberate

The Cabinet Office, which supports May in the running the government, said in an email that “there is no question that any files are deliberately ‘withheld’ from the media.” A further 26 files covering the EU were sent to the archives too late for journalists to read them before publication.

It explained that “we have to ensure all files are properly reviewed and prepared before they are transferred, so that they do not harm national security or our relations with other countries or disclose the sensitive personal data of living individuals.”

The files that were released reveal the extent to which Britain’s 1992 expulsion from the Exchange Rate Mechanism turned Conservatives against Europe. That year, Sept. 16 was christened “Black Wednesday” after the government’s failed attempt to keep the pound within the system by pushing interest rates up to 15 percent.


At a Cabinet meeting a week later, then-Prime Minister John Major told his colleagues that opposition to the Maastricht Treaty, which created the EU, had grown within his Conservative Party. He reckoned it was now up to 100 Tory lawmakers -- almost a third of them.

They were egged on by Major’s immediate predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. Newly-opened files show that at the start of 1991, Thatcher had warned Major against pegging the pound against the Deutschmark at too high a level.

“She believed there was a danger of repeating Winston Churchill’s historic error,” the files say. In 1925, Churchill, as chancellor of the exchequer, had returned to the Gold Standard, fixing the pound at a level that caused deflation, unemployment and ultimately a general strike.

While some of the 25-year-old files have contemporary echoes, others highlight how much Brexit has changed British priorities.

Since taking office, May has placed great emphasis on getting a U.S. trade deal. One of the files opened today covers 11 years of meetings between British prime ministers and U.S. trade representatives. It contains just four pieces of paper, and one of those describes Thatcher being too busy to meet the American.

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