The Cabinet Office has blocked publication of the papers and the legal battle is likely to cost taxpayers tens of thousands of pounds
By Jon Ungoed-Thomas
Telegraph Online – 7 July 2021
Margaret Thatcher wanted a family archive of Lord and Lady Mountbatten - including his personal diaries - to be fully open to the public, it has emerged during a costly legal battle over their release. Andrew Lownie, a historian, spent £250,000 in a legal bid to get access to the diaries and private correspondence between Lord Mountbatten and his wife Edwina. The items are part of an archive kept at Southampton University, which was saved for the nation in 2011 after a £2.85 million fundraising campaign.
The Freedom of Information case is ongoing and likely to cost taxpayers tens of thousands of pounds, but many of the Mountbatten diaries have now been released after questions in Parliament over the controversy. Mr Lownie is calling for full disclosure of all the requested documents. It has now emerged that 1980s Downing Street records lodged in the legal case show Thatcher wanted to ensure any of the Mountbatten papers transferred to Southampton University would be open to the public. A handwritten note from the Prime Minister in July 1985 said:
"I should not move anything to Southampton unless it can be properly available to the public."
The archive was transferred to the university between the late 1980s and 2010. According to a dossier of emails submitted in the case, the Cabinet Office only decided in Sept 2011 that the diaries should be closed after a university academic spotted "references to the Royal family" and alerted the Government. It was proposed that the papers should be closed for a decade and that the Royal household and Foreign Office should review the personal papers before any publication.
Mr Lownie, author of a 2019 biography on the Mountbattens, said:
"The Cabinet Office blocked publication without any justification because of this culture of deference to the Royal family. These papers have been bought with public funds and we are entitled to see them."
He said the Downing Street papers showed any government veto over the Mountbatten archive only concerned official papers and the intention was that any papers held by the university would be for public access.
The Information Commissioner's Office, the Freedom of Information watchdog, ruled in Dec 2019 that the diaries covering the period 1920 to 1968 and the couple's correspondence should be released to Mr Lownie, but Southampton University, backed by the Cabinet Office, appealed. Mr Lownie has now raised more than £50,000 on the fundraising website CrowdJustice to fight the appeal. He said he hoped the university and the Cabinet Office would "now see sense" and drop the appeal against the ICO ruling.
Mountbatten was a confidant to the Royal family, providing counsel to Prince Charles when he was a young man, and served as the last Viceroy of India. He was assassinated by the IRA after a bomb was planted on his fishing boat in County Sligo, Ireland, in Aug 1979. Mountbatten and his wife both had affairs during their marriage and it was speculated that the Cabinet Office might have ordered the veto to protect the couple's private lives. The diaries also cover the Indian partition in Aug 1947 overseen by Mountbatten and the violent aftermath in which up to two million people were killed. The Mountbatten diaries for 1947 are yet to be released.
The Mountbatten papers are part of a larger collection of 4,500 boxes of documents and photographs, known as the Broadlands Archives. They were kept for years at the Mountbattens' Hampshire estate and include the papers of Lord Palmerston, the 19th century Prime Minister, and 1,200 letters from Queen Victoria. The archive was moved on loan to Southampton University in 1989 through an agreement with Trustees of the Broadlands Archive, a Mountbatten family trust. Some official sensitive sealed documents were transferred to the university with Thatcher's agreement to preserve the integrity of the collections, but according to evidence in the Freedom of Information case these were all open by 1993. The archive was bought by the university in 2011 with the help of a £2 million grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and £100,000 from Hampshire County Council.
Julian Lewis, the Conservative MP who tabled an early day motion last month calling for the release of the documents "without further obfuscation and delay", said:
"Andrew Lownie has risked his personal savings to ensure access to these documents and officials should not have spent large sums of public money in a futile attempt to resist disclosure."
Southampton University said it was told by the Government in 2011 to keep a small number of the Mountbatten papers closed until "otherwise advised". A university spokesperson said:
"The University has always aimed to make public as much of the collection as is possible whilst balancing all its legal obligations."
The Cabinet Office said Lord Mountbatten accepted his diaries could not be put into the public domain without first being vetted. A spokesperson declined to provide the legal costs of the case to date and said it was inappropriate to comment while legal proceedings were ongoing.