Why do we let our leaders get away with their decisions for three decades?

Waiting 30 years to release information means that it is too late to hold people to account.

I don't often agree with Paul Dacre, but he's always been right about wanting to halve the 30-year rule. How is it that we should let our leaders get clean away with the consequences of their decisions for three decades?

Today, for example, we have learned that Margaret Thatcher kitted out Number 10 on expenses (but paid for an ironing board), Geoffrey Howe wanted to abandon Liverpool to decline and the secret service pressed the BBC to censor Panorama.

Why should we have waited until now to discover all this, now that those responsible are too old to answer for their actions -- too frail in the case of Howe and Thatcher -- and safely out of power? After all, we've paid for it. We voted for it -- or at least we thought we did. So why shouldn't we know about it? People in their 60s and 70s have the right to know what the governments they supported did with their votes, without having to go to the grave wondering. But of course, this situation suits those in power very nicely indeed.

There is understandably little pressure from within government to open up the freedom of information to extend to anything beyond what local councils spend on school dinners. While bean-counters' decisions can be torn to shreds on the one hand, the big decisions remain safely locked away for 30 years, until it's all been forgotten and history has already been written. Which politician is going to vote for more transparency, more openness, more scrutiny on them during their own lifetimes?

Perhaps, in 2030 or thereabouts, we'll discover the discussions the New Labour cabinet had about the Freedom of Information Act. Maybe we'll all have a jolly old laugh about how it was decided that there was no way of opening up central government's decision making, and how the rights of the voting public were so haughtily dismissed as usual.

The thing is, I'll be 52 by the time I find out what the first government I voted for (in 1997) really got up to behind closed doors. Tony Blair will be 74, if he's still with us (and I hope he is), and even older by the time the really contentious stuff about the Iraq War comes out. It will be too late to hold these people to account for the decisions they made and the things they did.

In the meantime, they have been able to tell their side of the story. They've been able to write history from their point of view, omitting the unpleasant details that might come out and surprise us; they've been able to make money out of presenting their version of events as what really happened. And we can't do anything about it.

The dusty old faces recite the same tired arguments at times like this. Government needs to be secret, in order to preserve the decision-making process. Ministers must know that everything's locked away until they're about to die, in order to sleep soundly in their beds for the intervening time.

And I'm not saying we should broadcast cabinet meetings live -- just that there isn't so long to wait until we find out what really happened. It would serve our democracy better, and let our leaders know that they won't be able to escape scrutiny for the decisions they made and the things they really said. But then, which prime minister would open him or herself up to that? We may have to wait more than 30 years for a change to come.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage