The rough drafts of official history

Another disaster, another inquiry. But Frank McLynn finds that the reports, without fail, always pro

In 1901 some British army officers arrogantly pursued a fox that had taken refuge in the garden of the poet and traveller William Scawen Blunt, even though his walled demesne was known to be out of bounds to all outsiders. When Blunt's servants resisted the incursion, they were arrested and sentenced to prison terms. Blunt's increasingly vociferous protests got him nowhere. The military took up a Latin American position whereby the slightest breath of criticism of a disreputable major was an affront to the "honour" of the entire army.

This particular defence of the army as sacred establishment cow is revealed in William Blunt's Egyptian Garden: fox hunting in Cairo, one of the Stationery Office's new "Uncovered Editions" - book versions of official reports of a range of 20th-century causes celebres.

From a historian's point of view these "blue book" reports, edited by Tim Coates, are primary sources, but they are in no sense archival or secret; it is just that hitherto they have not been available in bookshops but had to be bought at HMSO or consulted in the British Library. Easy accessibility to such material is another step in the painfully slow progress secrecy-crazed Britain has to make towards genuine freedom of information, and for that reason alone the first 11 volumes should be welcomed.

The most interesting reports deal with the footnotes of history, rather than the main text, and show officialdom at its worst. Cynics say there is a threefold set of guidelines for bureaucrats. When in charge, ponder ("more research is needed"); when in trouble, delegate; when in doubt, mumble or obfuscate.

Even the reports least interesting to the professional historian may intrigue the general reader. The Boer War: Ladysmith and Mafeking, 1900, for example, tells us nothing new, for these documents were used by Thomas Pakenham in his best-selling account of the South African conflict. But it is not often the "intelligent general reader", if such a mythical beast exists, has the opportunity to hold in his or her hands the kind of primary documentation the academic so relishes, such as the particulars of the diet enjoyed by the besieged garrison. The same applies to The British Invasion of Tibet: Colonel Younghusband, 1904. The "biffing" given the luckless Tibetans by British imperialism at its zenith, eerily anticipating the fate that would be meted out on the roof of the world by the Chinese communist invaders 55 years later, has been comprehensively explored by Patrick French in his outstanding biography of Younghusband.

The origin of the two world wars takes us into more interesting territory. Niall Ferguson's recent book suggests it may have been a mistake for Britain to go to war in 1914, while John Charmley, Andrew Roberts and others have taken the A J P Taylor thesis on a notch or two and queried whether war with Germany in 1939 did not presage the downfall of the British Empire. Two of the 11 blue books show British statesmen wrestling with the problem. War 1914: Punishing the Serbs underlines the Foreign Office's extreme irritation that a war between the Central Powers and Russia, which would in turn embroil Britain and France, should begin over Serbia. The British tried very hard to pour oil on troubled waters and the FO's detachment over events in the Balkans in 1914 could have been emulated to advantage by Clinton and Blair earlier this year. War 1939: Dealing with Adolf Hitler rehearses the dreary circumstances in which Britain went to war in September 1939 over Poland, having failed to do so the year before over Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain rationalised his appeasement by describing Czechoslovakia and Benes's resistance to Hitler as "a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing". But Poland was an even farther away country of which we knew even less.

The Judgement of Nuremburg, 1946, likewise adds nothing to our knowledge but is a useful recapitulation. On the one hand, this was victor's justice, literally with a vengeance, applying retrospectively norms of international law that had not existed when the second world war broke out. On the other, it satisfied international outrage at Nazi atrocities and the feeling that something had to be done. The 22 German defendants were indicted on four counts: waging a war of aggression, crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Only six stalwarts of the Third Reich were found guilty on all four counts (Goering, Ribbentrop, Rosenberg, Jodl, Keitel and von Neurath) but being found guilty on counts three and four also made the death sentence mandatory. Eleven of the defendants went to the gallows (Goering cheated the hangman by taking poison), three were acquitted and the rest spent varying periods in prison (in Hess's case for the rest of his life).

The blue books covering domestic issues share a depressing quality: there is the same bureaucratic trek towards a predetermined conclusion that none of the cherished institutions of British society - the army, the admiralty, the judiciary, the Board of Trade - could possibly be faulted. It is rather like reading Thomas Aquinas: there is no question of going where the evidence leads, all is a priori, and you know in advance what the answer is going to be. One is tempted to amend Disraeli's famous triad to "lies, damned lies and blue books".

For example, it seems quite clear that one of the key factors in R101: Airship Disaster 1930, detailing the crash of the famous dirigible on a French hillside on its maiden flight, was the air minister Lord Thomson's insistence that designers, engineers and crew cut corners. Thomson was among the 46 passengers killed instantly and, on the nil de mortuis nisi bunkum principle, the court of inquiry absolved him of all blame. Similarly, the official inquiry into The Loss of the Titanic, 1912 pointed the finger at the captains of vessels who had allegedly failed to come to the aid of the stricken liner but skated over the awkward question as to why the Board of Trade had licensed for transatlantic travel a vessel carrying only half the lifeboats needed to evacuate passengers in an emergency.

The dishonesty of officialdom is seen at its worst in Tragedy at Bethnal Green, 1943, when 173 people where crushed to death in a rush to squeeze into Bethnal Green Tube station after a warning siren announced a German bombing assault. Although it was clear that the borough of Bethnal Green's failure to provide a crush barrier, handrails on the staircase and adequate lighting were the major factors in the disaster, the home secretary made it clear he wanted "no scapegoats" - a mandarin tag meaning that officialdom did not want to identify root causes. Accordingly, the Home Office civil servants used a species of logical impossibilism to defend the borough. Since it could not be proved by mathematical logic that a series of foreseeable precautionary measures would certainly have prevented an accident, hey presto, nobody was to blame. This is the kind of disingenuous nonsense Railtrack is currently peddling over the Paddington rail disaster.

The Strange Case of Adolf Beck relates a bizarre, quasi-Hitchcockian tale of mistaken identity. The Norwegian Beck was sentenced to seven years hard labour in 1895 for grand larceny via confidence trickery. The key to the prosecution's case was that Beck and another known conman, John Smith, were one and the same. When it was proved that they were not, the judge who presided over the trial huffed and puffed that his honour was being impugned. Rather than expose his incompetence, the Home Office let Beck languish in jail. Three years after his release in 1901, Beck was again arrested for identical offences, tried and once more found guilty. He escaped another long spell behind bars only because the real John Smith was miraculously caught just before Beck was sentenced. Smith confessed to all the crimes in 1895 for which Beck had done time. The Home Office in its internal memoranda admitted as early as 1898 that Beck was the wrong man, but the needs of justice collided with the credibility of the judiciary. In the late Victorian era there was no contest between the two.

The macabre story of the mass murderer John Reginald Christie is well known. Timothy John Evans was hanged in 1950 for a murder later proved to have been perpetrated by Christie. The Scott Henderson inquiry into the case in 1953, ordered after doubts had arisen following Christie's execution, was the predictable Home Office whitewash of its own methods. Panglossians can take comfort, then, that the Rillington Place report reprinted here is the 1966 report which finally admitted error. Evans was granted a free pardon - doubtless very useful to him in the afterlife - and the case revolutionised attitudes towards the death penalty.

Tim Coates holds up an unflattering mirror to a variety of British institutions, but in recent years we have seen too many cases of the judiciary closing ranks behind the British establishment to be surprised that this provides the persistent theme of the series. Let's hope that his future volumes continue to shed light on the dark corners of our free society.

"Blue Books: uncovered editions", The Stationery Office, £6.99. Frank McLynn's latest book, "1066: the year of the three battles" is published by Jonathan Cape