Official Secrets Act and Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry: Arcana Imperii and the Secrets of State

Sexually Abused child.

Sexually Abused child. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The UK regime faces a critical time as a number of public inquiries into its past behavior unfold. The undeveloped issue within these inquiries is the nature of the change they will require in the regime. There is an added urgency to these inquiries and the need for change from the news reports associated with the recent revelations concerning historical child sexual abuse (CSA) cases. The concern was of a pedophile network that operated at the heart of the UK establishment.[1] The revelations associated with that case have been stunning. Yet, what is most disturbing is the Crown’s apparent collusion in covering up the incidents. We have had news reports that suggest police officers were ordered to drop CSA investigations. The officers claim that they were told to keep quiet or face prosecution under the Official Secrets Act[2] (OSA). Even a newspaper editor has claimed that Special Branch officers told him that he would be prosecuted if he published stories that related to Cyril Smith MP or kept copies of the allegations.[3] He claims they invoked the OSA. The use of the OSA indicates the Crown’s involvement in these cases and is suggestive of a wider relationship with the CSA.

If the OSA protects a crime, is that still a secret worth defending?

The OSA exists to protect state secrets. It covers material such as secrets or official information that if disclosed would undermine state security and imperil the regime. When it is used or threatened, it suggests something important to the regime must be protected. However, the way the OSA was invoked might suggest something else. First, the Special Branch officers might have invoked it as a bluff. The OSA would be used to encourage the police officers and the editor to cooperate. Yet, the fear it generated suggests it was not an empty threat or a bluff. The officers and the editor did not speak of the events until it appears safe to reveal it was used. Second, the OSA suggests that the regime wanted to protect, the CSA allegations, as a state secret. Therein a deeper, troubling, question emerges. Why are CSA allegations something the regime must protect? The public and their elected representatives need to ask why a regime protects CSA as a state secret. If CSA allegations are a state secret, does this indicate something about the regime that would cause a citizen to lose confidence in it and raise concerns over their obedience to it?[4] If the CSA allegations are to be protected by the law, the OSA, and Special Branch, what purpose or person does it serve?

Secrets serve a purpose and a person, who is served by the OSA of the CSA?

Some observers suggest that the security services protected the CSA allegations because they wanted to use them. The claim has some credence if we consider the ancient Roman writer Tacitus who coined the term arcana imperii.[5] The ancient term describes the information and its use.[6] Although the term if often understood as state secrets, it also refers to how the information is used. Secrets are gathered and retained for a purpose. The regime that uses them can be judged on that use, the intent, and purpose it serves. Tacitus coined the term to describe government that relies on secrecy to govern beyond the public’s view.[7] The government was the Principate, which is a period in Roman history when the Republic had collapsed and a single ruler who acted publicly as if the Republic and the senate mattered ruled privately with total authority.[8] How the Crown rules the UK shares some similarities to the Principate.[9]

The Crown is more than the Monarchy

When I refer to the Crown[10], I mean more than the Monarchy[11], although the Monarchy is the main and best expression of the Crown. The Crown refers to the UK State in the fullest sense. Thus, this is not a challenge to the Queen, Parliament, or the Church. Instead, it is a challenge to all of them as a collective as they express the Crown and embody it.

The Crown rules the people, is the CSA showing at what price?

The Crown is distinct from the people.[12] Unlike a republic, a government for and by the people, where the people are the government, the Crown is the government. The people may participate in it indirectly, such as through Parliament, as long as they demonstrate allegiance to the Crown. The Crown is the supreme authority, not the people or a constitution. Within the Crown, Parliament exercise absolute power through its ability to make laws. Parliament’s will is sovereign.[13] The difference between the people and the Crown and Parliament, along with others such as custom, culture, and tradition, reveals the role of arcana imperii in the UK political culture and practice. The CSA show us how it works as the regime controls secret information and uses it for its purposes.

Who controls the secrets controls the power and records are not always secrets

The arcana imperii are more than the national archives or a problem of records management. The archives and records have a role yet they are different as they serve, in part, to hold power to account.[14] Even then, arcana imperii might direct that records “disappear” if it serves the powerful.[15] The OSA, as expressing the arcana imperii, supersedes archives and records management. In this case, it protects the Crown against the people, especially the victims, who would hold it to account. The OSA, in this instance, does not serve a public interest understood as the people’s interest. The OSA furthers the Crown’s interest when it protects the arcana imperii. To the extent that the Crown’s interests coincide with the public’s interest, this is not an issue. For example, the Crown will protect allegations because the wider knowledge can cause more problems and innocent victims can be harmed.[16] If the Crown protects the public and upholds the public interest, then it can be considered a legitimate regime. A legitimate regime rules to benefit, broadly understood, the people. When the Crown defends the regime and the people from foreign enemies it acts legitimately. In that scenarios, all would share in the fate of the regime should the country be defeated.

Does the Crown serve the people or itself?

Where this goes wrong, though, is when the arcana imperii are used in a way that serves the Crown’s interest and these do not coincide with the public’s interest. The most notable, at least today, is the concern over the way the OSA was used to silence police officers and journalists who claim to have information about historical child abuse. The argument is that the arcana imperii were used in ways that did not help the public. The arcana imperii, the knowledge of and ability to exploit the secrets of powerful people so they could be influenced them would further the Crown’s interest. Otherwise, why are Crown officers invoking OSA if it is not information vital to the Crown? We must be careful to note that the Crown may not have understood how its interest was being invoked or used in these cases. We are told that Lancashire police investigated the allegations about Cyril Smith and Special Branch took the material and gave it to MI5.[17] What might have happened is that the Crown did not know how the arcana imperii were being used or abused.[18] Thus, senior police officers or state security officers may have invoked the OSA, and retained the allegations, and the Crown would not have known about it.

The arcana imperii influences the UK’s political culture.

We can consider the way that arcana imperii influences the UK culture and custom in many ways. We can see it in the Hillsborough tragedy[19], the Mau Mau torture case[20], the Jimmy Savile historical abuse revelations, and the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation. However, three cases show how it works in practice.

Camelford, what goes wrong when the authorities tell you it is safe to drink the water

The first is the water poisoning in Camelford. Camelford was a town in which the water company employee mistakenly dumped 20,000 litres of Aluminum Sulphate into the water supply. The water company, in the days before the FOIA, told its people not to tell anyone about the accident. They covered up the threat to the public health.[21] Although the staff were not sworn to secrecy because of the OSA, they were placed in a situation where the organization was instructing them to respect the company’s secret its “arcana imperii”. The Crown, through the government ministers, worked hard to limit the public inquiry.[22] Although the government finally apologized after 25 years, in 2013, for many victims it was too little and too late.[23]

Rotherham, arcana imperii can exist in local government

The second is Rotheram Council’s institutional neglect of grooming. At Rotherham, we find that senior officers encouraged a culture that relied on bullying and intimidation to maintain the status quo where damaging information was not discussed or made public.[24] When someone prepared information and records that challenged the organization’s approach, the records were removed or destroyed. The Council and the Police failed in their approach to the problems.[25]

Daniel Morgan can the Crown investigate itself?

The third case is the Daniel Morgan murder.[26] The Daniel Morgan case involves corruption by the Metropolitan police. Despite six investigations, the Police have not brought his killers to justice. They have explained that police corruption undermined the original investigation. The subsequent investigations were hampered by the same corruption. The institutional secrecy created by the police corruption reflects a culture imbued with the arcana imperii ethos. The police manage secret information for their institutional interests and, by extension, the Crown’s interest.

Some secrets protect the public but who decides?

We have to be careful to note that some secrets are kept from the public for good reasons or reasons that respect and support the public interest. For example, the public can accept that the Police need to protect informants or the Government need to protect intelligence agents. Therein the problem is revealed. The use of arcana imperii means that we cannot judge the decision’s legitimacy that we face as a society and as an individual. No society and no individual ever solve these questions permanently so we must be vigilant to how we answer them and how we will answer them. Yet, we are guided by the awareness that some societies solve these issues better than others.

The election will not change the arcana imperii only a change in regime can.

Citizens have a right and a duty to hold their regime to account for the way it uses arcana imperii.[27] If the regime is using CSA to control the state and politicians, then the public need to know why and what justifies it. What regime behaves in this way? Is this the way politics and policing are conducted in the UK? If it is, then is it time for a change, not only of government, but also of a regime that tolerates it, employs, and benefits from it? If change is required, we return to an implicit question of whether such change would be sudden or gradual. If the change is occurring gradually, then it might be that the public has to wait for the change. When we consider these questions, we realize that the issue becomes a secondary one, the debate over the nature, speed, and sustainability of the change and not the originating problem.


[1] Tom Watson raised the issue in parliament in 2013. (accessed 12 April 2015)

[2] The OSA that would have been in force at the time of the allegations was (Accessed 6 April 2015)

[3] (accessed 7 April 2015)

[4] The question is core to the ancient political systems. If a regime will not protect the most vulnerable and instead protects the rapists, and thereby condones their behaviour, is it worthy of respect or obedience? Aristotle would warn that such a regime has abused its citizens and this indicates that it has become illegitimate. Consider that Cyril Smith acted arrogantly, to say the least, towards vulnerable children. Thus, suggests the regime is unstable. See Aristotle “1297b For the poor are willing to remain tranquil even when they have no share in the prerogatives, provided no one acts arrogantly towards them nor deprives them of any of their property. Yet this is not easy; for it does not always turn out that those sharing in the governing body are the refined sort.” Politics, Carnes Lord Translator University of Chicago Press 1984

Are the state organs, the security service and special branch that facilitated that protection worthy of respect and obedience? If they are, what is the basis of continued confidence and obedience in light of their behaviour? The victims were not foreign enemies seeking to kill or harm UK citizens or interests. They were children raped by men protected by power, privilege, and position. The ancient political philosophers would ask if a regime that is unable and institutionally unwilling to investigate these issues and bring the perpetrators to justice remain in power? They would reject the excuse that this was not understood or was “acceptable” in the past as the Crown remains constant. Only the perpetrators and victims have changed, the crime remains. Moreover, the ancient philosopher would ask, “If the Crown, which is responsible for enforcing the rule of law, is unable to bring these people to justice, can anyone get justice?” Even now, the regime seems intrinsically unable to investigate itself or to allow its behaviour to be held to account. We are reminded that the Queen took an oath to ensure the laws were faithfully executed. If the laws were not executed because child rapists were protected by officers loyal to her, then is she to be held to account for their failure and her failure to uphold the law? It would appear that the arcana imperii as practiced by the Crown reveals that the strong, the powerful and the protected, do as they want, and the weakest and vulnerable must suffer from whatever they wish to inflict. The people can elect a new parliament, they cannot elect a new regime. Until the regime changes, there will be no justice because of the inequality of power. Only between equals can there be justice and the UK regime is based on a fundamental inequality.

One could argue that the recent concessions to the individual through various legislations and decisions, such as widening the right to vote, increased rights of redress, both political and judicial, to hold the government to account as well the Crown agreeing to pay taxes, is a way to placate the public and keep them satisfied with the status quo. The issue, for the regime that understands its intrinsic illegitimacy in a democratic age, would be to manage any political change or threats to the regime in its own time. The only way to resist change is by accepting it and making it on the Crown’s terms not the public’s terms. On the issue of the Queen paying taxes, which occurred in 1992 and relates to her voluntary agreement to be taxed, an option the average citizen does not enjoy, can be found here: (accessed 12 April 2015)

[5] ARCANUS IN TACITUS Author(s): Herbert W. Benario Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, Neue Folge, 106. Bd., 4. H. (1963), pp. 356-362 J.D. Sauerländers Verlag Stable URL: Accessed: 06-04-2015 23:51 UTC

In its other sense, arcanus indicates that which, regardless of chance, must be kept from knowledge, things tacenda or celanda. Whatever the reason, promulgation of these secrets would be disastrous, whether the important area be political or religious.

P360 “Here we have one of the keys to power, the ability – and the need – to conceal what is necessary from the general eye. And the verb vulgärentur is instructive; we have met it twice before. The value of arcana is exclusively political here; what is referred to must be tacenda.”

Tacenda means things not to be mentioned or made public—things better left unsaid; tacit means “unspoken, silent” or “implied, inferred.” (accessed 7 April 2015) We note the name Tacitus has become synonymous with the style of writing that he demonstrated and inspired.

Please note that arcana imperii is different from raison d’etat or reasons of state. Raison d’etat describes the reason information is used not how it is used, or what is used, or even that the practice exists to support the ability to rule. Thus all states will have raison d’etat but not all states will have arcana imperii to the same extent or type. In some rare cases, they might not have it at all. Some states will rely upon the law to rule others will rely upon blackmail and intimidation.

[6] The arcana imperii can also describe secrets of nature. If man can unlock those secrets, it is believed he can control nature in the way that man controls man when he knows their secrets or possess secret information that they cannot know.

[7] “Thus the study of arcana imperii stressed not only the empirical collection of knowledge as the basis of politics, but the clever management of that knowledge.” Mining Tacitus: secrets of empire, nature and art in the reason of state Vera KellerThe British Journal for the History of Science / Volume 45 / Special Issue 02 / June 2012, pp 189 – 212 DOI: 10.1017/S0007087412000076, Published online: 20 March 2012

Link to this article: p191

[8] (accessed 7 April 2015)

[9] The regime has consequences for the populace as deep economic inequality exists within the UK but not in its nearest economic neighbours. The difference is likely due to the political systems and the way that power is concentrated in the City of London and the City of Westminster. (Accessed 12 April 2015)

[10] s


[12] (Accessed 12 April 2015)

[13] Reference to Neuberger article Parliament, part of the Crown, makes the laws so it is only accountable to itself not the people to whom it does not owe its allegiance. As Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury explains Parliament is only bound by its will nothing else because of its prerogative powers. (accessed 22 March 2015) See paragraphs 19-31.

[14] Consider the role that archives would have in historical cases of injustice. (12 April 2015)

[15] There is always a possibility that records will get lost just by mistake and not intent. (Accessed 12 April 2015)

[16] Consider under the Environmental Information Regulations there is an exception for information that if disclosed would harm the public. The regulation is 12 (5) (a) (5) For the purposes of paragraph (1)(a), a public authority may refuse to disclose information to the extent that its disclosure would adversely affect—


(a)international relations, defence, national security or public safety; (Accessed 12 April 2015)

On the possible harm to innocent victims caught in a case of mistaken identity or a smear campaign, consider Lord McAlpine’s experience. (accessed 12 April 2015)

[17] (accessed 6 April 2015) The C4 programme claims that they have evidence to indicate that Special Branch had a file containing the evidence of Cyril Smith’s crimes even though he was never arrested or charged with them.

[18] Here is the issue at the heart of the scandal as someone had to decide that charges would not be pursued. Moreover, someone will have known the allegations, the evidence, and the police reports had to be managed. Many powerful people would be interested in the political consequences of such information. One only need to note that Rupert Murdoch and his employee Andy Coulson were keen to exploit personal information for their interests and use it to gain and deliver political favours. To quote Rebekah Brooks, a Rupert Murdoch employee, “MPs don’t scare easily”. She made this statement at Leveson Inquiry. On page 66 of the morning transcript, in middle of the morning session, Brooks lets a comment pass concerning the fact that politicians are not fearful of the newspapers. She then says, “MPs don’t scare easily”. She later uses similar language at the close of the morning session on page 98 of the transcript.

[19] (accessed 12 April 2015)

[20] (accessed 12 April 2015)

[21] (accessed 7 April 2015) and (accessed 7 April 2015)

[22] (accessed 11 April 2015) As a result of several investigations and court cases, the victims did receive some compensation.

[23] The apology can be found here: (accessed 11 April 2015) What it avoids is the cover up, the delays, and the failure to deliver justice beyond the apology. Perhaps all that one can take comfort in is that the controls on water have been improved to avoid future incidents.

[24] (accessed 12 April 2015) The Jay Report (accessed 12 April 2015) and the Casey Report describe the failings in great detail. (accessed 12 April 2015) What is noteworthy is that even after the Jay report described the failings in great detail, many in the Police and the Council continued to deny the scale, scope and seriousness of the problem. They refused to accept the report’s conclusions and chose to argue about its details and inaccuracies. On this point, see page 20ff of the Casey Report.

[25] The Home Office researcher at Rotherham explains what happened. (accessed 19 January 2015)

[26] For an introduction to the case see the official independent panel related to his murder. (accessed 12 April 2015.) For a good overview of the reporting and investigating of this case see these sites. (Accessed 12 April 2015) This page provides a good overview and useful links to the recent developments in the case. The second site hosted by Brown Moses is focused on hackgate, the phone hacking scandal, and contains extensive work on the murder and its connection to the phone hacking scandal in particular the relationship between Southern Investigations (where Daniel Morgan worked at the time of his murder) and News International (parent company of the now closed News of the World newspaper) (Accessed 12 April 2015)

[27] The tension, of course, is between a good man and a good citizen. A good citizen might be someone who tolerates the arcana imperii because it is good for the regime and as good citizens they support what is good for the regime. This, in turn, raises the question for political philosophers of the regime’s goodness. If the regime s good, then the good man, simply understood, is also a good citizen. If the regime is bad, then the good man cannot, by definition, be a good citizen. Perhaps this is the greatest test as the good citizen who wants to remain a good man must choose between the regime and his soul. For more on this point, consider (accessed 12 April 2015)

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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6 Responses to Official Secrets Act and Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry: Arcana Imperii and the Secrets of State

  1. coreluminous says:

    An excellent piece, that goes to the heart of the matter of Power and the realities of ‘Democracy’ as a fig leaf.

    I have written a piece that looks at this in a similar light.

    • Thank you for the kind words. I appreciate the kind words on your site. Your blog addresses it to all political parties, which is something that all voters need to do. As you rightly point out, it goes to the heart of the political contract between voters and their representatives.

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