Sir John Grieve and the Arcana Imperii: private accountability made public

English: Metropolitan Police officers on patro...

English: Metropolitan Police officers on patrol in London’s Trafalgar Square (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Records in an archives create a public legacy to hold public official to account. As records allow powerful figures to be held to account, there can be a desire to control what is held and accessible in archives. In a crude sense, there is a danger that archives can be hollowed out. The problem is more than someone literally removing content from the archives as there are laws against such behaviour.[1] Instead the issue is how public officials will influence what is accessed and before it is accessed what is sent to the archives. What is sent to archives becomes part of the official story so that to challenge the official record or story, an individual has to access these records and publish or broadcast them to a sympathetic audience. Technology that improve access archives will consequently increase awareness of what is in the archives. What is fundamental, though, are the record which become the political facts that cannot be refuted. Without these records as facts, it is harder to hold the public official to account or to present a counter narrative to the official story. Armed with these facts, a citizen can hold power and the powerful to account. Without these facts, the average citizen is at the mercy of the official story. Thus, there is a great concern when archives lose funding, organisations lose records, and the “official record” is sanitized to avoid accountability.[2] However, the same technology that provides access can be used to limit that access and filter what is sent to the archives.

If you change what an archives holds you can influence history.

When we see a headline about changes to archival disclosure practices especially if there is a claim that more information will be withheld, we probably never give it a second thought. Even if we read the article, we may assume it is simply a question of funding. Do we stop to ask, “Does reduced funding for archives mean less accountability?” Few people will see that reduced funding can lead to reduced accountability. Even fewer will consider that reduced funding can lead to reduced accountability. Such a thought, let alone such behaviour, is rarely expressed so brutally or openly. It is rare to see something as crude and direct as the Nordlinger Affair or the Heiner Affair.[3] Instead, the changes occur through the quiet word, indirect statement, gentle request to reduce funding, change the archive’s collection criteria, or alter the public records transfer policy. The public, already uninterested in archives, will be unlikely to express much interest. The public will always have other items to attract their attention. Perhaps records managers or archivists might notice but will they connect the issues?

Access is one challenge, how a record is used is as important.

The threat is more than funding. Technology, which also enhances access, can also limit that access. With technology, it is easier to review archival and records management systems to exclude “sensitive” documents. The records can be sanitised to protect, sustain, or defend the “official record”. Yet that is the public aspect of public records held either in the archives or within the government. Another aspect is what is done “privately” with these public records. Technology has not changed the arcana imperii.[4] The term, coined by Tacitus, refers to secret knowledge, in that the public is unaware of it, that is used to rule as well as the way the knowledge is used.[5] The term, with its dual meaning, clarifies the way organisations can use private information. We can see how organisations can use records to exercise power beyond their public role. In many cases, especially if the knowledge is in the archives, the public record is being used privately rather publicly. Even though the use is justified as being for the organisational or public good or have a public effect, the use is for the private benefit of the organisation or its members. They knowledge can hold someone to account, but more in the sense to control privately than publicly.[6]

All societies rely on arcana imperii which has an effect on archives.

All organisations, and societies, in particular imperial societies, rely to some extent on arcana imperii. I do not mean as a general principle where the rulers work on the assumption that the public, the ruled, are unable to understand how government works.[7] I mean the information that allows those in power to exercise their power “privately” beyond their statutory power such as through personal favours, or knowledge of someone’s political or personal vulnerabilities that can be exploited. In turn, this use is justified as being in the public interest if only indirectly. The logic is that if it good for the leader, party, organisation, manager who serve the public then it must be good for the public. However, in most cases, such information is rarely written down yet it still relies on something that can be manifested, like a record, to enforce the memory. For example, when someone is vetted for honours such information is collected but then destroyed.[8] The work is done privately and rarely, if ever enters the public domain except perhaps through its consequences. However, some arcana imperii do find their ways to the archives. When this information becomes known, individuals and organisations will, in reaction, scour the archives to find more to protect their power associated with the information. Moreover, such an event will also encourage a greater effort to limit the access to such information in the future and it will lead to change in the way records are vetted before being sent to the archives so that arcana imperii is not disclosed.[9] When arcana imperii is disclosed it lose its value to those who would have wielded it. The danger, then, is that governments and organisations will increase the control over what is sent to the archives where it can be access and subject it to greater scrutiny to ensure little, if any, arcana imperii get to the archives.

John Grieve a case study of arcana imperii at work?

To illustrate the idea arcana imperii and archives consider the Sir John Grieve case.[10] In late 2015, Sanchia Berg confronted him with a record she had discovered in the National Archives at Kew. The record of an arrest complaint showed Sir John, and other officers, had engaged in an abuse of power against an elderly Jamaican couple. The incident exemplified the institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) at that time. The officers exceeded their authority simply because of the subject’s skin colour. The story received minimal media attention. Sanchia Berg had made a historical record come to life by telling the story of its context. My concern is not the MPS racism. Instead, I want to focus on two interrelated strands. First, that such disclosures will create a response within the archives and the approach to archives as it reminds public officials to sanitize their past. Second that the information constitutes the ever present spectre of institutional or political blackmail, the issue of arcana imperii. Both of these have a direct impact on archives and the possibility of public historical accountability.

I am not a racist, but I did once …….

From the article and the related interview, we can see that Sir John was able to handle the issue adroitly. He has who served in many areas and issues where he has had to handle the media and be discrete. In general, his response shows he is adept at being held to account. Although he provided the stock answers that “Things were different then and we are now better” and “It was an isolated event many years ago” he was able to make it appear he was being disadvantaged to an extent. He was keen to stress it was just one incident without suggesting why this one incident was held or if there were other incidents. Most importantly, he gave the necessary reassurance that he welcomed accountability as part of the job. I have yet to meet a powerful person who has publicly said the opposite or enjoyed being held to account or being required to given an account except on their terms. Power bristles at the temerity that someone might challenge their account or require them to account for what they have done in a way they cannot control. For this reason, powerful people rarely willingly endure being cross examined, contradicted, or questioned closely.[11]

Why was the file retained? Perhaps Sir John does know why it was retained

With the lens of arcana imperii we have to consider why the file being retained. The article suggests it was retained because Mr. Grieve wrote to his superiors about the case. However, it is not clear why that should be the reason it was retained. When we consider that it could be used in the future to exert influence over Mr Grieve a possible reason emerges. It allows those who know the information exists, the superiors within the organisation or others, to use it. They can remind him of his past especially as Mr Grieve’s reputation is now based on his record of being a a strong anti-racism campaigner. One could suggest that the information would be used not so much to hold his reputation hostage so much as a point of leverage. However, that is harder to prove. Alternatively, the record may have been retained because he complained so that if something had emerged, if he had filed a further complaint, there would be a record of his letter. What is clear, though, it will raise the profile of archives for former MPS officers, as well as other public officials, if they have not considered it already.

Once the threat of accountability is revealed how soon before it is mitigated?

From the article, I would suggest that many people, especially former officers within the MPS[12], but across government, will want to avoid such “gotcha” moments.[13] I can see the possibility that people will want or expect greater vetting of their files before they leave. If they can, they will want to control their future accountability, which will put increased pressure on archivists and retention schedules. More to the point, they will want to consider what is held on them. If they do not know what is held on them, they will want to know if the files contain anything especially as Mr Grieve appeared to be unaware of it and was surprised that it existed.

If you have a problem with records there are ways to make it go away

To some extent, we can see this already at work in the furore around the missing child sexual abuse allegations within the Home Office. In response to that investigation, the Home Office and the National Archives reviewed their protocols for transmitting records from the Central Government departments to the National Archives.[14] No one has publicly stated that they worry about their historical accountability so as to suggest, at least not openly, a direct review of the archives.[15] They will not say “I do not want this getting out.” It will be something less direct but with the same outcome.

A curious foreshadowing on the career of John Grieve

As such reviews occur, the issue of arcana imperii emerges. As to records being used as leverage, which suggest a reason why they are collected and kept, we need to consider the case of Operational Othona. In this MPS operation, which investigated police corruption, a lorry load of documents was shredded in mysterious circumstances.

Roy Clark, who led anti-corruption at the time of Operation Othona, said: ‘I’d be shocked if it doesn’t exist. It was gold-dust stuff.’

Even though he retired in 2001 well before the records were destroyed for it was important the information was used to keep up the pressure on corrupt officers. He said: ‘How you can go to those lengths and spend all that money and it is not there, I am just amazed.’[16] [Emphasis added].

The officer admitted that the information was used for leverage or pressure against the corrupt officers. The information was held and it was used for purposes beyond the policing issue of rooting out police corruption. In that regard, Roy Clark who was one of the officers in charge of the operation was expressing the culture as well as the way the records, which would never become public, were being used. One would expect that officers involved in the operation would understand the purpose as Roy Clark did. In that it reveals, something curious about Sir John’s case.

The other officer in charge of Operation Othona? John Grieve.[17]



[1] In the United States Sandy Berger former National Security Adviser    went to the National Archives and removed classified documents and destroyed them. Readers will note that he likely only destroyed those that contained comments which he wanted to remove rather than remove the document itself from the public record.


[3] The Heiner Affair, which occurred in Australia, refers to the shredding of child abuse cases to avoid Government accountability for its failings. The Nordlinger Affair is the story of destruction of public records to avoid accountability. “If it became public, it would do neither me nor the PRO any good.  If, on the other hand, I abandoned my pursuit of the matter, I was promised that after the election the a/g head of department would personally urge an augmentation of my powers as Keeper and seek to obtain the support and resources for us to pursue such matters more effectively.”

[4] Arcana Imperii translates into secrets or mysteries of empire or of ruling. It connotes secret knowledge but also methods of ruling that are not seen by the public. They may be withheld as the public are not initiated in the ways of power and thus not competent to judge what is being done and why.

[5] “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 Keller The 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

[6] The UK Parliamentary Whips would use such private information to control politicians in Parliament.

[7] “To the old Greek or Roman of the republic there were for free men no arcana imperii. There was no problem of government which any citizen was incompetent to discuss, and no office of state for which he could not judge of any man’s fitness, if he could not fill it himself. The idea that politics is a mystery, and politicians ” a political priesthood,” grew up in the Middle Ages, when kings became the ” Lord’s anointed.” It was still strong in England, in spite of parliamentary institutions, down to the expulsion of the Stuarts. Queen Elizabeth rebuked, through the Lord Keeper, “those audacious, arrogant, and presumptuous members who had called Her Majesty’s grants and prerogatives in question, meddling with matters neither pertaining to them nor within the capacity of their understanding.” By the time the Reform Bill was under debate, the priesthood had passed from the king to the aristocracy, and the Duke of Wellington, as his lately published letters show, was unable to conceive of government administered by anybody but the gentry. During the debates, a bishop asked in the House of Lords “” p.392

The Civil Service Reform Controversy

  1. L. Godkin The North American Review, Vol. 134, No. 305 (Apr., 1882), pp. 379-394

[8] The article reveals the most powerful person you have never heard of in UK government. Sue Gray who is Director-General, Propriety and Ethics Team has a central role in vetting people for public honours as well as other sensitive matters.

[9] See Sir Arthur Lucas’ paper on Closing Historical Public Documents where he discusses the process by which government reviews and releases public records to the National Archives.

[10] Sanchia Berg describes, in her article How a 1970s policeman changed his mind, John Grieve’s change of mind concerning race relations.

[11] From Xenophon’s Hiero, c400 BC, where a wise man (Simonides) converse with a tyrant (Hiero) to the Leveson Inquiry 2012, powerful people do not like to be challenged in conversations where their power is questions or show to be suspect in some way. To put it directly, no one likes to be shown to be a fool as Socrates learned.

[12]I do not know if Mr. Grieve would have this reaction. However, such a reaction would follow the example of powerful people across the planet such as Wikipedia edits, archives being destroyed, records being removed.

[13]I do not think the article was written or approached as “gotcha” journalism. However, to powerful people held to account when they do not expect it, such an approach can appear to be an example of “gotcha”.


[15] Peter Hennessey did worry that the demand for transparency and openness could lead to archives being hollowed out as material was either withheld or destroyed so that the archives did not contain an accurate record of what had been agreed or discussed.




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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