Censored extracts from diaries and personal letters of a key figure close to the Queen and the late Prince Philip may soon be made public following a four-year battle between the Cabinet Office and a historian.
More than four decades have passed since the death of Louis Mountbatten, yet his diaries “remain so incendiary in the eyes of the government” that the authorities have gone to “extraordinary lengths” to keep them hidden from public view, said The Telegraph.
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But Andrew Lownie, who has written a biography of Mountbatten, argued at a tribunal hearing this week that 120 redacted references in the diaries should be made public.
Mountbatten, the Queen’s cousin and uncle to the Duke of Edinburgh, was murdered in an IRA bombing in 1975. In 2011, his family sold his diaries for £2.8m in lieu of death duties to the University of Southampton.
Most of the diary contents are available for viewing at the university, but certain passages have been redacted as a result of Cabinet Office intervention.
In 2019, the Information Commissioner ruled that all documents should be released into the public domain, after historian Lownie launched his bid for unfettered access. But the decision was appealed by the Cabinet Office, which “argues that the information is too sensitive to be released and that the dignity of the Queen could be compromised”, said The Times.
Roger Smethurst, head of knowledge and information management at the Cabinet Office, told an appeal hearing in London this week that UK relations with other states could be “compromised” if some details were released.
Many of the redacted passages are thought to discuss Mountbatten’s relationship with the Royal Family, but the most sensitive passages are likely to deal with his role in the partition of India, which he oversaw in his role as viceroy.
In 2011, Professor Chris Woolgar, the now retired chief archivist for Southampton University, wrote to the Cabinet Office advising that certain parts of the diaries be redacted.
In an email, he wrote: “I don’t believe these should be available to researchers, possibly from as far back as the mid-1930s, given their many references to the Royal Family (which I can spot).”
The Cabinet Office replied: “We really do think we should keep these closed, given the Royal material which you have already spotted… also the material concerning India and Pakistan is, in some cases, still sensitive from this period.”
The intervention resulted in a ten-year ban on the release of the sensitive sections.
In 2017, however, Lownie, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, requested access to the material for his biography, The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves, “which he eventually published two years later”, said The Telegraph. The refusal of the request triggered the ongoing information tribunal.
The tribunal is also considering the release of personal correspondence, from both Mountbatten and his wife, Edwina.
In 2019, the Information Commission ordered the release of letters from Lady Mountbatten to Jawaharlal Nehru, the leader of the Indian independence movement, and the first prime minister of an independent India.
They wrote to each other regularly from 1947 up until her death in 1960 – “an important period of British-Indian history”, said The Hindu. These letters were also censored after the Cabinet Office objected, amid rumours that the pair had an affair.
Lownie told the tribunal this week that “my view is that information of still greater importance to a complete and accurate historical record is likely to lie within the withheld archival material”.
The historian has also claimed that the diaries could contain evidence of Lord Mountbatten’s alleged bisexuality. Such claims have been “denied by official biographers”, but the historian told the tribunal that “he had uncovered supporting evidence, including information in his FBI file,” The Times reported.
Other redacted sections “are understood to relate to Lord Mountbatten’s sexual preferences, fetish for women in riding boots”, said The Telegraph.
The Cabinet Office is estimated to have spent close to £300,000 of public money fighting the case. A spokesperson said the department count not “comment further whilst legal proceedings are ongoing”.