Melbourne: An immense trove of the most important royal historical material for decades has quietly been released in the United Kingdom. These are the diaries of Lord Louis Mountbatten and his wife Lady Edwina, from the 1920s until 1968.
As the last great-grandchild and godchild of Queen Victoria, uncle of Prince Philip and adored great-uncle of Prince Charles, Mountbatten exercised a “Rasputin-like influence” in the court of Queen Elizabeth. He had a long, typically aristocratic, naval officer career from head of combined operations during the second world war to admiral of the fleet. He was also the last viceroy of India, presiding over transition and partition. All this gave Mountbatten an unmatched insight into the royal family and its intersections with the highest levels of wartime and post-imperial governance.
But the release of this material doesn’t just shed light on the royal family. It again highlights the significant barriers to accessing our history; specifically, the claimed “convention of royal secrecy” that imposes strict secrecy over royal communications across the Commonwealth nations. The release of the Mountbatten diaries is entirely due to the work of historian and Mountbatten biographer Andrew Lownie, who fought for four years to get public access to the previously secret diaries.
They are held in the Broadlands Archives, purchased by Southampton University from the Mountbatten family in 2010 for 2.8 million pounds using public funds. At the time, the university said it would “preserve the collection in its entirety for future generations to use and enjoy” and “ensure public access”. The university’s catalogue gives their legal status as “public records”, and states they were “open on transfer”. Yet the papers were closed after an officious university historian warned the government the papers contained “many references to the royal family”.
Lownie’s initial request for access under the UK’s freedom of information regime was rejected by the university, citing a cabinet directive preventing the release of the diaries and letters. A successful appeal followed, which the university ignored until threatened with a contempt action. Finally, late last month, 22 MPs signed a motion tabled in the House of Commons calling for “their publication without further obfuscation and delay”. The university finally released many — though not all — of the diaries.