I would expect some interesting material to be released, under the 30-year rule, from the National Archives concerning the Labour government of the 1970s. The BBC reports today that in 1977 Tony Benn was asked to resign from the Cabinet by the Prime Minister, James Callaghan, after signing a letter objecting to the pact Callaghan had negotiated with the Liberals. The Lib-Lab Pact was not a glorious episode but there were rational grounds for the minority Labour government to have sought it. There was good reason to believe the economy was improving, owing to North Sea oil and the necessary negotiation of an IMF loan. The Liberals were desperate to avoid a general election so soon after the Jeremy Thorpe scandal (in by-elections the party was regularly being beaten into fourth place by the National Front), and received scant benefit from the arrangement. (The only time I met the late John Smith, at a meeting of City Fabians, he cheerfully volunteered that "the Liberals got absolutely screwed" under the Pact; and so they had been.) But what's interesting about the Callaghan-Benn exchange is what didn't happen:
The newly-released note describes a telephone call made by Mr Callaghan to Mr Benn at 2000 on Thursday 24 March - a day after the pact was agreed. It says Mr Callaghan referred to a letter, "which already had 15 signatures", calling for a special Labour National Executive Committee meeting about the pact.
Mr Callaghan - who died in 2005 - told energy secretary Mr Benn he would not expect a Cabinet member to sign without telling him, the note adds.
"Mr Benn said, 'I have already signed it' and the prime minister replied, 'in that case, I must ask for your resignation'," the note continues.
According to the note, Mr Benn - who retired from Parliament in 2001 at the age of 76 - told Mr Callaghan he would "consider his resignation or see if he could withdraw his signature".
Tony Benn of course did not resign, because he was not the resigning type. What infuriated his parliamentary colleagues after Labour's defeat in 1979 was his denunciation of a government that had coped with the most trying of economic circumstances, for much of the time without a parliamentary majority, and that he had served in continuously. I don't consider that Benn is a pure opportunist, but neither is he a man of principle. He is a politician of little talent, few intellectual interests, minimal achievement and much destructiveness.
The same BBC report ventures, by the way, an ill informed and obtrusive piece of editorialising, when referring to the concerns of the Ford administration about the UK's defence commitments:
Also released by the National Archives on Friday is a letter from Donald Rumsfeld - during his first spell as US defence secretary between 1975 and 1977 - to UK defence secretary Roy Mason.
In it, Mr Rumsfeld, who served in the same post under President George W Bush from 2001 to 2006, expresses his dismay at planned UK defence cuts.
Referring to Nato's Cold War concerns about the power of the Soviet Union, Mr Rumsfeld stresses "how vital it is that all of us in the alliance avoid public actions and precedents which will create a discordance between the reality of the growing threat and any lack of resolve to meet it".
The letter, dated 19 July 1976, adds: "Any reductions that would weaken or appear to weaken your defences would impinge adversely and directly on the collective security of every ally."
Critics of the current government would argue that Mr Callaghan's Labour cabinet of the time was not as easily influenced by the US as its modern-day equivalent.
Missing from this report, and presumably unknown to its anonymous author, is the historical context. Shortly after Labour gained a bare majority in the October 1974 election, Harold Wilson - a vain man who was unreasonably convinced he was held in high regard in Washington - wrote to the US President Gerald Ford that Britain would cut defence spending regardless of the impact on Nato. Ford responded to Wilson with a measured statement of concern about the impact on US allies and expressing the hope that the US would not be the only power capable of international intervention. This was the context of Rumsfeld's later remarks. The exchanges had been precipitated by Wilson, who had failed to consult with our Nato allies.
I am no admirer of Ford (though he had one foreign policy success, the Helsinki Final Agreement, whose value was greatly underrated at the time). I do consider, however, that his administration showed loyalty to this country beyond the call of national interest. The US was perfectly entitled to express its concern about our contribution to Nato. The administration did so in terms that were moderate and factual. When James Callaghan (a far superior PM to Wilson) turned to the US for help in the sterling crisis of 1976, Ford responded generously: his only terms were that the UK should not impose import controls (as Tony Crosland and, with much less intellectual seriousness, Tony Benn were then arguing for in Cabinet). With the respite provided by the IMF loan, Labour went on to govern with some competence from 1976 to 1979, after the breathtaking irresponsibility of the Wilson government of 1974-6.
During Labour's period of maximum silliness, in opposition in the early 1980s, a mythology grew up that nonetheless had a grain of truth in it. Supporters of a reformed Tony Benn (now fiercely opposed to the record of the government he had served in, if not exactly served) would commonly and bitterly complain that Mrs Thatcher's economic programme had its origins in Denis Healey's stewardship as Chancellor. This was quite true, of course, and it remains a notable achievement on Labour's part that should be remembered and applauded.