Not only was 18 August 1911 a Friday, it was also the height of the grouse season, and as a consequence only 117 of the UK’s 670 MPs were present at the House of Commons.
Almost all of them appear to have believed Colonel Jack Seely, the under-secretary of state for war, when he assured them that the official secrets bill before them contained nothing more than minor procedural matters, and that “none of his majesty’s loyal subjects run the least risk whatsoever of having their liberties infringed”.
A motion that the bill be reported without amendments was passed by 107 votes to 10. It then received its first and second readings in minutes, with only one MP suggesting there should be more time for debate. Two other MPs attempted to speak but, as Seely wrote in his memoirs, “both were forcibly pulled down by their neighbours after they had uttered a few sentences”.
The Speaker asked Seely what day would be set for the third reading. “‘Now, sir,’ I replied. My heart beat fast. It was open to any one or all of the members of the House to say that no bill had ever passed … without a word of explanation from the minister.” Not one did.
British government ministers had form for behaving in this way when they wished to further circumscribe the public’s right to know. When the first official secrets bill had been brought before the Commons in March 1889, it had received its second reading in less then two minutes, late at night, in between lengthy…