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How the records work

Cabinet Secretary's notebook - Sir Norman Brook's notes on 9 September 1942 reveal exchanges between Winston Churchill (abbreviated as 'PM') and his ministers.
Hand-written records of Cabinet are kept by the Cabinet Secretary and give a flavour of meetings. Sir Norman Brook's notes on 9 September 1942 reveal  exchanges between Winston Churchill (abbreviated as 'PM') and his ministers.
©The National Archives

Agendas

The agenda lists topics of discussion at meetings but differs greatly from the topics recorded in the conclusions. This is mainly due to practicality; the importance of issues changed between the agenda being issued and the meeting occurring, so items that had decreased in importance were left out and more important issues discussed. Timing also counted, as matters could be put off until the ministers concerned were able to attend, or sufficient time was available to have a meaningful discussion. For these reasons the agenda does not correspond to the items recorded in the conclusions and is not a reliable guide to content.

Conclusions

What are normally considered 'minutes' are called 'conclusions' in the Cabinet papers. Conclusions show what was decided and also a summary of opinions and ideas discussed. They are phrased to emphasise agreement rather than division. Detail of discussion on the pros and cons of a particular policy may be included, but it was not the purpose of the secretary to record the viewpoint of individuals. Conclusions do not contain records of voting and decisions were presented as unanimous, in accordance with the principle of the unity of Cabinet. A fuller account of who-said-what can be found in the Cabinet Secretary's notebook record for that particular meeting. 

The first part of the conclusions is an attendance list. It shows the time and place of the meeting as well as who was there and their role or position. In some conclusions you will see people marked down as attending for certain topics, but not the entire meeting.

Often memoranda circulated during a meeting were included in the minutes as an appendix. Other documents also included as appendices were telegrams received by the Prime Minister or other Cabinet members, tables of data or statistics, proposed replies, or even letters.

Conferences of Ministers

Conferences of Ministers were often used in the interwar period when a quick decision was needed and it was impossible to summon the whole Cabinet. Periods of intense political tension, such as the General Strike of 1926, account for many of these ad hoc meetings. Records of Conferences of Ministers can be found within the relevant volumes of minutes, although they are rare after 1939.

Memoranda

Memoranda used for policy issues dealt with specific problems of perceived importance and urgency. Often they provide an outline of a problem, its background and significance, possible solutions, and a precise recommendation for action. Memoranda that were presented for the information of Cabinet members might include letters of telegrams to inform discussion, or consist of progress reports on a particular policy. The Cabinet could request papers discussing an issue and the responsible minister would present it.  Memoranda could also be used to present a minister's position on an issue over which there was dispute between departments - sometimes there are numerous memoranda presenting ideas about a single issue. 

Confidential Annexes

Confidential annexes were particularly sensitive conclusions, often containing discussions of contentious issues and potentially unpopular policies, and were circulated  to ministers only on a need-to-know basis. Some discussions were never even recorded in the confidential annexes. They include the Chancellor's budget briefing to the Cabinet, and discussions about general elections. Confidential annexes were often produced as separate volumes, but occasionally were included in bound volumes of the normal Cabinet minutes.

Precedent books

The precedent books provide a guide to procedure in Cabinet - how the Cabinet operates, not how it records decisions. Some historians think that the information contained in these books about how the Cabinet should operate and its relationship with parliament and the monarchy is the closest thing Britain has to a written constitution.

Secretary's notebooks

The Secretary's notebooks, unlike the conclusions, will give an indication of a minister's view on an issue. However, the minister will not be referred to by name or post (except the Prime Minister who appears as PM) but as the initials of his or her name. The way to find out which initials correspond to which Cabinet member is to cross check the date of the meeting recorded in the notebook with the attendance list for that Cabinet meeting in the conclusions. For example, AE is Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary.

Referencing conventions

Each Cabinet conclusion or memoranda has a reference number. Conferences on the other hand tend to be identified by date and time. Cabinet conclusions usually have a two-letter prefix to identify a government such as WC, WM, CC or CM. When the government changes, so too does the prefix. The next two-digit figure refers to the meeting number. This will be followed by the year and then sometimes the relevant number of the minute within that set of conclusions. For example CM 22 (64) 1 is referring to the 22nd Cabinet meeting in 1964, 1st conclusion.

Memoranda, like conclusions, start with a letter prefix and like conclusions they change with the incoming government. This is so the Cabinets papers can be identified from another government sitting in the same year. Common prefixes are GT, WP, C or CP. The year in brackets will be shown and then the number of that particular memorandum. There will often by a specific title for the document - WP (40) 289 Far Eastern Policy. 27 July 1940.

Frequently, conclusions give the references for any papers or memoranda that were being discussed at that meeting. Although papers were often referred to in the conclusions, the papers do not indicate at which meeting they were discussed.

Other Examples

Further reading

  • Bogdanor, V. (ed), The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2003)
  • Daalder, H., Cabinet Reform in Britain 1914-1963 (London, 1964)
  • Jenkins, Sir I., Cabinet Government 3rd edn. (London 1959)
  • Mackintosh, J. P., The British Cabinet 3rd edn. (London, 1977)
  • Seldon, A., Hickson, K. (eds.), New Labour, Old Labour: the Wilson and Callaghan governments, 1974-79 (London, 2004)
  • Walker, P. G., The Cabinet rev. edn. (London 1972)