The Chatham House Rule is used worldwide to facilitate both free speech and confidentiality at meetings.
Meetings may be held “on the record” or under “the Chatham House Rule”. In the latter case, it may be agreed with the speaker(s) that it would be conducive to free discussion that a given meeting, or part thereof, should be strictly private. When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information or opinions disclosed to them, subject to two conditions:
a. Neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speakers, nor that of any other participant at that meeting may be revealed.
b. It may not be divulged that the information was received at that meeting.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: When was the Rule devised?
A: In 1927, then refined in 1992
Q: Should one refer to the “Chatham House Rule” or the “Chatham House Rules”?
A: There is only one Rule. It is a mistake to describe this in the plural as “rules”.
Q: What are the benefits of using the Rule?
A: It allows people to speak as individuals, and to express views that may not be those of their organizations, and therefore it encourages free discussion. People usually feel more relaxed if they don’t have to worry about their reputation or the implications if they are publicly quoted.
Q: How is the Rule enforced?
A: The organisation applying the rule can take disciplinary action against one of its members who breaks the Rule. Not all organisations that use the Rule have sanctions. The Rule then depends for its success on being seen as morally binding.
Q: Is the Rule used for all meetings of political organisations?
A: No. However it is common practice that only particular senior officers of a party will be authorised to disclose any details of a party meeting to the media. Often large meetings or regular General Meetings tend to be more open about what has been discussed. By contrast, confidentiality will tend to apply to executive meetings, campaign planning meetings, or meetings where work in progress is discussed, or meetings where the subject matter is otherwise politically sensitive. Often it is wise to apply the Rule when a controversial guest speaker is invited (such as a politician), in return for them speaking candidly.
Q: Who uses the Rule these days?
A: It is widely used throughout the world: by political groups; by local government; by commercial organisations; as well as by research organisations.
The Chatham House Rule was devised by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, an independent organisation which promotes research and discussion on international affairs. The Institute is otherwise known as “Chatham House”, a name which refers to its 18th century premises in the heart of London. The Chatham House building was home to three British Prime Ministers including William Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham (Prime Minister from 1766-8). The Institute was established in 1920, it acquired Chatham House as a gift in 1923, and it created the “Chatham House Rule” in 1927.
Who was the Earl of Chatham? William Pitt the Elder was a Whig who vigorously campaigned for war against other imperial powers in order to expand Britain’s trade interests. He is credited by some with the creation of the British Empire, but his disregard for the costs of his military campaigns cost him political support at home and abroad. The Earl of Chatham’s rule created the conditions for the American bid for independence. His son, William Pitt the Younger, was by contrast a Tory. Pitt the Younger is said to have harboured political ambitions from the age of 7. He went on to become Britain’s youngest Prime Minister at age 24 and, contrary to predictions, his Ministry lasted for 17 years. He acted as Prime Minister from 1783-1801 and 1804-6. In government, Pitt stood for parliamentary reform to prevent bribery; reform to diminish the influence of the monarchy; he backed reduction of the national debt; and he worked towards free trade. William Pitt the Younger died at age 46 having devoted almost his entire life to politics.