Tommy McKearney reviews an important new book by Ian Cobain.
One time British intelligence officer turned Soviet agent, Kim Philby is reported to have told a Stasi training session that if interrogated, one should accept nothing and deny everything. After reading Ian Cobain's latest book The History Thieves: Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation, it might well be said that the double agent's views were informed more by the decades he spent at the heart of Britain's ruling elite than by his time with the KGB.
Through each rigorously researched and copiously referenced chapter, the author details how the British state has for long concealed and continues to conceal much of its sensitive activity at home and abroad. From deploying British troops against the Viet Minh in the aftermath of WWII in order to restore French imperial domination of Indochina, to a secret war in Dhofar in the 1960s, to collusion with Loyalist death squads in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, the British state has employed a determined strategy of hiding the reality of its difficult-to-justify operations from public scrutiny.
As Cobain demonstrates, this policy of secrecy and denial began to experience some difficulty in the wake of a case brought by a group of elderly Kenyans against the British government. The African pensioners sought compensation for horrifying injuries suffered at the hands of British troops during the country's struggle for independence in the 1950s. In response, the authorities in London engaged in a process familiar to all who challenge the probity of British military actions anywhere in the world. First there was the black propaganda phase, followed by denial of any impropriety and all investigation thereafter frustrated by a refusal to disclose information on the events in question.
This well practiced routine was undone by the work of some remarkable academics who forced the British authorities to disclose not only dark secrets (some at any rate) from the Kenyan period but also uncovered other damning material as well. Nevertheless, this investigation also revealed that huge amounts of sensitive documents from every part of the empire had been systematically destroyed or hidden away.
It is perhaps understandable, if not excusable, why Britain would wish to bury its past misdeeds and paint a glossy picture of its imperial past. What present day Britons should be aware of, though, is that this endemic culture of secrecy and deception at the highest level of government continues and poses a potential threat to the democratic process. Free people should govern and not be governed.
Ian Cobain has done his country and its people a service by writing this book. He has provided them with a warning of potential risk to their liberties and his message deserves the widest possible airing. It is also a reminder, if one was needed, of the task facing us in Ireland when trying to uncover the truth behind what is described as legacy issues arising from the long conflict in the Six Counties.
Ian Cobain, 2016. The History Thieves: Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation. Publisher: Portobello Books. Price: £13:60 ISBN: 9781846275838