Before I go:
I recently came across an article on the web – I’ve lost it now, but that doesn’t matter – about Hanslope Park, an ultra-secret archive in the depth of the Buckinghamshire countryside, where the British government used to stash some of its more embarrassing documents relating to decolonisation. It was first discovered by a couple of historians looking into the Kenya internment camp atrocities of the 1950s. Later on Ian Cobain published a book featuring it, entitled The History Thieves. Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation (Portobello books), which I was commissioned by the LRB to write a review of; together with TJ Coles’s Britain’s Secret Wars. How and Why the United Kingdom sponsors Conflict around the World (Clairview Books. Isn’t it interesting that neither of these books could find – I presume – top-notch publishers?). I believe, though I can’t be certain, that the LRB didn’t in the end publish my piece; which I’m intending nonetheless to include in a new book of my occasional essays, which is still under consideration by a publisher – has been for some time, so I’m getting rather disheartened – but which I thought might be worth giving a preliminary airing to here. Here it is (minus the references). It’s 3000 words long I’m afraid; but I think it’s quite important. If any reader has connexions with the print media world, they’re welcome to pass it on to them (for free. And so long as I’m told).
History is clearly important to people, though not always in a very reliable form. We professional historians, most of us, do our best, but by the time our versions of history have percolated ‘down’ to the laity they have usually become encrusted in myth. This is partly our own fault – we’re not persuasive or populist enough – but it’s also because myths are often more acceptable than ‘the truth’, which is generally more complex and ambivalent, so that people tend to prefer the mythical versions. One of the latent functions of the American Republic’s founding myth, for example, is to comfort and reassure. Wouldn’t Americans be just slightly discombobulated if they believed that, rather than their Revolution’s having been a war of independence from colonial tyranny, it was essentially a rebellion to enable white Americans to tyrannise over others – Native Americans, black slaves, the industrial proletariat? (A good case can be made out for the first of these.) Most national ‘histories’ are like that. Britain’s is no exception.
Ian Cobain’s second book – his first, Cruel Britannia (2013), was about Britain’s secret involvement in torture – seeks to spread some of the blame for this on to the shoulders of successive British governments. The main myth he sets out to discredit is the one that prime minister David Cameron expressed in September 2014, on his way to planning renewed military action against ISIS in Syria: that ‘we’ (the British) ‘are a peaceful people’. In response to this Cobain lists the wars that ‘we’ have been involved in since 1945: one a year at least, most of them through choice. ‘The British,’ Cobain writes, ‘are unique in this respect… Only the British are perpetually at war.’ That should shake up most people’s views of their recent history, including, probably, Cameron’s. (I’m assuming he believed what he said.) If any more evidence is needed it can be found in TJ Coles’s Britain’s Secret Wars. How and Why the United Kingdom sponsors Conflict around the World, which goes further than Cobain in attributing these wars and their accompanying atrocities to capitalist-imperialist greed. That’s the ‘Why’ part of the subtitle, and may seem too conspiratorial for some. But the facts alone are telling. They obviously discombobulated the Daily Mail’s reviewer of The History Thieves, Peter Oborne, which can’t be a bad thing. But it isn’t Cobain’s main point. His emphasis is on the way in which most of this, and a lot else that is rather nasty, have been deliberately hidden from the British people, in order to buttress their ‘peace-loving’ and other comfortable liberal myths. Hence his title, The History Thieves; who are, of course, governments and government agencies, and to a lesser extent the British press and Parliament, who have connived in it.
One example is the way the messy business of dismantling Britain’s empire was deliberately sanitised for posterity by destroying and hiding the historical record. Historians of decolonisation were often frustrated by gaps in the written evidence; now we know what happened to a lot of it. Stuff that wasn’t burned, but was thought to be too sensitive to let anyone know about, even, was spirited away; not to the Public Record Office (now the National Archive), the usual repository of government papers, but to a seventeenth-century country house in Buckinghamshire called Hanslope Park, once the scene of a famous murder – the squire shot by his gamekeeper in 1912 – but since 1941 the property of the government, and now an annex of GCHQ. I had no idea of that when I used to work on imperial history. It was only revealed when a couple of my fellow historians, David Anderson and Caroline Elkins, together with lawyers working on behalf of some of the victims of the Kenya ‘Emergency’ of the 1950s, began digging into that most ghastly of colonial events; the lawyers armed with court orders compelling the Government to reveal all relevant papers. (Historians don’t have that sort of pull.) It was found that Hanslope was housing many of them, together with thousands of incriminating documents covering the whole period after World War II. Most of them haven’t been scrutinised and released yet, with the authorities still dragging their feet. The excuses offered are that people’s lives may be placed in danger, or delicate diplomatic negotiations compromised. But the true reason is given away by the name that departing British colonial governments gave to these papers, which was the ‘Legacy Files’. Britain was concerned for her national reputation after she pulled out. She wanted to give the impression that her decolonisation, by contrast with other European colonial powers’, had been peaceful, civilised, and voluntary on her part; reflecting a uniquely beneficent imperialism that had always been directed to this end. It was the old Empire’s final legacy to us, its inheritors, making us feel better about our national past. If that isn’t a deliberate ‘theft’ of history, I don’t know what is.
This was deeply unsettling for historians, though thankfully most of us, professional sceptics that we are, had allowed for the possibility that important facts might be being kept from us. Personally I never trusted the authorities since they led me a merry dance some years ago over some Metropolitan Police papers I was seeking in connexion with my research into the very early Special Branch, which they eventually claimed had been destroyed by a bomb in World War II, obviously in order to get rid of me; only for the file to turn up later when a serving Special Branch officer asked for it in connexion with a PhD thesis he was writing on the same topic. I also had my phone tapped over this (very crudely), which added to my mistrust. It was obvious from corresponding and talking with Home Office officials that they had absolutely no concept of ‘openness’, or of any duty the State might have to reveal its secrets, even those, like the ones I was interested in, that were more than a hundred years old. Documents performed functions, and when those functions no longer had a practical purpose they had better be destroyed. That’s why legal papers were often not, but were preserved in case anyone wanted to re-open a case in the future on the basis of them. (It’s why the richest documentary source that has survived from the Middle Ages is deeds and wills.) They had no sense of history, these people. I truly believe that this was one of the main reasons they were so obstructive; that, and the time they told me it would take to vet old files in case they contained anything practical. Junior civil servants had better things to do. It may not have been nefarious. Though obviously it was, when one set of previously ‘open’ legal opinions was suddenly withdrawn from the National Archive in 1982. They related to Britain’s title – or not – over the Falkland Islands (Malvinas). That was part of the on-going plot.
Most of these deceptions related to Britain’s treatment of her foreign subjects, enemies and allies. But they didn’t stop there. The bulk of Cobain’s book deals with the secrecy that has always surrounded Britain’s secret intelligence services: justifiably, one might think, and indeed obviously, but to an extent that far outruns any possible argument from ‘national interest’, or even privacy, however far the authorities tried to stretch those – perfectly reasonable – concerns. This is a fairly familiar story to us professional historians – viz. my experience with the Met – but may not be known more generally. In the nineteenth century secrecy was maintained informally by a code of honour amongst those who dealt with state secrets, who nearly always came from the same – upper-middle, public school-educated – classes. Even then governments could have problems with Members of Parliament, who weren’t always upper-middles, and whose constitutional right to demand sight of diplomatic and other despatches was cunningly circumvented in the 1840s by instructing ministers to send private letters along with the official despatches, which filled in any gaps, but weren’t ‘official’, and so weren’t even known about by MPs. Cobain doesn’t mention this, but it backs up his point. Today, if they still survive, historians have to hunt for these papers in private collections, not in the National Archive.
As the sheer amount of government paperwork increased towards the end of the nineteenth century, with the pool of dependable toffs diminishing relative to the new demand for people to process it, lower-class clerks had to be engaged, without the same inbred sense of honour, it was believed, and usually at poor pay, which could encourage them to sell secrets: to newspapers, for example, or even foreign powers. That provoked the first Official Secrets Act in 1889, outlawing the unauthorised disclosure of Government papers. It must have been sad for the upper-middles that they could no longer rely on the decency of chaps: a bit like having to provide referees for football matches when the proles took to the game. A Corinthian could be trusted to own up when he committed a foul. Now they needed to be policed. The 1889 Act was followed by others in 1911, 1920, 1939 and 1989, all of them strengthening the previous ones in one way or another, although the 1989 Act also made it less ridiculous (a ‘secret’ had to be an important one, not just an order for paper clips); usually with MPs being deliberately misled about their motives and extent. The 1911 bill was rushed through the Commons – all its readings – in just an hour, in the eye of a diplomatic storm. There was ‘nothing novel’ in it, claimed the Attorney-General, which was a blatant lie. As well as the Official Secrets Acts, governments also had their notorious ‘D-Notice’ system, by which they persuaded newspaper proprietors – usually chums of theirs – to cover things up. That worked pretty well, from the authorities’ point of view. Both these measures were occasionally flouted, but in most cases the flouters were dealt with severely; until a couple of occasions during the ultra-secretive Thatcher years, when juries of good and disloyal Britons threw the more oppressive cases against ‘whistle-blowers’ out. (Thank God, or rather our Anglo-Saxon forebears, for juries.) The most famous acquittal was Clive Ponting’s, against the judge’s directions, for revealing government duplicity over the movements of the Argentinian battleship Belgrano in the Falklands War. Another dent in Britain’s official secrecy came when Peter Wright’s unauthorised memoir Spycatcher made some embarrassing revelations about his time in MI5. (But what more could you expect of a grammar school oik?) That laid the Secret Services open to ridicule, which was another reason to cover them up.
But it wasn’t only their incompetencies, which were many, that the secret services feared being revealed. For several years it was their very existence. This is another aspect of their history that Britons have been routinely lied about. The Special Branch was kept secret at the beginning, because Britons liked to believe that ‘political’ policing was a thing that only foreigners did. MI5 and MI6 were kept officially hidden until the late 1980s. That meant that questions couldn’t be asked about them in Parliament. This wasn’t in order to stop the Russians or the IRA from knowing about them – they did – but people at home. The reason for this was to sustain another British historical ‘myth’: that Britain was above such ‘Continental’ practices as spying on people; certainly her own people, and in peacetime. It derived from old-fashioned values like (again) ‘honour’, on the upper-class side, and ‘solidarity’, among the working classes: the idea that betraying the trust of the people you moved intimately amongst was the ultimate social sin. Even a policeman hiding behind a tree to observe a crime was not allowed. (One was cashiered for this in 1852.) This was an essential part of Britons’ national self-identity in the nineteenth century, and for some time into the twentieth. It can’t be any longer, of course, in what may well be the most surveilled country in Europe – police spies, CCTV cameras, hacking, GCHQ, Amazon passing on your literary preferences to all and sundry – which may be the reason why people have forgotten this vital ‘Victorian value’ now. Earlier, however, it was a major reason for keeping all these activities under wraps. Again, it served to bolster a myth.
This had its downside from a liberal point of view, because unacknowledged agencies couldn’t, of course, be held to account. Another disadvantage was that it furnished a fertile soil for ‘conspiracy theories’ to sprout. MI5 and MI6 weren’t supposed to exist, but there were always rumours flying around. It was to counter these, I guess, that the Government first formally acknowledged the existence and then commissioned a series of official histories of the intelligence services, by academic historians they felt they could trust. (I’m quite proud of the fact that I wasn’t one of them.) These were subject to vetting, which meant that we had to rely on the assurances of their authors that nothing important was left out. Even the ‘trusties’ occasionally baulked at this. The Preface to Christopher Andrew’s volume on MI5, for example, complains of one particular bit of censorship which Andrew believes is ‘hard to justify’. We don’t know what it was, exactly, but it comes in the chapter on the ‘Wilson Plot’ – the alleged Secret Service plot to get rid of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the early ’70s – which is one of those events around which conspiracy theories have clustered particularly. As it happens, I believe in a watered-down version of it. (It was retired spooks; and they didn’t succeed.) But we can never know for sure, until the blanket of indiscriminate secrecy is lifted from this, and from so many of the crucial events of the fairly recent past. Until then the conspiracy nutters will thrive, and the more sensible sceptics amongst us will never be quite satisfied. Plus: distrust may run so deep as to poison our view of British history more generally. Scepticism can slide into cynicism. Personally, I don’t think that the British Empire was always as awful as it was in Kenya in the 1950s. But after all these damaging revelations, and with so much more still hidden, it’s difficult to persuade anyone – even oneself – of this.
Richard Crossman once described secrecy – rather than strikes, or homosexuality, the usual candidates up until then – as ‘the British disease.’ Cobain claims that it’s more prevalent here than in any other democratic country. He gives numerous examples of this over the past half century: the continued ban on those ingenious and heroic Bletchley Park boys and girls revealing anything of their work there for thirty years after the end of the War; espionage trials held in secret, or with crucial evidence kept back; the activities and the scope of the activities of GCHQ, and its secret collusion with the (American) NSA; the names of the heads of all these intelligence agencies; all those late- and post-colonial wars Britain was involved in, behind the scenes; and the fact – and this may be the most ludicrous example – that Jonathan Evans, who rose to be Director General of MI5, wasn’t told that he was working for them until he’d been there a few days. I can believe that; MI6 once attempted to recruit me without letting on who they were. (I recounted this in an old article in the LRB: (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v21/n14/bernard-porter/boarder-or-day-boy). All this obfuscation is bound to affect the histories of these times that are written in years to come. Unless we can reveal the secrets of the 1950s-onwards pretty smartish, before the record is completely destroyed.
This is partly what all the parliamentary and judicial enquiries we are seeing these days into some of the most dreadful things that happened during that period can do for us – ensure that our history isn’t stolen from us; even though that might not be their immediate purpose. (Reparations for victims are more in the inquisitors’ minds.) Future historians will know more about the Iraq War, the Falklands war, the Miners’ strike (but not apparently Orgreave), policing, the British press, historical paedophile abuse (though the inquiry into that appears to be running into the sand), Black Friday, and dozens of other contemporary issues that will soon become historical ones, because of these inquiries, than they would have done otherwise. Cobain’s book, together with a number of other recent ones, will help the process immeasurably. My guess is that if all this evidence were put together, it would require a substantial, if not wholesale, revision of the generally-accepted liberal narrative of recent British history. Perhaps a younger historian than I am could make a start on this now.
If, that is, anyone is really interested. Secrecy does not seem to be a very vital issue in Britain – and possibly America – just now. Assange and Snowden, for example, are not great popular causes here. It may be the ‘post-Truth’ culture we’re in just now – ‘£350 millions a week to the EU’ and all that. No-one cares. Deception is expected, and shrugged away. In Halle in Germany a few years ago I witnessed large demonstrations in support of the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, pressing the German government to grant him asylum; I’ve never witnessed anything like that in Britain, where there appears to be general apathy. But then, of course, Halle – in the old DDR – has been subject to two highly oppressive secret police forces in modern times. We haven’t. So trust us, says William Hague, referring to Snowden’s revelations of mass electronic surveillance; ‘if you are a law-abiding citizen of this country going about your business and your personal life you have nothing to fear about the British state or the intelligence services listening to your phone calls or anything like that.’ Well, that’s reassuring, isn’t it? Hague seems a friendly little chap. But would you trust Theresa May, the authoress of Britain’s ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ when she was Home Secretary, quite so much? Or, if you are an American, Donald Trump? I rest my case.
And – reverting to history – mustn’t it be a good thing to have a true, or true-ish, understanding of that in order to help you understand it, rather than your comfortable old myths? Remember what Winston Smith’s job was in Orwell’s 1984: rewriting old newspaper articles to bring them in line with Big Brother’s version of the past. Cobain’s charge is not quite as serious as that; but it could be that what British governments have been doing recently – for example with those files in Hanslope Park – is on much the same lines. ‘Theft’ is a good word. This is an important book, if it can persuade even the Daily Mail of that.