Desk Wallahs and Death SquadsTue 09 Jan
THE HISTORY THIEVES: Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation by IAN COBAIN. London: Portobello Books, 2016.
Secrecy and the overriding tendency of state bodies, and their officials, to close ranks, to look after their own, to protect themselves from criticism, often at any cost, including sacrificing the principles they publicly subscribe to – this is the central theme of Ian Cobain’s latest book, and the reason why it has had reviewers of different political persuasions reaching for words like “terrifying” and “disturbing” (Jeannette Winterson who made it her book of the year in 2016) and “chilling” (Daily Mail).
One of the most striking things about contemporary politics is the gap between the way ordinary people think and talk about politicians and the presentation of them both in the media and academic studies. For at least forty years polls have shown conclusively that a majority of the population in all Western democracies are disenchanted with politics. Most people do not trust politicians. This disenchantment and distrust doesn’t necessarily reduce to thinking all politicians are either fools or knaves. It is more moderate and sophisticated than that. A poll conducted by the European Social Survey in 2002 asked whether politicians were more interested in votes than the opinions of their constituents. Over sixty per cent of those polled thought politicians were more interested in votes. As distrust of politicians goes this seems pretty mild, in fact no more than plain common sense and realism.
With The History Thieves and his 2012 book Cruel Britannia: The Secret History of Torture, Ian Cobain is almost unique in showing how the popular attitude to politicians is grounded in reality. The most potent strand in political rhetoric is the idea of trust. Underlying every political utterance is the implicit message: Trust me, I believe in what I say, I will honour the commitments I make. Cobain is altogether convincing in documenting the many ways in which the message very rarely holds true. This, among many other things, is what makes Cobain’s two books so valuable and so refreshing. His work demonstrates that scepticism about politicians is perfectly justified. We are right to be disenchanted: politicians are, in many or even most respects, untrustworthy.
The thieves in the title are the officials who have destroyed or hidden the official records of government wrongdoing and done so on a massive scale (including burning and dumping thousands of files at sea) for well over seventy years. The list of crimes and misdemeanours covered up in this way makes for depressing reading: secret wars in Oman and Yemen in the 1960s, British agents involved with death squads in Northern Ireland, secret engagement in Vietnam in 1945, atrocities in the treatment of Mau Mau rebels in Kenya in the 1950s, and more.
Cobain shows how the culture of secrecy in government bodies and the practice of secrecy – cover-ups, concealment, obfuscation, obstruction, denial, blatant lying, and so on – is engrained in the psychology of state officials. He doesn’t go in for moral-political reproach and condemnation: he simply describes the way state officials carry on. One of the great virtues of Cobain’s excellent book is that it’s not partisan. Secrecy and cover-up are part and parcel of all UK governments and are not by any means exclusive to a Conservative government. Secrecy is cross-party, bi-partisan, intrinsic to the logic of power.
The abstract and supremely elastic notions of “national security” and “public interest” play a vital role in official justifications for the pursuit of secrecy. Perhaps the most telling of the revelations in Cobain’s book is his account of British government collusion in paramilitary killings in Northern Island. In 1990, news leaked about the involvement of Brian Nelson in the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane. Nelson was a senior member of the Ulster Defence Association and also an agent for the British Army. At this stage, Cobain writes, “the entire cabinet must have become fully aware that their security forces had been enabling a death squad.” The dominant feeling, however, seems to have been concern to prevent further disclosures to the public:
"the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, became more engaged, sending a ‘Top Secret’ minute to [John] Major in which he highlighted the public interest risks in taking Nelson to trial and attempted to persuade the Prime Minister to take steps to oppose it."
Brian Nelson was convicted of conspiracy to murder in 1992 and released after four years. Twenty years later, a report by Sir Desmond da Silva QC made it clear that government involvement in paramilitary killings was by no means confined to using Nelson as an agent. The then Prime Minister David Cameron publicly admitted that there were “frankly shocking levels of state collusion” in the murder. This didn’t prevent him from reneging on his agreement to hold a further public inquiry. Cameron invited Pat Finucane’s widow to Downing Street to explain why the promised inquiry was not going ahead. His explanation sheds a truly chilling light on the workings of the British secret state:
"Cameron raised one finger in the air, according to a number of those present, drew a circle, and said that there were ‘people in buildings all around here who won’t let it happen’."
Secrecy, of which cover-up is one particularly explicit form, seems to be the norm for all nation states. Britain is not exceptional in this respect, but we are especially prone to it. In his concluding chapter, Cobain quotes American sociologist Edward Shils:
"The British ruling class is unequalled in secretiveness and taciturnity. Perhaps no ruling class in the Western world, certainly no ruling class in any democratic country is as close-mouthed as the British ruling class."
Shils wrote this in the mid-1950s. Nothing seems to have changed since then except the techniques by which officials manage to conceal and cover up state malpractices. If anything, these are more insidious and sinister than before. All Western states have taken advantage of fear of terrorism following 9/11 to extend not only their powers of surveillance but also the practice of secrecy. The most alarming development in the UK since 2001 is the increasing use of secret courts. If we haven’t heard of them it is probably because journalists have been threatened with contempt of court if they try to inform the public about closed court proceedings.
Cobain describes the provisions for secret courts brought in with the 2013 Justice and Security Act as “codifying the cover-up”. By this he means that the main purpose of the legislation is to ensure that evidence in civil trials where the government itself is the defendant is kept secret. In a postscript written for the paperback edition of Cruel Britannia, he quotes Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, and the UK’s most senior judge at the time. While the act was still being debated in the Commons, he warned that “anybody interested in justice and democracy will be very troubled by any legislation that involves having hearings which are closed in the sense of not open to the public”. But his words were to no avail.
Finally, there is a surprising entry in Cobain's acknowledgements which says a great deal about what he is up against:
"I should acknowledge a debt of gratitude to all those politicians, civil servants, intelligence officers, Whitehall ‘information officers’, government lawyers, ‘strategic communication consultants’ and assorted desk wallahs who have attempted, over several decades, to frustrate my attempts to keep the public informed: your efforts have always inspired me to try harder."
Over and over again Cobain’s investigations were blocked and frustrated by this cast of characters. Not for the most part because they are badly motivated or corrupt but because their first loyalty is always to the State, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of their actions or the issue in question or the public’s right to know.
Review by Simon Beesley
Simon Beesley is the co-author (with Sheena Joughin) of Hamlyn History of 20th Century Literature (London, 2001) and is currently working on An Introduction to Political Scepticism.