The History Thieves

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Nothing demonstrates the importance of Ian Cobain’s new book better than the secrecy that surrounds British involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen today. Not only will we never be told the truth by our masters but the records that could have exposed the truth to the light of day will almost certainly be destroyed to prevent any such eventuality. And this, as Cobain shows, is as it has always been.

Cobain’s earlier book, Cruel Britannia, a study of the British use of torture, was a devastating read. His new book is, if anything, even more important. He looks at the secrecy that the British state has always tried to operate in, covering up its crimes, first denying them and then hiding away or destroying all record of them.

The book is sometimes a bit dry, but it well repays the effort. We learn, for example, about the Military Reaction Force (MRF), that operated in Northern Ireland in 1971-72 and was, as Cobain describes it, “the British Army’s very own terror gang”. We will never know the full story of its activities because all record of it even having existed has been “concealed by the Ministry of Defence or…destroyed: shredded — or double-shredded — and burned”.

What about the records of the years of colonial oppression that the British state had accumulated? The records were either hidden away or destroyed. And we only know of the massive extent of this cover-up because of the efforts of a number of Kenyan victims of horrific torture at British hands fighting in the courts for justice.

While enough surviving Kenyan records were eventually disclosed to forever discredit attempts to deny the extensive use of torture in the war against the Mau Mau rebels, there was “very little material about the British war against the Malayan Communist Party”, that lasted 12 years. The Malayan records went up in smoke as the British prepared to hand over power.

Despite all this, even Cobain cannot quite hide his astonishment that there “were no files whatsoever from British Guiana…where the elected government had been overthrown by British troops in 1953, where there had been a covert Anglo-American campaign of bombings, and where politicians had been detained in the early 1960s”. This was all part of Operation Legacy, the official sanitising of the history of the British Empire.

There is much, much more of interest, of vital interest, in The History Thieves. Cobain deserves our thanks for what he has dragged out into the daylight.