This purging of the record happened across the world, in British Guiana, Aden, Malta, North Borneo, Belize, the West Indies, Kenya, Uganda – wherever Britain ruled. In the words of Ian Cobain, it was a subversion of the Public Record Acts on an industrial scale, involving hundreds if not thousands of colonial officials, as well as MI5 and Special Branch officers and men and women from army, navy and air force. All of them, whether they knew it or not, were breaking a legal obligation to preserve important official papers for the historical record, in the expectation that most would eventually be declassified. The British government took extraordinary measures to make sure that the fate of these papers remained a secret, whether they had been “migrated” to the UK or destroyed abroad.
According to official instruction, the waste left by bonfires “should be reduced to ash and the ashes broken up”. If burning was thought to be too difficult or unsuitable, then the sea offered an alternative. Officials in Kenya were told that documents could be “packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free waters at maximum practicable distance from the coast”.
Most of the files that survived – the concealed “migrated archive” – found their way to Hanslope Park, a country estate just off the M1 near Milton Keynes, where the Foreign Office maintained an enormous cache of documents under the title “Special Collections”. By Cobain’s reckoning, 15 miles of floor-to-ceiling shelving was packed with files that dated from the 17th century to the cold war and the Troubles in Northern Ireland – files so numerous that their catalogue entries measured the metres of shelf space they occupied. Officially, none of these documents existed.
Some discreet research by the Foreign Office in 1979 showed that only two (Kenya and Malta) of 37 former colonies were aware that their annals had been secreted in Britain or destroyed. The truth, so far as we now know it, emerged only because personal injury lawyers and the American historian Caroline Elkins pursued the evidence of a far crueller British response to Kenya’s Mau Mau insurgency than the available public records suggested. In 2011, the FO finally conceded that it had somehow “overlooked” its secret documentary hoard at Hanslope Park, where the Kenyan files alone took up 60 metres of shelving. Two years later more than 5,000 Kenyan claimants received £19.9m in compensation and expressions of regret from the then foreign secretary William Hague. “We believe there should be a debate about the past,” said an FO official.
“It is an enduring feature of our democracy that we are willing to learn from our history.” But that particular lesson had never been intended.
Why were British governments so determined to obscure and bowdlerise their country’s colonial record? Some reasons are understandable: to spare individuals from embarrassment or prosecution; to help secure the loyalty of successor regimes during the commercial, military and political competition of the cold war. But Cobain goes further: Operation Legacy was intended to ensure that “the British way of doing things” would be remembered with “fondness and respect” – that the conduct of its imperial retreat would be seen as exemplary. To go to such lengths of deception for something as intangible and imponderable as a place in history’s good books may seem unlikely, but it was surely for these reasons, rather than any security concern, that, for example, British officialdom asked its servants to destroy or return to Britain any papers that “might be interpreted as showing religious intolerance on the part of HMG” as well as “all papers which might be interpreted as showing racial discrimination against Africans (or Negros [sic] in the USA)”.
There is something else. We like secrets. Cobain recounts the history of British state secrecy from 1250, when the members of England’s Privy Council first swore to keep their proceedings private. The oath has remained unchanged for the nearly 800 years since, while secrecy as a habit has grown via legislation (particularly the Official Secrets Act of 1911) and the confidentiality clauses contained in the humblest contract of employment. Cobain refers to it as “a very British disease”, and while he makes no comparison with other modern democracies – it would have been helpful to know, for example, how seriously the French state takes the duty of transparency – his conclusion that government secrecy in Britain is not “just an occasional necessity but the fiercely protected norm” is hard to refute.
In the 1950s, the distinguished American sociologist Edward Shils decided that the explanation lay with a ruling class that was “unequalled in secretiveness and taciturnity”, whose members were so close and comfortable with one another that they had little fear of hidden secrets. Cobain largely supports this view. Class deference combined with a relatively benign and trusting view of the state’s behaviour may explain “why the peculiarly uncommunicative nature of the British state does not provoke greater resentment and unease among the British public and media”.
Edward Snowden is a case in point. When his disclosures about the UK and US governments’ practice of mass electronic surveillance were published (first in the Guardian) in 2013, the reaction in Britain was mild compared with the outrage expressed in many other countries. Inter-newspaper jealousies, the conservatism of the BBC, the rightwing nature of the British press: all these may have played a part in muting our concern. But it may also be that as a society we continue to believe in secrets and the people who make and guard them, despite everything Cobain reveals in this engrossing book.
• The History Thieves by Ian Cobain is published by Granta. To order a copy for £16 (RRP £20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.