The History Thieves

Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation

Ian Cobain

Published: 1 September 2016
Hardback, Royal HB
156x234mm, 368 pages
ISBN: 9781846275838

Other Editions


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Published: 6 July 2017
Paperback, B Format
129x198mm, 368 pages
ISBN: 9781846275852

Ebook Available


In 1889, the first Official Secrets Act was passed, creating offences of 'disclosure of information' and 'breach of official trust'. It limited and monitored what the public could, and should, be told. Since then a culture of secrecy has flourished. As successive governments have been selective about what they choose to share with the public, we have been left with a distorted and incomplete understanding not only of the workings of the state but of our nation's culture and its past.

In this important new book, Ian Cobain offers a fresh appraisal of some of the key moments in British history since the end of WWII, including: the measures taken to conceal the existence of Bletchley Park and its successor, GCHQ, for three decades; the unreported wars fought during the 1960s and 1970s; the hidden links with terrorist cells during the Troubles; the sometimes opaque workings of the criminal justice system; the state's peacetime surveillance techniques; and the convenient loopholes in the Freedom of Information Act.

Drawing on previously unseen material and rigorous research, The History Thieves reveals how a complex bureaucratic machine has grown up around the British state, allowing governments to evade accountability and their secrets to be buried.

About the author

Image of Ian Cobain

Ian Cobain was born in Liverpool in 1960. He has been a journalist since the early 1980s and is currently an investigative reporter with the Guardian. His inquiries into the UK's involvement in torture since 9/11 have won a number of major awards, including the Martha Gellhorn Prize and the Paul Foot Award for investigative journalism. He has also won several Amnesty International media awards. Cobain lives in London with his wife and two children. More about the author


‘[The History Thieves] sets out the history of state secrecy and its vital importance in shaping the public image of the nation... Cobain's book demonstrates the function that secrecy played in allowing the British state to maintain a veneer of accountability and transparency. To peek behind this veneer is to see the atrocities committed during wars of decolonization, the secret deployment of British troops in various theaters of war, the colonial files hidden in secret archives, the cover-up of state-sponsored death squads in Northern Ireland, and the obstruction of justice through secret courts’ Rosa Gilbert



‘[A] terrifying account of politics and cover-ups since the 1889 Official Secrets Act. Spin? This is dizzying, disturbing stuff’ Jeanette Winterson, Best Books of 2016

‘A meticulously researched, eye-opening triumph. Essential reading in the age of Snowden and Assange’ Charles Cumming, author

‘An engrossing account of how government officials burned the records of imperial rule as the British empire came to an end’ Ian Jack

‘Cobain gives an authoritative and accessible account of the lengths the British authorities have gone to in order to keep secrets from its citizens since the nineteenth century’ Samantha Newberry

‘Cobain's easy prose turns potentially dry subject matter into an intriguing set of stories... Cobain punches holes in the idea that Britain is an open, transparent country and he worries about the growing trend towards 'closed procedures' in the justice system. While concerned with protecting civil liberties and holding government to account, this book also questions the core of national identity. If so much of their history is concealed, the British are not who they think they are’ Hazel Healy

‘Cobain's excellent book exposes the single most significant catastrophe of the 'War on Terror'. While the rebirth of torture has grabbed many headlines, the most dangerous fruit of the atmosphere of fear has been an industry of secrecy. Cobain teaches us both the history of this secretive snooping, and how it imperils us all today’ Clive Stafford Smith

‘Ian Cobain reveals the mass destruction of records and archives, and the false memory it has left us with... an astonishing book’ Andrew Marr

‘Journalist Ian Cobain does a public service detailing precisely how and to what worrying extent 'secrets and lies' have shaped the modern state. He exposes how past truths are hidden by the ruthless weeding of document in official archives, ostensibly on security grounds, but usually for no better reason than to save face or prevent recrimination... Cobain's chilling book demonstrates how important the role of the journalist has always been in countering the secrecy and in holding power to account. It's more vital now than ever’ Tony Rennell

‘Meticulously researched and immensely readable... There is a particularly impressive chapter on the dirty war in Ireland’ Chris Mullin

‘The author of this well-researched and carefully written book takes deadly aim at the official version of modern British history... an important book which deserves to change the way we see our recent past’ Peter Oborne

‘This important and highly readable book proves that, in a so-called age of transparency, official secrecy is actually increasing - in government and the armed forces, in the courts and in Whitehall and the Security Services. Censorship is often imposed to hide embarrassment, but also to prevent accountability for malfeasance and illegality, and to distort deliberately the historical record. There is a new establishment at work, and it preens itself just like the old, possessing the power to suppress. Our only weapon against those Orwell used to call "the striped-trousered ones who rule" is to expose and deride them - a job Ian Cobain does most effectively’ Geoffrey Robertson QC

‘With The History Thieves, investigative journalist Ian Cobain brilliantly exposed Britain's dark secrets, including the denied history of torture, massacre and the destruction of records relating to the dying days of the British Empire. Essential complacency-shattering reading’

‘With its account of a worldwide obliteration of imperial records, The History Thieves reveals how much skulduggery has gone into feel-good notions about the British Empire’ Pankaj Mishra

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