The History Thieves

Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation

Ian Cobain

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

Other Editions


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

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 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


As British official records are still "going missing", the significance of Cobain's work only increasesDavid Olusoga



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

‘As one would expect from the pen of an experienced investigative journalist, this is a "good read", thought-provoking throughout, frequently shocking, but sometimes amusing in its exploration of the more bizarre attempts of the powers to keep us in the dark... Cobain's book, I think, will open many eyes’ Mandy Banton

‘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

‘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

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