Erasing Empire

Today's understanding of the British Empire has been shaped by state secrecy and the destruction of historical records.

British soldiers assisting police searching for Mau Mau soldiers in Kenya in 1954.

One of the most pernicious aspects of modern Britain, about which so many are in denial, is its failure to address the real history of the British Empire.

This can be seen in the pronouncements of politicians and public intellectuals, but also in the over-inflated imaginary of Britain’s importance in the world that permeates the mainstream media and public consciousness. There was no moment of reckoning — unless you dig a little deeper, it appears if Britain simply handed official control over the governance of its colonies to locals.

As a result, not only does British imperialism receive exaltation and eulogy, but the postcolonial melancholia that afflicts public political culture is premised on the idea it was built on virtue and the diligence, strength, and courage of British people.

“If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.” This advice, from the attorney general of colonial Kenya to its governor, Evelyn Baring, when stipulating the forced labor policies in detention camps in Kenya in the late 1950s, became a motto for Britain’s intervention in its colonies. This line encapsulates the central argument to Ian Cobain’s recently published The History Thieves, which sets out the history of state secrecy and its vital importance in shaping the public image of the nation.

The apogee of the secret state in purposefully hiding information from the public in the postwar period was necessary for sculpting an official narrative about British imperialism and its war efforts divorced from the truth of its brutality. Imperialists were often all too aware that if the true nature of their mission was exposed it would also undermine the image of liberal democracy that was deployed to distinguish the West from authoritarian regimes.

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.


The legacy of the British Empire in developing postcolonial contents is explored by Cobain as a theme of his work. Following the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, the newly reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland set up a “Legacy Support Unit” to deal with access to police archives for “legacy” investigations, in other words, unsolved crimes or miscarriages of justice. The war in Northern Ireland, as with the wars of decolonization during the postwar period, was an asymmetric war. The period of truth recovery and subsequent access to justice has been similarly unequal. Most of the atrocities committed by paramilitaries were admitted at the time. The British state, however, denies, conceals, and covers up its responsibility for the war to this day.

Cobain explores the shadier parts of this legacy in detail. At the height of John Stevens’s inquiry into British state collusion in 1990, the police archive in Carrickfergus he was using to store evidence was destroyed in an arson attack. At the same time Stevens was about to arrest Brian Nelson, a British army agent who had been feeding intelligence material to the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), a loyalist paramilitary group. The evidence increasingly points to British army involvement in the incident.

Similarly, a pattern has been established suggesting the British army were using the UDA to carry out a dirty war in Northern Ireland, including helping them secure a huge arms shipment from South Africa in December 1987. This facilitated a trebling of murders carried out by loyalist paramilitaries. Along with this case, to which chapter six of The History Thieves is dedicated, hundreds of legacy cases remain unresolved. The coroners’ office of Northern Ireland is investigating deaths from over thirty years ago that were never subject to inquests, including alleged cases of shoot-to-kill by police, but many official documents lie beyond their reach.

Operation Legacy was also the name given to the bonfire of records on the eve of decolonization. The destruction of these documents has caused consternation among historians of empire as they battle contentious claims. David Anderson, historian of the British Empire in Africa, has stated that the lost files would lead to a fundamental revision of the history of decolonization. When the Nazi regime was placed on trial at Nuremburg it was its extensive record-keeping, detailing the manner in which the annihilation of Jews, gypsies, communists, and dissidents was carried out, which damned its senior figures. The British state was not to make the same mistake.

According to historian Caroline Elkins, the destruction of documents by the British state on the eve of decolonization was a reflection of the “bureaucratization of social control” characteristic of British counterinsurgency. The colonial crimes of the British were detailed meticulously — but unlike the Nazis, they had the opportunity to destroy the evidence. As Elkins points out, the work of historians piecing together the institutions, structures, operational and administrative organizations of the colonial state at the end of empire is transformational; without it, colonial violence cannot be understood, instead lending itself to anecdotal evidence.

In Elkins’s book Britain’s Gulag, she compares the “pipeline” concentration camp system set up in British-ruled Kenya to Nazi Germany and the Soviet gulag, not only in the treatment received by the Kikuyu people, but the racial motivations of their British captors. Elkins’s book was based to a large extent on oral histories, for which she was heavily criticized in the academy; in some corners it was wholly dismissed for its methodology.

However, during investigations in the course of a legal case taken up against the British government, correspondence between the Kenyan and British governments held in the National Archives at Kew exposed the existence of a “migrated archive,” papers held secretly at Hanslope Park in the Midlands. As a result, Mau Mau survivors of torture and brutality successfully sued the British government for their ill treatment, receiving millions of pounds in compensation. The uncovered material confirmed the thrust of Elkins’s work and raised the specter of the hidden history of British colonialism.

Files that never made it back to Britain ended up in ashes or at the bottom of the sea, a phenomenon that came to light thanks to the declassification of “destruction certificates.” The History Thieves is particularly important in making the connection between the destruction and theft of historical documents and the shaping of our knowledge of British history. Paeans to colonial Kenya by writers such as Niall Ferguson take on a new character when contrasted clearly with the documented treatment of the Kikuyus, who faced beatings, torture, castration, and forced labor.

In the present climate, where teaching in schools glosses over the empire, and where education secretaries have expressed their desire for a curriculum that promotes the British Empire, the need to connect historical research with public consumption of history is more imperative than ever.


When it wasn’t destroying history outright the British state was weaving a complex web of secrecy to disguise its activities. Examining this behavior following World War II, Cobain shows how historians were employed to construct a narrative that shied away from the crucial role played by new technologies, which were to be turned on the British public through GCHQ surveillance in the postwar years. This practice was facilitated by legislation such as the Official Secrets Act which, far from dealing narrowly with national security concerns during the war, functioned to extend wartime exceptions into peacetime.

This secrecy is a legacy that haunts British social democracy in its many collaborations with imperialism. One of these, in the late 1960s, which Cobain explores is the case of Oman, when a Labour government deployed British troops to defend the regime of the last place on earth where slavery was still legal. The British army manufactured a coup to replace an unpopular sultan with his own son who had been, remarkably, prepared for rule with a two-week placement on Ipswich town council.

Michael Stewart, the Labour foreign secretary at the time and a member of the Fabian Society, had been fully aware of the use of slaves by the sultan, with one of the senior civil servants working alongside him even comparing it to a welfare state. But all of these conversations were shielded from public scrutiny until much more recently, facilitating the contradiction between a government that described itself as socialist at home but engaged in brutality abroad.

Where British imperialism interacted with domestic policies, in its treatment of immigrants and its secret war in Northern Ireland, this record of secrecy was maintained. For decades so-called “Three Wise Men” deportation tribunals judged in secret an immigrant’s right to remain, borrowing from the internment tribunals used in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. Eventually these tribunals became the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, whose closed material procedures enabled the use of MI5 evidence obtained through torture in Gaddafi’s Libya.

State secrecy continues today, enabling military activities in Syria to proceed for almost two years before a vote for parliamentary approval. British imperialism, rather than disappearing, merely lingers in a better disguise.

Critiques of this subterfuge and deception are often mobilized by liberals and conservatives in Britain, who make the case for greater transparency as a means of further legitimating liberal democracy. Ian Cobain’s book goes farther — arguing that this secrecy is a fundamental feature of the system.

The British state’s cover-up of historical atrocities is the process that grants it moral and political legitimacy, facilitating continued imperial endeavors abroad. A fuller understanding of this is the first stage in fighting against the conservative malaise that permeates the country.