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the-history-of-thieves-coverThe History Thieves by Ian Cobain (Portobello, £20)

In his new book The History Thieves, investigative reporter Ian Cobain argues that the British government’s “culture of secrecy” has existed for 200 years. During this time, huge amounts of sensitive information have been concealed, concerning everything from the existence of wartime code-cracking centre Bletchley Park to secret wars in Indonesia in the 1960s. There is often secrecy about secrecy, which makes it harder to prevent.

The first Official Secrets Act, which concerned “disclosure of information” and “breach of official trust,” was passed in 1889. It did not seem to deter journalists: soon after it came into effect, a newspaper offered £100 for the receipt of “great secrets.” But it has since been bolstered, and around 100 related statutes have been passed.

British secrecy has caused havoc abroad. Cobain argues that the government’s destruction of sensitive files during Kenya’s decolonisation made it harder for the new Kenyan government to run the country.

Some argue that in the age of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, secrets will be harder than ever for governments to keep. But leaks remain extremely rare. The latest iteration of the Official Secrets Act, passed in 1989, continues to deter whistleblowers.

A shortcoming of the book is that it covers so much ground that connections between its different parts are not always obvious. But Cobain is convincing when he says that with so much of our country’s history shrouded in secrecy, we don’t understand our own place in the world as well as we should.

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