SPGB Socialist Opposition To War - Book Review: The History Thieves

Ian Cobain’s book THE HISTORY THIEVES: SECRETS, LIES AND THE SHAPING OF A MODERN NATION (Portobello Books, 2016) is a critical examination of the secrecy that has been applied to British military and security operations over the past seventy years. Through the imposition of the Official Secrets Act and other measures, Cobain shows how the State concealed the existence of Bletchley Park and its successor GHCQ and constructed a secret state which controls, distorts and fabricates the flow of information to the public.

Mr Cobain not only gives examples of unreported wars during the 1960s and 1970s but he also shows that British capitalism has been engaged constantly in wars and conflicts, for over a hundred years, whether the government has been Conservative, Labour or a coalition. History was concealed and manipulated to show British capitalism in a good light.

The title of Cobain’s book, THE HISTORY THIEVES, derives from government policy at the final days of Empire to deliberately destroy countless colonial papers – a policy known as Operation Legacy – in an attempt to erase all traces of the darker deeds of Britain’s colonial past.

One of the enduring myths of post-war British foreign policy was that it kept out of the war in Vietnam. However, not many people know that Britain started the conflict on behalf of the French against the Nationalist forces of Viet Minh. In 1945; Britain flew an entire division of troops to the country. The British then went on to re-arm Japanese prisoners of war and compelled them to fight against the Vietnamese under British command. Who was in government at the time? Attlee’s Labour Party.

Then there was Greece. The Second World War was not yet over when Britain entered the Civil War in Greece at the end of 1944. According to Cobain:

“More damage was done to the buildings and infrastructure of Athens during the first three months of British liberation than had been inflicted in more than three years of Nazi occupation” (p. 68).

Some wars just did not make it to qualify for media interest. In 1961 a British task force was dispatched to newly independent Kuwait to prevent an Iraqi invasion while in October that year British troops engaged with Chinese-backed rebels after the Cameroons had been divided between Nigeria and the Republic of Cameroon (p. 7). Raw resources and the protection of strategic spheres of influence were the principal reasons for these invasions.

On entering Downing Street in 1964, Harold Wilson’s government inherited the UK’s war against Indonesia. When he came to write his memoirs he described it as a war between Malaysia and Indonesia, and omitted to mention Britain’s leading role. However, in passing, he did remark that his government had committed 30,000 men, the largest deployment of Britain’s armed forces since 1945 (p. 71). What these troops were doing there in such numbers the reader was not told.

Mr Cobain then gives details of the four- year war that the British led in Indonesia in the 1960s and the eleven year Cold War counter-insurgency operation in Oman in the 1960s and 1970s. He shows that not a year has passed since at least 1914 when Britain has not been fighting “somewhere or other around the world” (p. xv). Most of these wars have been kept secret.

Unlike socialism, where the flow of information will be open and transparent, in capitalism information has to be controlled or supressed by the state, either from internal criticism or from benefitting external nation states.

Of course securing trade routes for oil was often top of the list for dispatching troops to far-off countries. In January 1972 it became known that Britain was fighting a war against rebels in the mountains of Dhofar on behalf of the Sultan of Oman. Cobain gives this account:

“Situated on the South-West corner of the Arabian Peninsula, the Sultanate of Oman is bordered by the United Arab Emerites to the north and by Saudi Arabia and Yemen to the West and South-West. The country also sits alongside the strait of Hormuz, the thirty-three-mile wide waterway through which oil from the Persian Gulf makes it was to market. In the 1960s, more than sixty-percent of the western world’s crude oil came from the gulf, a giant tanker passing through the Hormuz bottlenecks every ten minutes. As the oil flowed, local economies flourished and became important markets for exported British goods: London became even more anxious to protect its interests in the region and the local rulers who supported them. In 1967 oil was extracted from Oman itself for the first time, and within six years the country was annually producing more than 100 million barrels”. (p. 74).

British capitalism always tries to portray its foreign policy as a force for moral good. It would. This image is torn to shreds in the fourth chapter of Cobain’s book, which recounts the 1950’s war against the Mau-Mau in Kenya. He cites a book “IMPERIAL RECKONING: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BRITAIN'S GULAG IN KENYA”, by the American historian, Caroline Elkins, published in 2005, which had relied on the verbal testimony of elderly Kenyan survivors who had been imprisoned:

“…(in) a regime of almost unspeakable barbarity, and a conflict in which the British colonial administrators, police and soldiers…had sunk to a moral depth that would be difficulty for many members of the British public to comprehend” (Cobain, op cit., p.106).)

Elkin’s book was predictably trashed in the British press. But later, the government was forced to release 1,500 secret files as part of a trial bought by Kenyans imprisoned, brutalised and tortured during the insurgency that showed that her accounts of “unspeakable barbarity” by the British were true. The papers disclosed in detail the way in which suspected insurgents had been: Beaten to death, burned alive, raped, castrated…Even children had been killed” (p. 110)

And in more recent times, in the current Yemeni Civil War in which a coalition force under the leadership of Saudi Arabia intervened on behalf of the former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh against the Houthis, an armed religious – political protest movement: “…British military personnel were sitting in the control rooms from which the Saudi Arabian air force was guiding its bombers onto targets across Yemen. The British were helping their Saudi counterparts key in the codes that would help them select and attack their targets. The Saudis were not only flying British-built aircraft and dropping British-made bombs, they were dropping vast numbers of them. Over a three-month period in 2015, the value of exports of British-made bombs and missiles had increased by 11,000 per cent, from £9 million to £1 billion” (p. 99).

One year later, the GUARDIAN had the following headline: “One in three Saudi raids on Yemen hit civilian sites” (17.09.16). According to MSF, a medical NGO, the targets hit included schools and clinics. Remember who are guiding the Saudi Arabian air force and keying in the codes to select and attack targets.

What of the British politicians? What do they say? We are given two gems by two former Prime Ministers; one by David Cameron and another by Gordon Brown. Standing between two union jack flags and speaking of the Iraq war, Cameron remarked, with a straight face, that the British were “a peaceful people” (p. 98). While, on a visit to East Africa, two years after Caroline Elkins had published her book on the savage barbarism of the British administration in colonial Kenya, Gordon Brown commented:

The days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over. We should move forward; we should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it. We should talk…about British values that are enduring: tolerance, liberty, civic duty, that are in Britain and influenced the rest of the world” (p. 107).

It was of course sheer fiction. British capitalism has been continuously engaged in war and conflict for over a century: hardly “peaceful”. As for the British Empire and its values; it was constructed on piracy, looting, theft, slavery and the slave trade, violence and war, all sanctified by religion and the missionaries. British capitalism’s values are ones of trade and profit with no tolerance shown for those who stand in the way. Workers, in Britain, had to struggle for the right to vote, for the establishment of trade unions and for the space to pursue a socialist politics against the aggressive interests of the ruling class and their political agents. What British capitaism gave to the world was one decade of war, death and destruction after the other; a world drowned in blood. There is nothing to celebrate as Ian Cobain’s book so clearly demonstrates.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.