The closed circle: Britain's culture of secrecy

"Cruel Britannia: a Secret History of Torture" and "Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain" reviewed.

Culture of secrecy: entral Prison in Nicosia. Photograph: Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

Cruel Britannia: a Secret History of Torture
Ian Cobain
Portobello Books, 368pp, £12.99

Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain
Christopher Moran
Cambridge University Press, 449pp, £25

These two books on Britain’s culture of secrecy reveal that, over the past 100 years, the preferred methods by those in officialdom for dealing with inconvenient truths have been casuistry and cover-up.

Classified, by the academic Christopher Moran, follows the maxim that history should not only educate but amuse. This deeply researched and wonderfully informative book is surprisingly entertaining as it takes the reader through the history of official secrecy in Britain from Victorian times to the present.

It was news to me, for instance, that: “Legalised secrecy was seen as offensive to British notions of good government and subversive of the public interest in a modern democratic age.” Moran explains that the Victorians believed the state had an obligation to collect, preserve and publish official records. The Public Record Office Act was passed in 1838 to do just that.

Yet the rapid development of a democratised political culture in the latter part of that century terrified the ruling classes. Reforms in education, the rise of cheap mass media and the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1853 created a striving class of informed commoners. The latter report attacked Whitehall as a club for the rich and privileged. The Treasury became the first department in 1870 to select civil servants in open competition. The influx into the civil service of the “vegetables of the earth”, as these second-class bureaucrats were known, was the real impetus behind the Official Secrets Act, Moran explains. The act, passed in 1911 at rapid speed and after almost no debate, succeeded in walling off a public resource into the hands of a select few. Yet it was one law for the plebs, another for the great and the good.

David Lloyd George was so intent on marshalling the facts to vindicate his handling of the First World War that he roped in the cabinet secretary and also hired a researcher who was given carte blanche throughout Whitehall. Often the entire cabinet secretariat put on hold normal duties to assist Lloyd George in the creation of his memoirs. It paid off. Lloyd George earned £65,000 from publishing deals.

Meanwhile, Winston Churchill circumvented the law by instructing his staff to print in galley form all minutes and correspondence written under his name. He also labelled as his personal possession his communications with Stalin and Roosevelt. In May 1945, giant horse boxes were seen parked outside government buildings to haul away bundles of official papers to assist Churchill in writing his six-volume history of the Second World War. Many of these documents were never returned to the public archive.

It’s a shame that Moran doesn’t extend his examination much beyond the Thatcher era. Tony Blair, his ministers and his spin doctor Alastair Campbell all privately benefited enormously from ostensibly public information that was kept from citizens. Also, Moran makes the fallacious argument that more openness leads to officials being more dubious about keeping records.

Moran’s conclusion is that the current “openness”, encouraged by a series of catastrophic exposés made by investigative journalists such as Chapman Pincher, is in reality little more than a “public-relations approach to information control”. Recent official his - tories of MI6 and MI5 have revealed only that which serves the personal interests of those in charge.

Following in Pincher’s footsteps is Ian Cobain, an investigative reporter at the Guardian, who seeks to shed light into the darkest recesses of the secret state. Cruel Britannia makes it clear that a culture of secrecy doesn’t just serve to protect the elite but is also the soil in which the worst aspects of humanity can take root and grow. This is a shocking book that deserves a wide readership.

Documentation about the intelligence services in Britain is extremely difficult to obtain and sometimes Cobain asks us to take too much on faith. A case in point is his assertion that torture was used to turn German spies into double agents during the Second World War. We know there was an interrogation centre in Kensington Palace Gardens called “Camp 020” and a punishment cell, known as “the cage”, where Colonel Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens managed to turn German spies. “The interrogators at Camp 020 had the benefit of the intercepts of Abwehr signals from the Ultra programme at Bletchley Park,” writes Cobain, “but this cannot fully explain their success.” The strong insinuation is that torture was used.

The book comes into its own in the chapters about Britain’s more recent use of torture in Ireland and in the war on terror. His doggedness in tracking down victims around the globe, in prison or out, trawling through records and finding people who can speak about the unspeakable, is what makes Cruel Britannia so powerful. He finds Gerhard Menzel who was described as “merely a living skeleton” when he was released in March 1947 from Bad Nenndorf, a postwar British interrogation centre. He also tracks down Petros Petrides, who, as a 15-year-old schoolboy, was arrested in 1959 by British soldiers at school in Cyprus, classed as a dangerous activist and sent to be interrogated.

Petrides was taken to an interrogation room “completely spattered with blood” where members from the British special branch threatened to kill him. Then, he recalls, “They punched me in the stomach and grabbed my genitals. They . . . rubbed pepper into my lips and eyelids and my private parts. They would put a piece of cloth over your nose and mouth and drip water on it and you would feel like you were drowning.” They also put a metal bucket over his head and beat it, leaving him deaf in one ear.

Thousands of others were treated similarly or worse as Britain shed its colonies. It was during this time that the “five techniques” were finessed: isolation, sensory deprivation, seemingly self-inflicted pain, exhaustion and humiliation. Military and intelligence officials argued that these techniques were useful and necessary. This thesis cannot be tested – as Cobain shows, the state takes great care to keep its use of torture secret.

However, evidence suggests that torture is counterproductive. Cobain shows how, in Northern Ireland, internment and torture “triggered an upsurge in attacks and encouraged more young men and women to join the IRA”. Those tortured can also go on to positions of power. The prominent Libyan politician Abdel Hakim Belhaj claims that he was tortured after a tip-off from MI6 led to his rendition. He is now suing the UK government, its security forces and the senior M16 officer Sir Mark Allen for damages. Torture, therefore, also carries a huge reputational risk. It destroys the public’s trust in government, as well as the government’s ability to bring successful prosecutions.

Cruel Britannia makes for deeply depressing reading. But to ignore its findings would be to grant impunity to actions that reveal the worst of human behaviour. It’s only by facing up to the ugly truth that we’ll have any chance of ensuring our government works to uphold the best.

Heather Brooke is the author of “The Revolution Will Be Digitised” (Windmill Books, £8.99)