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Historic Secrecy

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Are British governments the most secretive in the ‘free’ world? The contrast between Downing Street’s response to the Snowden revelations and others’ suggests so. Almost every European and South American leader has expressed shock at the degree and extent of surveillance Snowden uncovered, and set in motion measures to limit or at least oversee it. There are popular movements against it. I observed one this summer in Halle – but then the East Germans have had experience of this kind of thing. In Britain there’s almost no public protest; just Hague’s assurance that ‘if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear’ (didn’t Goebbels say something like that?), MI5 splutterings about ‘national security’ and condemnations of Snowden et al from the prime minister on down to the Daily Mail.

Now we learn that British governments have been hiding our history from us, in the same spirit. Please don’t accuse historians of naivety about this. We’ve long been aware of some of it, especially with regard to the atrocities of decolonisation. But – as in the case of the Snowden revelations – the scale of the deception involved here has I think taken us all aback. (Though George Orwell anticipated it.) The motive for much of it was clearly to launder Britain’s historical reputation, especially with regard to its empire, perhaps in order to make it a fitter basis for the inculcation of patriotic pride in future generations. This is one reason why one shouldn’t build one’s sense of national identity on the past.

The implications are serious. Historians are going to have to check many of our claims again, and to insert caveats about accepting even those we believe to be sound. For ordinary citizens, what is at stake here is trust in almost anything our governments do or say. This is healthy to an extent; but obviously damaging to social cohesion, and all grist to the wilder conspiracy theorists’ mills.

What lies beneath this national trait, if that’s what it is? Establishment – upper-class, Whitehall, public school – distrust of ordinary people, a.k.a. ‘the democracy’, is likely to be one factor. A democratic nation should obviously be told the general scale and extent of the surveillance and deception being done ostensibly for its protection, if not necessarily the details. If it knows and accepts this, OK. If not, it’s not democratic; indeed, arguably less democratic than the DDR was. At least the East Germans knew this kind of thing was going on.

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