Book review: Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire by Calder Walton

Expulsion from Aden: Yemeni separatists with captured British troops in the desert of Taiz, 1963. Picture: Getty
Expulsion from Aden: Yemeni separatists with captured British troops in the desert of Taiz, 1963. Picture: Getty
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SPOOKS are now deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness. Kipling’s Kim conjures up visions of the North-West Frontier, “the Great Game” with the Russians, and much exciting derring do, not to mention dressing up.

Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire

By Calder Walton

Harper Press, 411 pp, £25

John Buchan was obsessed with the notion of the single heroic individual who can save his country. And since then we have had the iconic James Bond, John Le Carré’s cast of characters, and any number of TV and film blockbusters.

Real espionage is of course very different. It can be hugely boring: the collection, collation, assessment and application of information, the bureaucratic compilation of registries, often getting entirely swamped in an excess of reports and paper in the process. But it is also a world of codes and code-breaking, of acronyms, and of leading practitioners known only by a single initial. The British have always liked to imagine that they are past masters of these dark arts, but as Calder Walton shows, they were actually slow to get started in modern times and were immensely amateurish in the early days. Their intelligence act only came together about the time of the First World War, with the celebrated distinction between MI5 (for domestic) and MI6 (or SIS, for foreign) and continued to operate on the proverbial shoestring until the Second.

But MI5 actually covered the entire empire, so its remit was just as international, or even more so, than that of MI6. Yet despite the growing threats to the empire, as perceived by the British, in the 1920s and 1930s, the tone of MI5 remained that of the gentlemanly amateur – with senior officials even listing their addresses in Who’s Who. One high-ranking officer went on a tour of the Far East, sending back letters to his young wife glamorising intelligence exploits in the region and describing the various operatives whom he was meeting. One of these in charge of the Singapore desk was so deaf that he could only be communicated with at the top of the voice. If those letters had fallen into the hands of foreign intelligence they would have blown the entire British network. Fortunately they didn’t.

Walton’s serious intent is to examine the activities of the intelligence services through the era of decolonisation, which crucially coincided with the Cold War. As he forcibly points out, the problem with writing such history is that the historian is in the hands of the espionage services themselves. It is part of their business to doctor and to destroy, not to mention keeping their files as hidden as they can. But recent court cases, particularly that involving the Kenyan Mau Mau victims seeking redress in the British courts, have helped to unveil much more material, notably the ‘hidden archive’ at Hanslope Park. Walton uses a few documents that have only just been revealed, but generally his work is based on material already available in the National Archives. Nevertheless he argues that the intelligence story has been the great unwritten dimension of the otherwise intensively studied process of the disposal of the British Empire. He redresses the balance by exposing the activities of the intelligence services in the independence of India and Pakistan (the horrors of partition are ignored), in the apparently unresolvable crisis in the Palestine mandate, in the Malayan emergency, in the Mau Mau campaign (and other acts of decolonisation in Africa), in Aden and elsewhere. MI5 and its widely dispersed imperial desk officers were closely involved in all of these and the record, as analysed by Walton, is one of both successes and major failures.

As might be expected, the British maintained close surveillance upon many colonial politicians, particularly if they had connections with the British communist party (and many did, in some form or another). But he demonstrates that very often MI5 had much more sober and sensible assessments of the political leanings of many of these figures. It was the politicians who tended to ‘sex up’ the dossiers, such a familiar concept now, eager as they were to find reds under the imperial beds and thereby link decolonisation campaigns to the Cold War and, crucially, keep the Americans on side. Thus wholly unlikely figures like Kenyatta and Banda were described as communists even when they were transparently not.

If intelligence personnel were often more restrained and accurate than the political masters, they were also successful in establishing good relations with successor politicians. MI5 invariably trained intelligence officers around the empire, succeeded in advising that intelligence and police services should be kept separate, and even set up the relevant bureaux of the newly independent countries. This helped to keep most of these countries within the western orbit as well as facilitating relatively smooth transfers of power (although it gave indigenous politicians the means to check on their opponents). Moreover, few Commonwealth countries could maintain secrets from the British since, in effect, the British had the keys to all their codes.

The failures, however, were notable. Palestine, Burma and Aden were the obvious exceptions to benign transfers. In the succession of campaigns, few lessons were learned. Both intelligence and counter-insurgency techniques seemed to be re-invented each time. Attempts to ensure relatively humanitarian approaches, for example in the use of torture or even summary executions, miserably failed, often with the connivance of senior figures, leading to the exposures and court cases of today. Moreover, the Americans often abandoned their supposedly anti-colonial stance when it suited them, imposing sub-imperial tactics of regime change or land grab in Guyana or the Chagos Islands. The Cold War always ruled and the British were helpless to stop them. Since Walton is a lawyer, he is often particularly interesting on the legal implications of some events, for example the Suez crisis, when Eden so fatally parted from the Americans.

The book thus constitutes a new history of the relationship between decolonisation and the Cold War with intelligence activities fascinatingly thrown into the mix. Walton’s conclusion is the balanced one that the narrative may not be transformed, but it is modified. The book is an intriguing, well-researched addition to an already rich literature.