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Empire of Secrets

Empire of Secrets
British Intelligence, The Cold War and The Twilight of Empire
Calder Walton
Harper Press   448pp    £25

The year 2013 will be remembered for the revelations of the incredible scale of Internet surveillance maintained by the National Security Agency in the US and GCHQ in Britain. Whether you regard the disclosures of Edward Snowden as the work of a heroic whistleblower or an evil traitor, it is entirely appropriate that this year’s Longman-History Today Book Prize should go to an intelligent, highly readable and fascinating historical account of the emergence of the secret state in Britain, Empire of Secrets.

Calder Walton is well suited to write such a book. He was Christopher Andrew’s research associate on the writing of the first authorised history of MI5. As such he got to know the complex files of Britain’s internal security agency. He has used with great flair a mountain of top secret records that were only recently declassified and these include some of the Foreign Office’s hidden archive held at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire, a secret storage depot where records were held for 50 years until the High Court forced their release in April 2012. Empire of Secrets is the first book to make use of this remarkable material.

Walton begins by tracing the development of the domestic and overseas intelligence networks that became MI5 and MI6 in the years before and during the First World War, despite the attitude in Whitehall at the time that there was something distinctly un-British about ‘espionage’ as gentlemen ‘did not read each others mail’. Although the security services had a ‘good war’, postwar cutbacks reduced them to shoestring operations. By 1929 MI5 had only 16 officers. The Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, spent most of its time worried about the international activities of the Soviet Union, so that when war came with Nazi Germany, Britain was woefully ignorant about the state of the country’s real enemy.

In the Second World War the intelligence establishment came of age. From a 1931 agreement, MI5 officially had responsibility for counter-espionage within the Empire. The number of officers grew, especially MI5 officials working in the key imperial cities from Trinidad to Jerusalem to Delhi.

But it is the years after the Second World War that provide most of the dark secrets of Walton’s book. In the twilight years of Empire counter-espionage became counter-terrorism, especially in Palestine in 1947-48, in the jungles of Malaya in the 1950s, and around the Gulf in the early 1960s. As Cold War tensions grew, there were fears of communist subversion in many of the colonies facing independence. MI5 Security Liaison Officers would be introduced to new government leaders in waiting. While offering to handle the security interests of the newly independent states, they would keep a watch on what was happening. Although they claimed to share all intelligence with the new regimes, much information would be sent to London marked ‘UK Eyes Only’. The shared intelligence usually related to law and order. The material that was withheld usually related to politics. The intelligence establishment tried to hide these incriminating records showing how they plotted and deceived the new leaders. It was this material that ended up at Hanslope Park. But MI5 was so successful in securing deals with newly independent governments that many of them willingly adopted a sort of UK ‘intelligence culture’, creating a vast pro-western intelligence bulwark against Sino-Soviet propaganda and infiltration right into the heyday of the Cold War.

Walton is good at making connections. One that clearly comes across is the progression from the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park to the postwar GCHQ. Under the terms of a UK-US Agreement brokered in 1946 (the text of which was only publicly disclosed in 2011) GCHQ and the NSA agreed to share much of their intelligence.

Walton asks some big questions. What is Intelligence for? What evidence does it generate? And to what extent does it create a small, inward-looking magic circle, hung up on its own obsessions and unable to see the bigger picture? The principal narrative of Empire of Secrets ends in the mid 1960s, not because the story ends then but because the records beyond this point have not yet been declassified.

With Empire of Secrets, Calder Walton has produced a scholarly and highly readable book that provides a fascinating background to the development of the secret intelligence networks in Britain. He is a worthy and appropriate winner of this year’s book prize.

Taylor Downing is co-author with Jeremy Isaacs of Cold War (Abacus, 2008).

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