Other People’s Mail

Bernard Porter

  • The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew
    Allen Lane, 1032 pp, £30.00, October 2009, ISBN 978 0 7139 9885 6

It seems to be widely acknowledged today that states need secret intelligence services. It is generally accepted, so long as those states are thought to be legitimate, trustworthy, and to represent a public as well as a more partisan interest. But it wasn’t always the case. For most of the 19th century, espionage was thought to be a low and foreign practice that the British – or at any rate the English – should not stoop to in any circumstances. This was for a number of reasons: because it used deception, which was immoral; because the state could not always be relied on not to abuse it; and because it was counter-productive, since foreign espionage was often claimed as a cause of war, and domestic surveillance was considered intrinsically damaging to the trust people needed to have in their governments, and in each other, if they were to be content and thus politically stable.

To a great extent this attitude persisted into the early 20th century, which was one of the reasons the formation in 1909 of what later became known as MI5 and MI6 had to be kept so secret; MI5 remained officially secret for 80 years. Christopher Andrew has another explanation, however. It was just a ‘taboo’, he writes (quoting the historian Michael Howard), like ‘intra-marital sex’. Everyone knew it went on, and was ‘quite content that it should, but to speak, write or ask questions about it’ was ‘regarded as extremely bad form’. But that was not so, certainly at the start, and in connection with MI5 in particular. (MI5 is the one that works at home; MI6 is the foreign branch. Neither name is any longer the official one: MI5 is now the Security Service; MI6 the Secret Intelligence Service, or SIS.) Not everyone knew about it, or was ‘content’. They certainly did not know when MI5 extended its remit from counter-espionage to counter-‘subversion’ during and after the First World War. Those few who did know were anxious to keep it from the majority, not out of modesty or ‘good form’, but in case it provoked an outcry. Domestic espionage was still widely considered ‘un-English’. This is important, because it explains a great deal both about the way MI5 behaved and developed in its early years, and the way the wider public regarded it when they came to suspect it existed, as they eventually did.

For a start, it influenced who worked for MI5. Clearly, they could not be people who had ‘English’ views of what was proper and decent; and luckily, there were those around who didn’t. Ireland and the Empire furnished many of them: two parts of ‘Greater Britain’ which didn’t share the liberal – naive, if you like – values of the metropole, in particular about the way they were policed. The early London Metropolitan Police Special Branch, which took most of the responsibility for counter-subversion before MI5 muscled in on it, relied heavily on both – India for its officers, Ireland for its other ranks; MI5, which was staffed mainly by officers, similarly relied very largely on the colonies. Andrew writes that 65 per cent of MI5 officers were recruited directly from ‘the administrative services of newly independent colonies’ between 1955 and 1965; take that back to the beginning, and include the colonial police and military, and you probably come close to 100 per cent.

Obviously, this lasted only as long as the Empire did. The last director general with even post-colonial experience was Stella Rimington, who was talent-spotted in (independent) India, where her husband worked at the British High Commission. When this source dried up it caused recruitment problems. While it still operated, however, its bearing on the values of the service is hinted at in the following exchange between a mature applicant and his MI5 selection board in 1981. ‘Have you any objection to reading other people’s mail?’ he was asked – suggesting that the old prejudice was still alive in some quarters. ‘What did the Board think I had been doing for the past 20 odd years!’ the applicant wondered. Those 20-odd years had been spent in the colonies. (The year, 1981, suggests his last posting could have been Rhodesia.) As well as being relaxed about reading other people’s letters, these people seem – from the examples quoted here – to have been racist, anti-semitic, sexist and homophobic (ostensibly) to a degree unusual even for their time, though perhaps not for their class. They also tended to be cheery and fond of outdoor sports.

It was largely because of the perceived domestic unpopularity of MI5’s work outside that class that it was kept so very secret in its first 80 years. Towards the end of the First World War a plan was put forward by a number of secret service heads to finance peacetime intelligence-gathering by means of a secret War Loan investment that would make it independent of any popular – that is, Labour – government it was feared might be elected in the future. Whether it ever came to anything Andrew doesn’t directly say. (Probably not.) In the meantime, to preserve confidentiality and esprit de corps, MI5 recruited only on the basis of personal recommendation, and consequently from its own class and type. This applied even to the female registry clerks, who were far more debby than clerks anywhere else.

In the mid-1960s, when Labour MPs started complaining about this, the secret services made some effort to broaden their pattern of recruitment. I know, because that’s when I was targeted. A grammar-school oik, with no imperial connections, but hopefully tamed and smoothed by my Cambridge experience, I was ‘talent-spotted’ by a don at my college, and sent to be interviewed by a Rosa Klebb-like figure in a decaying Carlton House Terrace apartment. She asked me my politics; I said ‘Labour.’ ‘Not a Communist?’ ‘No.’ ‘Oh well, that’s all right then.’ So I passed that interview, and was scheduled for a second sometime later; but I withdrew when my postgraduate research grant came through. The extraordinary thing, however, is that I had no idea that I was being recruited for one of the secret services until many years later, when I started working in this historical field. The don died and his obituary for the first time publicly revealed his work for MI5 in World War Two. I raised my new suspicion with Christopher Andrew, who had just published his Secret Service (1985; a kind of prequel to this book). ‘Where was the interview?’ he asked. I told him. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘that was MI6.’ I could have been unusually naive (I’m sure that the public school recruits were more worldly-wise), but I wasn’t alone. According to this book, several new recruits to MI5 still didn’t know whom they were working for until several weeks after they started. Now that’s what I call secrecy.

It had two further results. One was to give MI5 a very narrow social base, and the political culture that was almost bound to adhere to that. Andrew calls it ‘introverted’. There is strong evidence that it was pretty right-wing, and suspicious of the Labour Party in the early years: partly because Labour might want to clip its wings, but also because the party’s policies were seen as either intrinsically subversive, or peculiarly subvertible (by Communists). How deep and widespread these prejudices were, and how far up the hierarchy they reached, is difficult to tell without more evidence than Andrew provides here; as difficult as it was in the 1920s and 1970s, two periods when rumours of MI5 ‘plots’ against Labour were particularly rife.

Andrew tends to dismiss such rumours as ‘conspiracy theories’, which I think is unfair. (He uses the phrase a lot: not only, it must be emphasised, in reference to left-wing views.) One problem is the baggage that phrase brings with it – crazies who believe that world history is being secretly manipulated by Jews, or secret societies, or shape-shifting reptiles posing as royals. For that reason, if no other, it needs to be defined in a way that clearly distinguishes a true ‘conspiracy theory’ from a mere suspicion of underhand plotting, which, however unfounded it ultimately turns out to be, might have been understandable at the time. Many of MI5’s own suspicions of German and Soviet plots were like that: quite wrong, but, in Andrew’s judgment, right to have been considered seriously before that was known for sure. What the difference is between these and some of the left-wing ideas about MI5 he is so dismissive of is not always clear. On the evidence available in the 1970s, for example, both contemporary (much of which Andrew omits to mention) and historical (like the 1924 ‘Zinoviev letter’), it was not unreasonable to suspect certain spooks or ex-spooks of plotting – effectively or otherwise – to bring down Harold Wilson. It was certainly not – on its own – evidence of mental illness on Wilson’s part. MI5 was bound to be a likely suspect: highly secretive, socially exclusive, largely unaccountable, right-wing, reputedly clever, and with all kinds of tricks up its sleeve, like ‘deniability’ – not to mention subcontracting its dirtier jobs to other agencies (occasionally mentioned here). We now know it had a large file on Wilson, but the card referring to it was removed from the registry’s central index. Bearing all this in mind, it’s surely a bit thick to label those who thought it might have been involved in ‘plots’ (note the plural) against Wilson as loonies. And of course we still can’t be absolutely certain that MI5 wasn’t involved; it could have kicked over the traces. (That happens in history.) Or does this make me a ‘conspiracy theorist’ too? Best, I think, to dump the phrase, certainly when it’s used as loosely as this. It doesn’t help.

It may however be thought to help MI5. Restoring or boosting its reputation was the main reason this book was commissioned. Whatever the truth or otherwise of the ‘Wilson plot’ and other accusations, they were thought to have ‘damaged public confidence’ in the service, in a way that had weakened it. Public disclosure, by pricking all those ‘conspiracy theories’, would with luck repair this. That was MI5’s agenda. Andrew, their chosen historian, may have shared it to an extent (there can be little doubt of his genuine aversion to left-wing ‘conspiracy’ ideas); but he had another one too. This is spelled out in his final chapter, where he berates most academic historians for not taking more notice of the ‘intelligence’ aspects of their subject: he calls it history’s ‘missing dimension’. He also – and more to the point in this context – criticises MI5 for its ignorance of its own history, and of the lessons that can be drawn from it, especially from past mistakes. There is obviously a tension here. The more mistakes Andrew can uncover, the more MI5 can learn from them, and the more important therefore it makes his (and my) discipline; but the less likely it is that his readers will trust the service. Two prefatory chapters, one by the author, the other by the present director general, make clear how problematic this tension was. Jonathan Evans (the DG) spells out his ‘public interest’ case for suppressing a certain amount of material; Andrew tells us of the ‘vigour’ with which he contested many of these (and other departments’) proscriptions, at least one of which – relating to the ‘Wilson plot’ – he still finds ‘hard to justify’ by any criterion, and ought, he thinks, to be arbitrated on by the Intelligence and Security Committee (of MPs). In the meantime we are left wondering what on earth this suppressed evidence about the ‘Wilson plot’ might be.

In fact there is quite a lot for us to wonder about, as well as at, in this book. Aware as we are of the constraints placed on Andrew, though not apparently on his opinions, we’re almost bound to read it more critically – even the non-conspiracy theorists among us – than we do most history books. One problem is that we can’t check anything, since most of the primary sources are listed simply as ‘security service archives’, with no further reference or file number – which would make it difficult to follow them up even if any of us were allowed in. So we have to take these on trust. Historians don’t generally like doing this. Personally, I’m prepared to do it in Andrew’s case, especially as he is often quite critical of the service: of its obsession with Communist subversion; of the indefensible scale of its ‘bugging’, which Andrew confirms, but only in those cases where knowledge of it is in the public domain anyway; of the equivocal attitude, at best, of many of its officers towards Fascism in the 1930s; of its myopia when it came to the subvertibility of its own class, like the Cambridge Five; and of its chronic lack of ‘strategic thinking’ – that is, about future threats. There is a tantalising glimpse at one point of an MI5 ‘assist’ in Northern Ireland, ‘whose details cannot be revealed’, but which ‘led to considerable soul-searching’ in the service: ‘a gruesome business’, according to the director general of the time, ‘which kept him awake at nights’. Other criticisms can easily be read between the book’s lines. Sometimes a charge is made against MI5, and Andrew counters it vigorously: we presume in these cases on the basis of evidence he has seen, but we can’t. At other times, however, he simply quotes an official denial and stops there, leaving us to question why he hasn’t said anything further. Beyond this, there are some obvious gaps. Andrew must be aware of the effect of all these silences, even if MI5 is not. (They don’t seem, on the evidence adduced here, to be a very subtle bunch.)

The result anyway is hardly to boost the historical reputation of MI5. In the field of counter-espionage its achievement was uneven. One of its great early victories, celebrated over and over again in all the books, is supposed to have been its clever neutralisation of the entire German spy network in Britain at the beginning of World War One by spotting all but one of its agents but delaying their arrest until the war started, when emergency measures could be put in place to prevent their replacement; but recent scholarship (by Nicholas Hiley, dismissed here by Andrew) suggests that this may have been an exaggeration on the part of MI5’s first director. A more definite success – ‘spectacular’, Andrew calls it – was its Double-Cross System in World War Two, the ‘turning’ of German agents. That was when MI5 took in all those bright young dons, like my recruiter in the 1960s, to help the ex-colonial introverts out. Thereafter, MI5’s achievement was patchy: catching some spies, but missing a lot, including the Cambridge Five, and smearing several innocents. It was also hugely damaged in the 1960s by suspicions, fuelled by a rogue defector, over the loyalties of its own director general and his second-in-command, no less. Andrew counts MI5’s Operation FOOT of 1971, when 105 Soviet agents were identified and then expelled en masse from Britain, making us a much ‘harder’ espionage target than we had been, as a great success; though it’s hard to see what the practical gain was. It should perhaps be mentioned in this regard that spies (pace the old English prejudice) are not necessarily a bad thing: they can reassure their employers; paranoia is usually founded on lack of intelligence. So, on the counter-espionage front, we can perhaps call it a draw.

Counter-subversion was a much more problematic area. This is partly because ‘subversion’ itself is a slippery concept, depending – if we’re to take it seriously – on a view of the political process that sees it as easily subvertible by individuals (including foreigners) who are up to no good; depending, again, on how you want to define ‘good’. This is essentially, it seems to me, a ‘conspiracy theory’; and it could be thought to lie at the very heart of what MI5 does (or did) in its counter-subversive role. There may be something in it: I don’t want to knock the potential of conspiracy in every circumstance. The problem is that a concentration on conspirators can blind one to the possibly greater importance of other factors (why is a group so easily ‘subverted’?). In MI5’s case, because of its social composition, this was compounded by an over-concentration on subversion from the left. Andrew reproduces what is by now a well-known quote from Edward Heath on the ‘nonsense’ that MI5 people could come out with. ‘If some of them were on a Tube and saw someone reading the Daily Mirror, they would say: “Get after him, that is dangerous. We must find out where he bought it.”’ Andrew finds that ‘surprising’, but Heath must have got the impression from somewhere. It is corroborated by others, including more recent – and enlightened – employees of MI5, quoted here. The consequence is likely to have been that the service was less than effective against ‘subversive’ targets at other points of the political compass; over-effective against socialism, if you don’t regard socialism as intrinsically ‘subversive’; but in general terms ineffective, because rather stupid – which was perhaps the best that could be hoped for.

All this must I imagine be just a little exasperating for those who set up this whole project – the ‘authorised history’ – in the first place. Convinced of MI5’s probity and contribution to Britain’s security over the last hundred years, chiefly because they hadn’t read their own history (except in sanitised in-house versions), they will have expected Andrew, with his great reputation, to back them up, at least in general terms; only to be presented in the end with what can be seen as at best a mixed assessment, and not – because of the restrictions placed on him – a necessarily convincing one. So it hasn’t done its job. Nor – arguably – has it done the job that Andrew conceived for it. Yes, there are lessons to be learned from MI5’s early history; the main one, however, is to be careful not to repeat that history (or most of it), which should be seen as cautionary rather than exemplary. Andrew is critical of Sir David Petrie, ‘one of the service’s most successful DGs’ (at the time of the Double-Cross System during the war), for claiming that ‘too much of a past that is now remote can help but little with useful lessons,’ but Petrie may have been right in this case. (The key word is ‘useful’.) If MI5 needs to know its history, it is only in order to turn its back on it. That may be what has been happening recently; we can only hope so.

Very unusually, and indeed surprisingly in a book of this kind, sponsored by a secret government agency, The Defence of the Realm takes us up to the present day. That creates its own problems (much less can be safely revealed about very recent and continuing operations) but it also gives the security service a chance to redeem itself. There are signs here that it has indeed turned over a new leaf since the 1960s and 1970s; ‘changed out of all recognition’, as Stella Rimington puts it. Three factors seem to have been responsible for this. The first was the greater openness forced on it, partly by European legal rulings, which culminated in the Security Service Act of 1989, which first put MI5 on a statutory footing. The second was the shift of focus from counter-espionage and counter-subversion to counter-terrorism, originating partly in the Irish Troubles of the 1970s, although it was some time before MI5 took over the ‘lead intelligence role’ in that. The third was the gradual change in the character of its personnel, dating from roughly the same period, transforming it from the body of reactionary old soaks that Rimington amusingly recalls from her own early days in her memoir, Open Secret (2001), to – well – presumably a more normal bunch of women and men.

Counter-terrorism seems to have made MI5 broadly acceptable again, rather as World War Two briefly did, with everyone now (as then) acknowledging the legitimacy and importance of its targeting, as they had not always done in the case of ‘subversives’ and peacetime spies. Obviously, it is too early to assess its achievement against Islamist terrorism. Andrew’s interim judgment is that it was very late onto it (lack of ‘strategic thinking’, again), but then made up for lost time, with its successes so far having had, according to one of Andrew’s sources, ‘a chilling effect on the enthusiasm of the plotters’. On the vexed question of the torture of suspected British terrorists elsewhere, he thinks MI5 should have made more effort to check it wasn’t happening – as the service itself now acknowledges. He is on more solid ground, he thinks, in crediting it with helping to bring the Provisional IRA into the Northern Ireland peace process by foiling a number of its mainland bomb plots in 1996 – a great achievement, if true. More generally, Andrew is right to point out how difficult it is to quantify – to provide ‘performance indicators’ for – the effectiveness of a body that is mainly designed to prevent things happening. On the matter of ‘subversion’ he argues plausibly that in more recent years government ministers – including Thatcher, but not only Conservatives – were more paranoid than MI5, and took the initiative in urging MI5 to hunt it down, rather than vice versa; and that MI5 at least tried to resist this, if it thought it went against its ‘charter’, though not always successfully. ‘By the end of the Cold War,’ Andrew writes, ‘the word “subversion” had become an embarrassment.’ That marks quite a sea-change.

The personnel factor may be crucial. I’d have liked more on this: some kind of systematic analysis of the class structure, schooling, previous employment and so on of MI5’s establishment at various times. This is one of the things generally lacking in present-day academic intelligence studies: some social (and also cultural, political and ideological) context, to fill out the picture, and avoid the sort of trap that Andrew (and Michael Howard) fell into when they assumed that everyone in the early 20th century felt about ‘secret service’ as their sort did. You could call this intelligence history’s own ‘missing dimension’. It is important in any discussion of the early days of MI5 because of the latter’s relative autonomy – Andrew calls it ‘essentially self-tasking’ – which allowed its officers to follow their whims, which must have been coloured, if not determined, by their social backgrounds, and were emphatically not typical of most of the compatriots they were supposed to be serving, especially when the ‘old imperial’ ingredient was added in. This is what made those compatriots quite reasonably suspicious of them from the beginning. Things seem to have changed in the 1970s or 1980s, when the imperial teat dried up; women started to make their mark as officers, not just pretty registry clerks, with two of them eventually rising to become DGs; MI5 eventually began advertising openly for recruits, including oiks presumably; and so the service, for the first time in its history, came roughly into line with the nation generally.

So far, so much better than it was – seemingly. Of course, things might still revert. ‘Everything secret degenerates,’ as Lord Acton put it long ago; which is why we still need to keep a keen eye on MI5. In particular we might want to watch how it interprets the change in its brief in the late 1980s, which extended its duties to the safeguarding of ‘the economic well-being of the United Kingdom’, in case it takes that as code for simply defending capitalism as we know it. One of its concerns over the IRA’s bombing campaign in the City of London in the 1990s was that it ‘threatened to put at risk its survival as Europe’s main financial capital’; and I happen to know that ‘the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism’ is still on MI5’s list of potential targets to be safeguarded against subversion, though I’m not at liberty to reveal my source (the Chatham House Rule, don’t you know), which of course makes my evidence unreliable. One could of course argue – after September 2008 – that if MI5 was really concerned about Britain’s ‘economic well-being’ it should have let the IRA go ahead.

The Defence of the Realm is a terrific work in many ways: rich, immensely readable and fascinating. Anyone interested not only in MI5 specifically, but also in many of the events it became involved with over the last 50 years – the Profumo affair; the John Stonehouse mystery; Peter Wright; a score of famous spy cases; the Northern Ireland conflict; the miners’ strikes; the Gibraltar shootings; the Lockerbie bombing; ‘Room 101’; the thrilling escape of the defector Oleg Gordievsky; the killing of WPC Yvonne Fletcher; and the 7/7 bomb plot, to mention just a few – will find nuggets of gold (as well as some baser metals) in its 1000-plus pages. There’s also quite a lot of sex (usually gratuitous); some humour (as when Andrew dismisses the rumour that Osama bin Laden lived in London for a time in the mid-1990s on the grounds that ‘since bin Laden was then, at an estimated 6 foot 7 inches, probably the world’s tallest leading terrorist, had a long beard and dressed in flowing robes, it is unlikely that he would have passed unnoticed in Wembley’); and even a reproduction of an MI5 cricket scorebook that shows two future DGs making a century partnership together, but apparently against non-existent opponents. (Read into that what you like.)

But we cannot take all this on trust. ‘Spooks’ – Andrew’s main sources – are vocational liars, dissemblers, falsifiers and hiders of things, not just occasional ones, like politicians. Even if we trust Andrew to be telling the truth as he understands it, it would be naive to assume that MI5 has been as open and honest with him, or that its ‘archive’, whose use is what distinguishes this account from all others, can tell us everything. That is a cross that all secret services have to bear, and also their historians, even if they are ‘authorised’; indeed, even more if they are authorised, but restricted as much as Andrew has been: not allowed to see certain stuff or to reveal other stuff, or even – the fundamental requirement, this, for an academic historian in all other circumstances – to permit verification by others. Most of us would be chary of taking on a commission like this under such conditions. Andrew is to be thanked, on behalf of all weaker-stomached historians, for being prepared to hold his nose and risk it; and congratulated for doing almost the best that I think could have been done in the circumstances. But he must be prepared for some scepticism; the nature of his topic calls out for it. And scepticism is, after all, what historians are supposed to exercise.