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Thank God for Traitors

Bernard Porter: GCHQ, 18 November 2010

GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency 
by Richard Aldrich.
Harper, 666 pp., £30, June 2010, 978 0 00 727847 3
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... Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, gathers secret intelligence electronically rather than through spies: ‘sigint’ as opposed to ‘humint’. (There is also ‘comint’, ‘elint’, ‘comsec’, ‘sinews’ and ‘sigmod’.) It was the last of Britain’s three (that we know of) national secret services to be founded, and has the lowest public profile ...

Where is this England?

Bernard Porter: The Opium War, 3 November 2011

The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China 
by Julia Lovell.
Picador, 458 pp., £25, September 2011, 978 0 330 45747 7
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... In China the Opium War is taken to mark the beginning of the country’s modern history, seen as one of continuous national humiliation under the heel of Western imperialism, bravely but hopelessly resisted by the peasantry, until Chairman Mao came along. It takes pride of place in school history courses; monuments, museums, books, films and TV documentaries are devoted to it; and there is even a computer game in which you can play at bashing the British at Canton ...

Quiet Sinners

Bernard Porter: Imperial Spooks, 21 March 2013

Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire 
by Calder Walton.
Harper, 411 pp., £25, February 2013, 978 0 00 745796 0
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... It’s pretty obvious why British governments have been anxious to keep the history of their secret service secret for so long. In the case of decolonisation, which is the subject of Calder Walton’s book, revelations about dirty tricks even after fifty years might do irreparable damage to the myth carefully cultivated at the time: which was that for Britain, unlike France, say, or the Netherlands, or Belgium, the process was smooth and friendly ...

Pariahs Can’t Be Choosers

Bernard Porter: Israel, South Africa and the Bomb, 24 June 2010

The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa 
by Sasha Polakow-Suransky.
Pantheon, 324 pp., $27.95, May 2010, 978 0 375 42546 2
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... This book attracted a lot of attention when it first appeared in the US in May because it apparently showed Israel offering to sell nuclear weapons to apartheid South Africa. That happened some time ago, but it is bound to be an embarrassment to present-day Israel, especially on the eve of high-level non-proliferation negotiations focusing on the Middle East ...

Over Several Tops

Bernard Porter: Winston Churchill, 14 January 2002

Churchill: A Study in Greatness 
by Geoffrey Best.
Hambledon, 370 pp., £19.95, May 2001, 1 85285 253 4
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Churchill 
by Roy Jenkins.
Macmillan, 1002 pp., £30, October 2001, 0 333 78290 9
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... Why two more Churchill biographies? Geoffrey Best reckons there are fifty or a hundred out there already. Two good reasons to want to add to them would be the unearthing of new evidence or a radically different interpretation. Roy Jenkins says he is not ‘a great partisan of the “revelatory” biography’, and claims that for Churchill nearly all the ‘facts’ are known in any case ...

Send more blondes

Bernard Porter: Spies in the Congo, 20 October 2016

Spies in the Congo: The Race for the Ore that Built the Atomic Bomb 
by Susan Williams.
Hurst, 369 pp., £25, June 2016, 978 1 84904 638 1
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... Congo​ is a country that has been impoverished by its riches. First it was its human capital that suffered, its people brutally enslaved by Arabs and then Europeans. Then the Europeans took it over, or, to be precise, one European, King Leopold II of the Belgians, who presented himself – the old monster – as a humanitarian, and was given the Congo as a personal fiefdom to prevent his more powerful neighbours squabbling over it ...

Palmerstonian

Bernard Porter: The Falklands War, 20 October 2005

The Official History of the Falklands Campaign. Vol. I: The Origins of the Falklands War 
by Lawrence Freedman.
Routledge, 253 pp., £35, June 2005, 0 7146 5206 7
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The Official History of the Falklands Campaign. Vol. II: War and Diplomacy 
by Lawrence Freedman.
Routledge, 849 pp., £49.95, June 2005, 0 7146 5207 5
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... In 1982 Britain’s continued possession of the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands was ridiculous. Even at the British Empire’s height they had been one of its least important and favoured colonies. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 they were represented by a showcase containing some tufts of wool and dried grasses. Dr Johnson’s famous description of them in 1771, which Lawrence Freedman uses to open this history, has scarcely been challenged: a bleak and gloomy solitude, an island thrown aside from human use, stormy in winter, and barren in summer; an island which not even southern savages have dignified with habitation; where a garrison must be kept in a state that contemplates with envy the exiles of Siberia; of which the expense will be perpetual, and the use only occasional; and which, if fortune smiles upon our labours, may become a nest of smugglers in peace, and in war the refuge of future buccaneers ...

‘We’re Not Jittery’

Bernard Porter: Monitoring Morale, 8 July 2010

Listening to Britain: Home Intelligence Reports on Britain’s Finest Hour May-September 1940 
edited by Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang.
Bodley Head, 492 pp., £18.99, May 2010, 978 1 84792 142 0
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... When Chamberlain took the British to war in September 1939, he had little idea of how they would respond. Very few of those in authority did. In their introduction to this important collection of documents, Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang point out the ‘gulf of mutual incomprehension’ that separated ministers and civil servants from ‘the broad mass of the British public ...

Manly Voices

Bernard Porter: Macaulay & Son, 22 November 2012

Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain 
by Catherine Hall.
Yale, 389 pp., £35, October 2012, 978 0 300 16023 9
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... Thomas Babington Macaulay – later Lord Macaulay, and ‘Tom’ to Catherine Hall – was the most influential of all British historians. Sales of the first two volumes of his great History of England, published in 1848, rivalled those of Scott and Dickens. The main reason for his popularity, apart from his literary style, was that he flattered the English by crediting them with a unique history of evolving ‘freedom ...

‘This is Africa, after all. What can you expect?’

Bernard Porter: Corruption and Post-Imperialism, 26 March 2009

It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower 
by Michela Wrong.
Fourth Estate, 354 pp., £12.99, February 2009, 978 0 00 724196 5
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... You can’t just march into someone else’s country, give it entirely arbitrary boundaries, decide to rule it with only the minimum of resources, settle an alien population on its best land, brutally suppress any sign of resistance, then scuttle before you’ve properly prepared it for self-government – and expect everything to turn out OK. That’s with the best will in the world; of which there was some, but not enough, in the British Empire ...

Did he puff his crimes to please a bloodthirsty readership?

Bernard Porter: How bad was Stanley?, 5 April 2007

Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer 
by Tim Jeal.
Faber, 570 pp., £25, March 2007, 978 0 571 22102 8
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... For a biographer looking for an unlikely reputation to rescue, reputations don’t come much unlikelier than that of Henry Morton Stanley. Widely excoriated in his own time as one of the most brutal of African travellers, condemned by historians for his part in the creation of King Leopold II’s Congo Free State, and derided both then and since for his famous but embarrassingly arch greeting to David Livingstone when he ‘found’ him in Ujiji in November 1871 – ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ – as well as for his silly ‘Stanley cap’ (like a chamberpot with holes and a tea-towel flapping at the sides), he has always been every historian’s least favourite British explorer ...

Mule Races and Pillow Fights

Bernard Porter: Churchill’s Failings, 27 August 2009

Warlord: A Life of Churchill at War, 1874-1945 
by Carlo D’Este.
Allen Lane, 960 pp., £30, April 2009, 978 0 7139 9753 8
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... Carlo D’Este, a retired US army lieutenant-colonel much admired in military history circles for his books about World War Two, knows a real soldier when he sees one, and on most counts Churchill doesn’t measure up. He was certainly fascinated by soldiering from an early age – it was his toy soldiers, he claimed, that did it – but he seems to have gone to Sandhurst only because his father thought he was too dumb for Oxford, and to have mainly relished the Boy’s Own side of war ...

Who was the enemy?

Bernard Porter: Gallipoli, 21 May 2015

Gallipoli 
by Alan Moorehead.
Aurum, 384 pp., £25, April 2015, 978 1 78131 406 7
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Gallipoli: A Soldier’s Story 
by Arthur Beecroft.
Robert Hale, 176 pp., £12.99, March 2015, 978 0 7198 1654 3
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Gallipoli 1915 
by Joseph Murray.
Silvertail, 210 pp., £12.99, April 2015, 978 1 909269 11 8
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Gallipoli: The Dardanelles Disaster in Soldiers’ Words and Photographs 
by Richard van Emden and Stephen Chambers.
Bloomsbury, 344 pp., £25, March 2015, 978 1 4088 5615 4
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... From the time​ of the Crusades onwards, Western military interventions in the Near and Middle East have nearly all been disastrous; in the long run – just look at Iraq today – but usually in the short term too. The Gallipoli adventure of 1915, a disaster in every way, was dreamed up after Turkey sided with Germany in the Great War. Churchill’s cunning plan was to cut through the ghastly stalemate of the Western Front with a morale-boosting attack where Germany expected it least ...

Boarder or Day Boy?

Bernard Porter: Secrecy in Britain, 15 July 1999

The Culture of Secrecy in Britain 1832-1998 
by David Vincent.
Oxford, 364 pp., £25, January 1999, 0 19 820307 1
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... It was Richard Crossman who described secrecy as ‘the British disease’. As with other alleged vices anglais – strikes, spanking and sodomy spring to mind – this seems on the surface to be unfair. Other societies have undoubtedly been as secretive. Soviet Russia, for example: I don’t suppose it was any easier to see your medical records there than it is here ...

Nobbled or Not

Bernard Porter: The Central African Federation, 25 May 2006

British Documents on the End of Empire Series B Vol. 9: Central Africa: Part I: Closer Association 1945-58 
by Philip Murphy.
Stationery Office, 448 pp., £150, November 2005, 0 11 290586 2
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British Documents on the End of Empire Series B Vol. 9: Central Africa: Part II: Crisis and Dissolution 1959-65 
by Philip Murphy.
Stationery Office, 602 pp., £150, November 2005, 0 11 290587 0
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... The Central African Federation was one of the most bizarre creations of late British imperialism. Formed controversially in 1953 out of the colonies of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (today Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi), it never looked like succeeding, and spluttered to an ignominious death ten years later. Everything about it was wrong ...

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