Quiet Sinners

Bernard Porter

  • Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire by Calder Walton
    Harper, 411 pp, £25.00, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 00 745796 0

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. Britain, so the story went, was freely granting self-government to its colonies as the culmination of imperial rule, which had always had this as its ultimate aim – ‘Empire into Commonwealth’, as the history books used to put it. If for no other reason, the myth was needed in order to make ordinary Britons feel better.

This secrecy was frustrating both to former members of the secret services who felt that some of their activities were deserving of retrospective credit – the codebreakers of Bletchley Park are the obvious example – and to historians who suspected that Britain’s secrecy laws might be hiding something important. This used to be a sensitive area. A few years ago, if you voiced this suspicion you would be called a conspiracy theorist, which was hardly helpful if you were an academic historian.

But as some of these suspicions came to look more plausible, and respectable people were prepared to corroborate them, so the government changed tack, abandoning its old blanket denial and replacing it with a strategy of ‘information management’, as Christopher Moran termed it in his recent book, Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain.[*] Historians thought sympathetic to the intelligence services were granted privileged access to closed papers in order to produce official histories. One of them was Christopher Andrew, who employed Walton to help him with The Defence of the Realm (2009), about MI5. Suddenly, one kind of conspiracy story – official plots and cover-ups – became acceptable. So Walton can now assert at the end of his book, without doing much damage to his academic reputation, that ‘the history of British decolonisation is a story of deception.’

Gradually, many of the dirtiest secrets of decolonisation were uncovered by historians, journalists and lawyers who sought redress in the courts for surviving elderly victims. The myth of an ‘orderly’ British retreat became more difficult to sustain. It may also have become less necessary, as time has passed and we have come to acknowledge the darker side of British imperialism. Any school syllabus that left out the atrocities committed by the British would immediately be seen now as the propaganda such courses used to be. Students need to learn the valuable historical lesson that any people – not just the Germans – can do terrible things.

This book doesn’t shy away from the atrocities that accompanied decolonisation, and indeed adds one or two examples. Walton’s revelations have come as a result of his researches into newly released MI5 and Joint Intelligence Committee files. (MI5, usually seen as the domestic arm of the intelligence services, also had responsibility for the empire. SIS – otherwise known as MI6 – covered abroad proper, including the ex-colonies after independence.) Walton knows MI5 well, of course, and seems to have taken a shine to it. Throughout the book he seeks to distance it from the worst late colonial failures and atrocities.

MI5 had two basic roles during the decolonisation process. The first was to provide intelligence on nationalist leaders when they were in London, where most of them came to study (usually at the LSE) and to discuss their plans. The second was to advise colonial governments on how to gather intelligence. In the first of these roles MI5 comes over as fair, moderate and reassuring, not the paranoid blimps you might expect from its reputation in some circles (and from its earlier history). In the second role its problem, according to Walton, was that local governments took little notice of its advice until it was too late. Hence the atrocities in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and elsewhere. Walton even suggests that if MI5 had been given the lead intelligence role in Northern Ireland before the 1990s, as it wanted, the Troubles would have been less troublesome. Things went downhill in the newly independent colonies only when SIS – or, worse, private security firms – supplanted MI5.

It’s easy to be cynical about this, but it makes some sense. The primary duty of any intelligence agency is to report objectively on enemies – actual, potential or imagined – in order for governments to be able to counter them in the most effective way. It must be fearless about this, speaking against the prejudices and wishes of its employers. For example, if it finds that Nkrumah in Ghana is not a communist in hock to Moscow, as most on the right assumed he was in the 1950s, then it must say so. Walton is impressed – as am I, on this evidence – by MI5’s reports on men like Nkrumah: the spooks distinguished between communism and socialism, and between both of them and the nationalism which, they concluded, was a far more important factor in Nkrumah’s ideological make-up.

Later, it was Roger Hollis of MI5 who brought the unwelcome news to the government of the ill-fated Central African Federation that Soviet communism wasn’t the threat in their part of Africa that they liked to paint it, mainly in order to get American support. This is not what you might have expected from the reactionary buffers that Stella Rimington, the future MI5 director-general, depicts in her memoirs as working there (mostly lunching and drinking) when she joined the agency in the 1970s. Perhaps they really were masters of disguise. Or, more likely, they were just saying what the wiser heads in the British government wanted to hear, committed as they were to decolonisation, ill able to afford many more costly counter-insurgencies like Malaya and Kenya, and only too pleased to be told that there was no Cold War reason for getting involved.

Colonial governors thought they knew better, so would often disregard or cherry-pick MI5’s reports, frustrating the spooks, who were likely to take the blame. (Walton hints pretty broadly that he thinks something similar happened with the ‘sexed-up’ Iraq dossier of 2003.) The most blatant example given here concerns Aden, whose governor in the early 1960s, Kennedy Trevaskis, doctored the raw intelligence he was given in order to make it fit with what he already believed. In the case of British Guiana, MI5’s assessment that Cheddi Jagan’s Marxism should be no barrier to his being accepted as prime minister after independence was sidelined under pressure from the US, which didn’t want a commie in its backyard and so plotted to remove him covertly, with Colonial Office connivance. Harold Macmillan remarked on the irony of an ‘anti-imperialist’ America pleading with Britain to ‘stick to “Colonialism” and “Imperialism” at any cost.’ Walton cites the repercussions of this as an early example of Chalmers Johnson’s theory of blowback. The Iran coup of 1953 was another. If Iran had been in MI5’s bailiwick, instead of SIS’s, they might have advised against action. The same may be true of the Suez fiasco (the evidence here is incomplete). MI5 knew all about ‘blowback’ even then. Independence, the director of MI5’s ‘E’ (Overseas) division wrote in 1961, could ‘so easily go sour on us’ if ex-colonial subjects should ‘identify us in, or even suspect us of, activity behind their backs’.

Walton claims that all the most disreputable methods employed to hang on to the empire – resettlement of entire populations, mass detentions, collective punishments, agents-provocateurs and in particular the torture carried out in Kenya and elsewhere, including something very close to waterboarding – went against MI5’s advice, or what would have been its advice if it had been sought. MI5, it appears, was quite clear about torture. Guidelines produced in 1961 (which Walton quotes in the form of lecture notes) called it ‘short-sighted – like wilfully damaging engine of car wanted for long journey – under violence anyone will talk – you may get a confession to prevent torture but it will not be the truth.’ Obviously, it was even more pointless if you wanted to turn your victims, making them double agents, which had been MI5’s speciality in both world wars. Yet, according to Sir John Harding, governor of Cyprus in the 1950s:

As far as ill-treatment, rough treatment on capture, I think that it is something which inevitably does happen. After all if you’ve got troops or police who are engaged in an anti-terrorist operation and they’ve seen some of their comrades killed in action, well then they capture some of the enemy responsible, naturally they are liable to be roughly handled, and that is a perfectly natural thing to happen, and not something you can regulate against … And that’s something which is perfectly natural, and to my mind, acceptable.

Harding was there, on the spot. MI5 generally wasn’t, although occasionally there would be a solitary security liaison officer helping out, as well as reporting back to London. This seems to let it off the hook.

Walton appears to be arguing that spookery can only be a good thing, so long as it’s politically neutral, and that most bad things happen when there isn’t enough of it. This is seen to justify many of MI5’s undisputed illegalities in the 1950s and 1960s, like the files it built up on innocent people and its widespread bugging of the places where they met. One of these, as Ian Smith suspected during the Rhodesia talks of 1965, was Lancaster House, where many of the negotiations over self-government took place (it was thought the decor would impress the natives). Smith used to meet his aides in the ladies’ lavatory, convinced that MI5 would be too gentlemanly to plant mikes there. Walton thinks this was ‘almost certainly wrong’. Sometimes people have reason to be paranoid. If Harold Wilson was the ‘paranoid conspiracy theorist’ Walton paints him as – it’s the almost obligatory description of him in books like this: Walton uses the word ‘paranoid’ about Wilson four times on a single page – then it was because he didn’t have good intelligence of his own about what the spooks were up to. They kept him largely in the dark.


Walton found a lot of new material at a hidey-hole called Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire, the survival of much of which was flatly denied until recently (this has happened to me too; denial is the main tactic they use to get researchers off their backs), though he acknowledges that so far he has only been granted access to the ‘first tranche’. Hardly any of these papers goes further forward than 1965 (SIS is even more secretive). All the files go through a vetting process before even the trusties are allowed to see them, which must cast doubt on their reliability as anything like a full record. One of the most shocking revelations here for a historian – though the more conspiratorial won’t be too surprised – is that in certain cases the departing colonial regimes not only weeded out embarrassing documents, but forged innocuous replacements, called ‘legacy material’. (Papers in government files are usually numbered. When the sequence is broken you know that something has been removed, which can set bells ringing, hence the need for replacements.) If that isn’t a conspiracy, I don’t know what is.

Obviously, we don’t know what they were covering up, but Walton gives a few tantalising hints. Towards the end of the Second World War, MI5 was involved in what today would be called the extraordinary rendition of suspected enemy agents to the notorious Camp 020 in South London for interrogation – a practice which, then as now, was illegal. We still don’t know the full truth of what went on there. We also learn here that it wasn’t only nationalists who were spied on by MI5, but British MPs. (Barbara Castle had her luggage spirited away when she visited Cyprus in 1958. It was called a ‘black bag op’.) In Palestine, SIS placed limpet mines on (Jewish) refugee ships, and may then have forged documents blaming the mines on the Arabs or the Soviets. In West Africa, there is little written evidence that MI5 was involved in dirty tricks, but in the cases of the rigged Nigerian elections of 1960 and Nkrumah’s fall from power in 1966, it is, Walton writes, ‘not beyond belief’. Some files on the Kenya atrocities, probably detailing the worst of them, are still being held back. Walton thinks the intelligence services may have been more directly involved than they let on. It seems pretty certain that SIS co-operated more closely with the apartheid government in South Africa than it admitted. It may also have helped Ian Smith’s Rhodesia; though, again, Walton has no proof. MI5’s Dick White claimed that SIS had collected ‘evidence’ of homosexuality with which to blackmail Cyprus’s Archbishop Makarios, but the papers aren’t yet available to back this up (or otherwise). We know SIS was involved in the ousting of Mossadeq in Iran in 1953, but not the official details; and we don’t know whether any of those ingenious plots to assassinate Nasser in the 1950s – exploding chocolates and the like – was authorised. Dick White claimed he pulled the plug on these schemes when he was transferred from MI5 to SIS in 1956 (he’s the only person to have been in charge of both). But we can’t be sure. Before he joined the agency another head of MI5, Howard Smith, apparently advocated killing Patrice Lumumba of the Congo; this happened in 1960. ‘Still,’ Walton concludes, ‘the question remains whether British plots to assassinate Lumumba, or other troublesome leaders who died in suspicious circumstances, ever amounted to anything. At present, we do not know.’ Walton is pretty certain that as yet unreleased papers will ‘reveal that British ministers and officials in London knew more about the worst crimes and abuses committed by British security personnel in colonial emergencies than historians previously thought, and were not as innocent about colonial crimes as they liked to portray themselves.’ ‘If we are going to sin,’ the attorney-general of Kenya, Eric Griffiths-Jones, wrote to Governor Baring in 1957, ‘we must sin quietly.’

The significance of all this is difficult to assess. The record of British decolonisation is mixed. The ‘Empire into Commonwealth’ narrative isn’t complete nonsense. There were some relatively successful transfers of power, though unravelling decades – sometimes centuries – of alien governance was never going to be easy. MI5 advised successor governments on how to set up domestic intelligence agencies of their own. Sometimes British SLOs stayed on for a while to help. MI5’s Percy Sillitoe was apparently reluctant to assist South Africa’s new Nationalist government in setting up its own security service in 1948, in case it turned it into a ‘Gestapo’ (his word) against the blacks. ‘Once national governments had gained full independence from Britain,’ Walton writes, ‘many of them adopted and deployed the same black arts of intelligence that they had inherited from the British, but now against their own enemies.’ This was also a problem elsewhere. Walton traces many of present-day Israel’s more extreme counter-insurgency methods back to the British, who used them to combat Irgun and the Stern Gang, the first modern terrorists in the Middle East. That too must be regarded as part of Britain’s imperial legacy.

‘We are the last penumbra of empire,’ the then deputy chief of SIS, Gerry Warner, told the queen in the 1990s, and there was a pay-off for Britain: the information it got in exchange from its ex-colonies. Most valuable were the GCHQ listening posts it was allowed to keep in many countries, furnishing both Britain and the US (which largely paid for them) with irreplaceable intelligence in the pre-satellite age. In Walton’s view this enabled London to ‘punch far above its weight’ diplomatically in the years after decolonisation, but what real good that did Britain must be debatable. Essentially, it meant Britain was taken seriously as an ally of the US. But this could be a bind, especially when it involved assuming America’s Cold War obsessions – as with the plot to remove Cheddi Jagan in Guiana. Some of those obsessions seeped into the intelligence services themselves, especially SIS, but also MI5, despite its apparently relaxed approach to colonial ‘Marxism’. It was this approach that got Peter Wright het up enough to suspect his own director-general, Roger Hollis, of being a Soviet mole. (He thought the same of the relatively liberal Sir Andrew Cohen, governor of Uganda in the 1950s.) Wright got all this from the notorious CIA molehunter James Jesus Angleton. Clearly, there were divisions in MI5 about how far to go along with the Americans. The problem was worsened by the temptation to pander to the US in order to get its support for essentially colonial undertakings – like safeguarding British economic interests. Many of the messier features of decolonisation might be put down to this.

Maybe MI5 really was the least to blame, but for most of us, these historical turf wars don’t matter much. If it wasn’t MI5, it was someone else: SIS, the Information Research Department, the Colonial Office, local Special Branches, the army, irregular troops, ill-trained and panicky squaddies. Where MI5 failed in this postwar period was in not doing more to prevent all these other bodies from operating – as MI5’s wiser heads would put it – so counterproductively. Maybe that was always impossible. Or perhaps MI5 lacked the courage of the convictions that Walton attributes to many of its members. Or perhaps they didn’t hold these convictions very strongly. Walton points out (as other historians have done) that most of Britain’s spooks came from colonial backgrounds. It was one of the things – together with their class – that marked them off from ordinary Britons, and consequently from some of their more liberal values. ‘MI5’s working culture and outlook,’ Walton writes, ‘undoubtedly … had a colonial feel.’ This revealing and fascinating book makes a very good case for MI5; but it does little to remove one’s suspicions.

[*] Cambridge, 449 pp., £25, December 2012, 978 1 107 00099 5.