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.

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