EMPIRE OF SECRETS: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire, by Calder Walton. HarperPress, 2013, 411 pp., $35 (hardcover)

“Empire of Secrets” is, as Calder Walton himself writes, “the first book devoted to British intelligence during the twilight of empire that has been based on declassified intelligence reports.” “The full story can never perhaps be known,” he quotes Sir David Petrie, head of MI5 during the Second World War, “but if it could be, it could perhaps claim acceptance as truth mainly on the grounds that it seems stranger than fiction.” The book bears Sir David out, but only in the context of others.

A decade ago, two books appeared at opposite poles of the discourse over Britain’s empire, its demise and legacy. One, by historian Niall Ferguson, was cheerleader for the imperial enterprise, subtitled “How Britain Made the Modern World.” As well as chronicling what he saw as its achievements Ferguson posited that with empire, Britain founded global “liberal” capitalism, withdrawing altruistically from its territories when the fruit was ripe.

The other, “After Empire” by the professor of literature and sociology Paul Gilroy, challenged, among other things, that until and unless Britain reckons with — and confronts itself over — the lingering effects of empire built upon slavery, atrocity and colonial hubris, our country is doomed to hollow “melancholia.” A pathological desire to restore lost greatness results in endless and awful echoes of empire (such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

This pair of books opened the portal for a flood of others, most recently those by the ubiquitous Jeremy Paxman, with a celebrity history and faux-analysis; Marxist Richard Gott, with a relentless but instructive catalogue of British violence; and Guardian reporter Ian Cobain’s “Cruel Britannia,” which traces the story of systemic torture by our imperial security services. Official chronicles of MI5 and MI6 also appeared, and it is the researcher on the former, “The Defence of the Realm,” who now ties much of this together in a fascinating history of intelligence and empire.

Walton takes no didactic stance on Britain’s right to impose its rule on a quarter of the world, he takes imperium as fact and calls it “the greatest empire in world history” — forget Rome.

He opens with the formation of the security services in 1909, and recounts the intelligence failures and successes in two world wars. But the real story starts in 1945, when Axis plots against Britain in the colonies gave way to Soviet backing for anti-colonial liberation movements as world war turned to cold war. Thus Britain’s intelligence war against communism was also one which sought, dichotomously, to both preserve and retreat from empire.

Often, “intelligence” is the last word that should apply. First came Palestine, “the intelligence war that Britain lost.” Next came India, which Walton labels “a story of gross mismanagement” so inept that even MI5’s misplaced obsession with Jawaharlal Nehru’s supposedly communist affiliations “failed to prevent India from gravitating towards the Soviet Union.”

As we know from the successful case brought by Mau Mau veterans before the high court last October, end of empire in Kenya was shameful and brutal. Jomo Kenyatta is described as Lucifer himself; the Mau Mau as “debased creatures from the forest” and 1,000 of them are sentenced to hang. The death toll counted 20,000 Africans but only 32 colonial settlers. Walton quotes a top-secret letter from Gen. “Bobby” Erskine confirming widespread torture. In the waltz between imperial assertion and cold war, however, it was MI5 who saw the 1954 Kenyan Operation Anvil for what it was, advising politicians that “we have seen nothing to suggest communist intervention in Mau Mau activities.”

“The outbreak of the Malayan Emergency — or ‘communist insurrection’ — represented a dramatic intelligence failure,” writes Walton. To compensate, Britain turned its “Ferret Force” and others against the very people it had armed to fight Japan during World War II, with the result that “there were two SOE (Special Operations Executive)-trained forces pitched against each other in the jungles of Malaya.” It is a narrative that demonstrates how the capricious realpolitik of empire works — Osama bin Laden, after all, got his first Kalashnikov from the CIA, perfectly inverting the process Walton describes, at the other end of the Cold War.

Indeed, the supreme irony (and dark absurdity) is that in every case Walton relates, British intelligence ends up working with its former adversaries once they are in power. It was in Britain’s interests that, as Walton writes, “the anti-colonial poachers rapidly turned into gamekeepers.”

A joint intelligence committee memo of 1953, not long after Jewish militants bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people, reads: “Standards of security of the Israeli police and security service are high, and based on the British methods of training and practice.” The bombers’ leader, Menachem Begin, became Israeli prime minister.

Walton has written interesting papers on how the use of torture is not only repellent and illegal, but also ineffectual. It is an argument repeated in Der Spiegel recently by Lt. Col. Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay (he resigned in disgust), adding his concerns that the film “Zero Dark Thirty,” about supposed leads to bin Laden, gives a reckless and terrifying impression to the contrary.

On this theme, Walton’s book is perfectly timed, as Britain braces for a public inquiry into allegedly systemic torture of prisoners in Iraq. Walton provides appalling insight into the use of torture throughout the withdrawal from empire: “Then as now [he writes on Aden] torture was the last refuge of the ineffectual. As in every other colonial emergency, the use of torture in Aden was really the result of systemic failures on the part of local intelligence officials.”

There are two shortfalls. First, Walton’s focus on official records imposes a time frame which discounts the pre-1909 role of British imperial intelligence, when spies were servants of trade as much as any other interest, as borne out by the early history of government agents working for the East India Company. This would be an interesting theme on which we’d benefit from Walton’s eye, because (in addition to its preoccupation with insurgent Islam) British intelligence has become, in empire’s wake, a form of corporate consultancy to our flagging stake in global trade, with only banking and armaments to offer.

The other, more serious, omission is that, imperiously, Walton appears not to regard Ireland as relevant to the imperial discourse, despite the fact that it was the first and prototype colony.

He entirely ignores Ireland’s wars of independence and the security services’ role in them, which is a shame because if Walton applies his diligence to the next crop of official documents, he will be able to contextualize the secret services fighting — and fighting very dirty — on the last beaches of empire, along the banks of the Foyle and Lagan rivers.

Yet Walton does use a temporal telescope to bring his story home. In Kenya, he locates Capt. Frank Kitson, “who would spend time in Northern Ireland, where he applied lessons learned from Britain’s end-of-empire insurgency campaigns.” The Suez crisis was, he writes, “remarkably similar to the Blair government’s use, and apparent abuse, of intelligence before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.”

In the end, there is an overriding sense of the fatuity rather than excitement, of espionage. We cling to spy fantasies, be they Philby and Burgess’ treachery, or their updated form as “Spooks,” or the adaptation of Sean Connery’s 007 to Daniel Craig’s.

But this book unveils the reality of an inbred caste recruited on the quadrangle staircases of Oxbridge, and its “noncommissioned” but servile substrata of button-polishing bully-boys.

As such, the intelligence cabal watches — rather than influences — history, stuck between Britain’s priorities in imperial wars won by the liberation movements, as they would have been anyway, and a cold war won ultimately by global capitalism, as it would have been anyway.

Walton charts, estimably and perhaps unintentionally, how the hubris of “intelligence,” in the “defence” of an increasingly hollow and insignificant “realm,” made hardly any difference at all.

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