Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire Calder Walton

Harper Press, pp.411, £25, ISBN: 9780007457960

For years after the rug was pulled from under it, the British Empire — with a quarter of the globe, the largest the world has known — seemed an unfashionable subject for historians. Did they fear political incorrectness, or was it simply that they had to wait for sufficient archival material to emerge? Whichever, there is now some very welcome sprouting in this part of the historical garden, already well-watered by the Cambridge historian Ronald Hyam, and few shoots could be more welcome than Calder Walton’s important contribution.

Walton draws on recently released MI5 files to reveal the role of intelligence in the transitions from colony to independent state. Decolonisation would have happened anyway but almost certainly not in the more or less stable and (to Britain and the West) benign way that it did without intelligence midwifery.

There is debate about when the end of empire began; some argue for Suez in 1956, others more plausibly for the second world war, yet others for Britain’s guilty reaction to the 1919 Amritsar massacre as indicative of an imperial power that had lost the will to rule. Walton sensibly doesn’t spend too much time worrying about this. Instead, he pragmatically addresses the two main periods of colonial withdrawal, 1945-48 and 1959-64. Most importantly, too, he stresses the role of the Cold War in shaping both the context and manner of withdrawal. Fearing that the Soviet Union would seek to turn the newly independent states into allies or satellites, the British sought to entrench structures and personalities that would frustrate this. They were helped, Walton points out, by the fact that the sensitive communications of the new states were often transmitted via Enigma-based machines that the British supplied, and read.

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It didn’t always work, of course. Burma became a conspicuous failure, following the assassination of General Aung San, father of the current pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Zambia, Tanzania and Uganda went seriously off-piste for some years, while confrontation in Malaya, terrorism in Palestine and Cyprus and — especially —the Mau-Mau insurgency in Kenya involved serious violence, albeit not on the scale of Partition or France’s civil war in Algeria.

Indeed, Walton argues that the independence process was often more managed disintegration than controlled disengagement, especially when done hurriedly. Apparent to many at the time, this should not come as too great a surprise now; at one point in the 1950s MI5 had just three officers in the whole of Africa. Lessons learned in Malaya were not applied in Kenya, MI5’s generally accurate assessments (often drawn from intelligence emanating from opposition groups in London) were too often ignored by security personnel recruited locally or from elsewhere in the empire, while newly independent security services were too often deployed against legitimate oppositions (as in Singapore).

Walton dwells on the many examples of torture or ill-treatment which conflict with the myth of peaceable withdrawal and correct British behaviour. What happened in Kenya, where the figures for forcible displacement and death are indeed striking, is of course a topical issue in our courts now.  But, as Walton points out, where torture occurred it was usually through local agencies acting beyond the supervision of a very stretched MI5. British governments may have been culpable in not enforcing acceptable standards of interrogation throughout the empire (where MI5 did get involved, the treatment of prisoners and the intelligence yielded improved greatly) but, with resources thinly spread, it was often impossible for central authorities to maintain control of interrogations.

Another element is one which Walton may be forgiven for not taking sufficiently into account: the degree to which attitudes change in half a century (viz. support for slavery in the 19th). Some of the ill-treatments he mentions — stress positions, bucket-on-head banging — I saw occasionally inflicted on prisoners during Territorial Army exercises in the Home Counties in the 1960s. It was accepted as normal, training for what you could expect if caught. This doesn’t excuse what may have been done in dusty corners of the empire, but it does suggest we shouldn’t be too surprised.

It also has a bearing on Walton’s conclusion that ‘the history of British decolonisation is a story of deception.’ He is referring specifically to the destruction or doctoring of records, not on the acceptable grounds of security but to spare the embarrassment of officials and politicians in London who might be shown to be ‘not as innocent about colonial crimes as they liked to portray themselves’. Emerging documents may well show this to be true but, again, should we be surprised that what was normal or acceptable half a century ago is not seen so now? You can’t govern without deception and the deceptions involved in the end of empire were intended to facilitate an open end: rapid withdrawal with as little trouble as possible. Were we only pretending to withdraw, that would have been a deception.

The records stop in the 1960s when MI5 handed over responsibility for the new independent states to MI6, and MI6 does not release its records. If ever they do, we shall be lucky to get an account as competent, comprehensive and perceptive as this. It is one of those books that no student of the subject can ignore.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Africa, British empire, Burma, Cold War, Espionage, Intelligence services, Kenya, Malaya, Malaysia, Mau Mau, MI5