Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire, by Calder Walton
William Collins (2014), Paperback, 448 pages
A new twist on the seemingly endless litany of British intelligence failures in the Cold War era. Actually, there are two twists. The first is that the book deals primarily not with the colossal damage caused by superspies like Philby, Burgess and Maclean, but rather, with British intelligence involvement in Britain’s sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, sometimes comical departure from its various colonies after WWII. The second twist, perhaps more surprising, is that Britain actually had some intelligence victories in these colonial and post-colonial manouevres. The book is based largely upon a huge cache of documents dealing with these events recently discovered hidden away in one of the British government’s secret facilities. The documents showed that not only were MI5, MI6 and GCHQ occasionally successful in predicting the course of events in decolonization of particular countries, they also sometimes managed to pick the right man to run the country after independence, though more often than not, they tagged many prospective leaders as Communists, even when evidence clearly showed they were not. Perhaps the most surprising revelation is that many newly independent colonies allowed British intelligence officers to stay on in their nations after independence. This includes Kenya, who arguably had the most painful transition to independence after the horrific British reaction to the Mau-Mau movement, which included concentration camps , brutal torture and a complete misjudgement of what Mau-Mau stood for. Walton pulls no punches here in describing British atrocities, nor does he sugar-coat his depiction of the Jewish terror gangs that endeavoured to hasten Britain’s departure from Palestine by bringing terror to British streets, showing there was little difference between the ideology and activities of these groups and modern-day Muslim terrorist groups such as Al-Quaeda. This is an interesting book which covers a previously little-known aspect of British intelligence and does it well. Highly recommended for spy buffs and those interested in Britain’s colonial disengagement.