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179 of 203 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The whole story, possibly, 8 Oct. 2009
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This review is from: The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (Hardcover)
MI5 is responsible for protecting the United Kingdom against threats to national security, with October 2009 marking its centenary. Until recently it was - logically - clandestine. It now seems to have embarked on a charm offensive with its' doors permanently thrown open. How would Sir Humphrey Appleby - Yes Prime Minister - deal with this? On what basis would he sanction this book "while we cannot be told what we should not know, in the fullness of time at the appropriate junction, proportionate access to the available records will be rigorously considered". In one episode Appleby had to deal with M15, a former head had been a Russian spy discovering that "one of us" was "one of them!" We all have wondered how much was fact, what was fiction?

This book will not tell you, it is a serious study not an expose, its contents selective and well ordered. It requires stamina, a heavy book (by weight and content), 1,000 pages and with it's stern black dustcover not unlike an official government report. It claims to be the first time any of the worlds leading intelligence or security services has "opened its archives to an independent historian." The author is a Cambridge academic and his role as an independent and objective historian made much off. But as it says in the subtitle, this is the "authorised biography" of MI5. I have read many books on intelligence agencies, these have been mostly dismal, much of what they do is mundane, bureaucratic, pointless, expensive, like little dogs chasing their tales it is an incestuous world spies spying on spies. Try Peter Wright "Spycatcher," far from inspirational. What Professor Andrew presents is a strategic, a political overview of MI5 rather than a description of tactical / operational methods. His approach, and he writes well, is absorbing but deferential.

The book is organised in six chronological sections (listed as A-F) each with its own introduction (a committee at work here?). The bulk - 2/3rds - chronicles the organisational emergence, First and Second World War and operations before the 1970s. Here are some great successes crucial in defeating Hitler, perhaps their finest hour. This is an excellent reference for historians but not unfamiliar material or particularly insightful. This is a big book but a bigger subject, so Philby, Burgess, MacClean, Blunt and Cairncross get just 20 pages (Section D, Chapter 6). The last third deals with the late Cold War to the present and will appeal those interested in contemporary politics. Here we have the enemy within (spoilt for choice but communists, Labour Party, trade unions and the double agents inside M15 itself). There are no answers to conspiracy theories; the favourite being Harold Wilson but nothing was revealed (D11 or E4). And in passing Roger Hollis was not "one of them." As Robert Armstrong might have said, is someone being "economical with the truth?" Intelligence operations are ragged, even as far back as the Zinoviev letter which "may" have brought down the Labour government in 1924 (B1) there is no definitive answers provided here.

Reading this book you have to think on what basis you assess MI5. In espionage and intelligence gathering failure is often apparent and well publicised while success is kept in the shade. MI5 stops people doing bad things but that's difficult to quantify. For example Andrew deals with the IRA bombing of the City of London, that further major explosions were thwarted but the details are not, cannot be, explained. This book gives the impression that MI5 has been for most of its existence barely adequate, passive and reactive. But that's how I like my security services, certainly if the alternative is the ruthless secret police that the Germans and Soviets, at times the FBI, created.

Most of us will not have the depth of knowledge to adequately critique this book and if so you'd need plus 5,000 words to do it. Errors and omission accepted, from the perspective of an enthusiastic reader I found this to be fascinating in parts. For me the central issue is the balance MI5 has taken between defending the state and subverting it, and the shades of grey in-between. Each reader will find enough here to support their own prejudices and that is my recommendation for reading this book (well from page 503 onwards). Now all security agencies have found terrorism, coincidentally just as counter espionage and the KGB etc appear to have withered (be patient). While a creative opportunity to bloat their budgets and for M15 to present themselves as the new caring profession we should retain a very high level of scepticism. All these agencies are civil service bureaucracies, self-serving and at war with each other. I 'd be surprised if many read this tidy book from cover to cover but that's not a criticism. There is a lot of good history and interesting narrative. And it does no harm to keep an eye on the praetorians, which you can now do via their web site!
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 20 Oct 2009 00:20:39 BDT
P. G. Croft says:
I have only a general interest in the history of the so-called protectors of Britain. I could never believe that an officially sanctioned publication like this, was worth the expense, and my time reading it. Most of their famed exploits are well documented, but only a unapproved 'insider' version would grab my attention, seeing how I have a highly develped distrust of all things official. Having said all that, I have listened occasionally to the Radio 4 reading from the book, and quite entertaining it was---so, thanks to that, and your review, it saves the rest of us from buying it.

Posted on 15 Nov 2009 20:04:03 GMT
Excellent review. It's hard for most people to keep a level head in criticizing both intelligence agencies and those who write about them, as it's so easy to veer into political posturing, radical scepticism towards the 'official' anything, paranoid fantasy, etc., given the subject matter. I think you put your finger on the main problem, which is that Andrew's own huge confidence in his judgements short-circuits a full chronicle of how he arrived at his conclusions on the most contentious issues. Granted this confidence is well-earned - no one is better qualified, to my knowledge, to write this book -- but on key issues like the Wilson plot & Peter Wright, Andrew needs to make it transparent to the reader the sequence of evidence and reasoning that brought him to his conclusions, rather than just wave them away as crackpot claims with a dismissive hand, particularly as the Wright book does get several critical things right (on the technical side, mainly)...
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