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Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire Paperback – 30 Jan 2014

3.8 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: William Collins (30 Jan. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007457979
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007457977
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 3.3 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 77,993 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

‘A superb and engaging account of the role of intelligence during the decline of Britain’s Empire’ Daily Express

‘A fascinating history of intelligence and empire. Walton’s book is perfectly timed, as Britain braces for a possible public inquiry into allegedly systemic torture of prisoners in Iraq. Walton provides appalling insight into the use of torture throughout the withdrawal from empire’ Observer

‘There is enough human anecdote and eccentricity in ‘Empire of Secrets’s “high octane” narrative to please even the most satiated consumer of such subjects … a story that often left me wondering what on earth we pay these people for’ Michael Burleigh, Literary Review

‘Walton is a very good writer. ‘Empire of Secrets’ fairly rips along, summoning in places the verve of a good spy novel … It is to his credit that he has produced such a gripping, thoughtful and satisfying book on an aspect of British history still largely hidden by shadow’ Daily Telegraph

‘A compulsively readable tale of loss of empire, a necessary process of decolonisation overseen by MI5’ Times

‘[An] agreeably lively account’ Sunday Telegraph

‘Fascinating … moves the spooks from the periphery of history to its heart … A well-documented, courageous and incisive first book by an author who has inhabited the real world of intelligence rather than a James Bond fantasy … required reading’ The Tablet

About the Author

Calder Walton is a leading expert among a new generation of intelligence historians. He has published widely on intelligence history and contributed to a number of books on British foreign policy and international relations. While completing a PhD in history at Trinity College, Cambridge, and then a post-doctoral Fellowship at Darwin College, Cambridge, he was one of the principal researchers on Christopher Andrew’s unprecedented authorised history of MI5. He lives in London, where he works as a barrister. This is his first book.


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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Empire of Secrets is a most absorbing book. The material, mightily researched, is carefully presented in a clear, coherent and structured manner which makes exceptionally engaging reading. Calder Walton has most certainly selected a most interesting subject in an arena that has almost exclusively been overshadowed by the intelligence aspects of the more direct Cold War confrontation between the Superpowers. I am particularly intrigued by his historical comparisons with current events, which offer another view of the past and there are most certainly lessons which keep being relearned.

I have though, three observations. First, the consistent, irritating and inappropriate use of the words back to, actually, himself, itself and outfits, detract from the otherwise eloquent flow of the manuscript. Secondly, there are several errors of fact, which whilst not interrupting the thrust of his arguments make one wonder whether there might be others that do. This point lucidly illustrates that with a study of this size and scope, a competent multi-disciplinary team is essential in ensuring accuracy. Thirdly, the author's personal ethics subtly creep into the narrative, an issue compounded by his propensity to analyse some issues through the legal perspective of the 21st Century rather than the period. In this respect, Calder Walton has not quite made the transition from court lawyer to intelligence historian.

These observations aside, Calder Walton is to be highly commended for bringing to life a forgotten component of our recent history, in a thoroughly focused manner. I am sure that this very significant study will lay the foundations for future research in this fascinating area, especially as more material is released into the public domain. I thoroughly recommend his book to those who are interested in Cold War intelligence operations and the British withdrawal from Empire.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Other reviewers have given this book a low rating and made various criticisms, but Walton's book deserves better. He has uncovered a shameful set of episodes in British history, effectively debunking the 'we were so nice to the natives, unlike those nasty Belgians & French' myth. Those who say that times have changed and that the author is viewing events through modern 'liberal lefty' focus fail to understand why it has taken so long to uncover this story - it's because those responsible for the torture policy knew that they were doing wrong and wanted to cover it up. Walton has done a pretty good job in bringing this story to light. As Walton shows, British intelligence outfits in WWII resisted attempts to use torture of captured German and other Axis prisoners. People knew then that torture was morally wrong as well as ineffective in gaining reliable intelligence.

Apart from the gut-wrenching accounts of torture, Walton demonstrates how an failed strategy of repression was enthusiastically enforced time and again and always with the same failed outcome. Walton also draws attention to occasions when alternative approaches were pursued.

I do have one minor criticism regarding his misunderstanding of the nature of Ultra intelligence in WWII which he states, incorrectly, was synonymous with Enigma decrypts. He fails to mention and indeed seems unaware of the Lorenz/Geheimschreiber decrypts which provided the strategic intelligence within the Ultra classification. Similarly his comment on Alan Turing's theoretical work, which he relates to the Bombe used to help in Engima decrypts, is dubious. But, such minor errors do not affect the overall value of this most important book on the end of empire in the last decade and more.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There is much of interest in this book. The author has obviously spent much time in researching prime sources and has a done a good job in presenting his subject in a readable and informative fashion. It is a pity that to arrive at an absorbing narrative he has felt it necessary to look at his object through a liberal-left tinted lens of fifty years of hindsight. One cannot really apply modern views on civil and human rights to actions taking place in earlier days when hanging, flogging and detention were approved legal measures. He bewails the Government decision not to open the archives after 1965 - the obvious good reason is that a lot of which they contain is still live, and could prejudice current policy or operations, although one has sympathy for the view that historians as well as official "weeders" should be involved in the decision whether or not to grant access. It is also a pity that his style is jarred by his too frequent habit of referring to organisations and units as "outfits" - hardly an elegant term. The author's sterling research efforts would have benefited from a more concise, independent and less censorious treatment but the facts it contains, and its breadth of coverage commend this book to the serious historian and casual reader alike.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Walton deserves four stars for putting together two well known topics - espionage and end of empire, and coming up with a new take on both. Many of the sources (official documents) are new, making the book feel fresh. I liked his argument that intelligence links were an effective - and cheap - way of prolonging British influence in the former empire. And that many of Britain's end of empire failures were intelligence failures - particularly failing to predict or infiltrate anti-colonial movements, in Cyprus, Kenya etc, or learn lessons from past failures. There is a short, but informative, history of British intelligence, and a straightforward country by country (Palestine, Cyprus, Malaya, Suez etc) account of events, which is easy to follow and allows comparisons.

That said, I do see why some reviewers were less kind. I could have lived without strained analogies with 21st century torture and rendition (see Alastair Horne's 'A Savage War of Peace' about Algeria for a better condemnation of torture). This may grate on some readers. And he often seemed amazed that spies spy on people. By relying on written sources, mostly on MI5, the story sometimes feels dry, and incomplete (eg in comparison to Gordon Correra's 'The Art of Betrayal' on MI6 after WW2, full of first hand accounts and detail).

But the topic and thesis helped me overlook that, and I found it a fast and fascinating read that made me think a little differently about Britain's exit from empire.
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