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A Brutal Vision of British Decolonisation,
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This review is from: Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire (Hardcover)
Guantanamo Bay, dirty tricks in Latin America (USA); the assassinations of Trotsky, President Yuschenko of Ukraine, former spy Litvinenko (ex USSR & present day Russia);the kidnappings of Eichmann, and the nuclear scientist Vanunu to stand trial (Israel). These are some brutal examples of secret services being used by nations to conduct war by other means. But Britain? Occasionally, relatives of victims of "small wars" make the headlines trying to obtain answers and compensation for past crimes. Surely that's nothing to do with the military, or is it?
Since the discovery of official "lost" colonial records in April 2012, at Hanslope Park, near Milton Keynes (and close to Bletchley), Calder Walton has been able to join the dots mapped by Christopher Andrew in his official history of the MI5 The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5and shed light onto secrets of the last days of the British Empire as FW Winterbotham The Ultra Secret.did in the early 1970s when he revealed the existence of Ultra, so changing thereafter the history of the Second World War.
A year before, the text of the UKUSA Agreement brokered between Britain and the USA through CGHQ and the NSA in 1946 was disclosed, which meant that British intelligence would work as a very junior partner with the US for the common good in the new Cold War crusade. It also meant that when Britain gave up its colonies beginning with the Indian sub continent in the 1940s it was laying the foundations of a pro US post-war system, something which the Soviets mouthing their ideology always maintained. This study takes us into the offices and minds of MI5 officers in our former colonies.
Before every handover they worked together with future political heads and officials offering guidance for future gathering and sharing intelligence. Unfortunately, it signified that should Britain later decide that it could not formally maintain the upkeep of listening bases, as it did in Cyprus after 1974, America would compel its partner to continue to bear the heavy costs (to date for a further 40 years) until other official arrangements were concluded with the sovereign state. For a country, like America, which formally disapproves of colonialism, this discovery underlines it has prolonged the age of decolonisation for Britain, and legitimised its own neo-imperialism.
It has meant that should locals choose to elect populist, revolutionary Marxist leaders to rule the colony on independence, such as described in British Guiana in the late 1950s and 60s, Britain could either be pressurised in cancelling elections, or refusing to accept the result, showing no concern if America interfered as it does in its "sphere" in Latin America in the country's internal affairs by promoting disorder, strikes, bombings, and out-right support for a more appeasing alternative. The US backed Burnham was pushed ahead of the popular Jagan, and once in power he changed the electoral system, got away with rigging elections, and tore the Guyanan economy apart for 20 years. Good for Guyana, Britain, or for the US?
As the documents stop in the 1960s, it would be interesting to know what was actually agreed to behind closed doors despite her strong public protests between Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan over the invasion of Grenada in October 1983, and if anyone listened in 1980 to the advice given by Ian Smith about promoting the educated Robert Mugabe as the people's choice for a black-run Zimbabwe.
Most of the volume is an examination of failures (possibly like no news is good news) in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, and in Aden, where intelligence organization was either poor or non-existent. There the British officials often sent out the military too hastily, carrying out plans without bothering to try out the "hearts and minds" lessons which emerged from emergencies in other areas of the globe. Consequently, any fears of trouble and uprisings provoked further violence and war. Conditions only started to be normalised when a better system of intelligence was effected. Among the operations included the setting up of detention centres, defined as "rehabilitation" camps -in Kenya they were compared to the Soviet Gulags; the forced resettlement of villages or "villagisation" to break the link between insurgents and supporters on the ground; the over-zealous use of reprisals and atrocities: the killing of 25 citizens by 2nd Bn of the Scots Guards in December 1948 at Batang Kal, in Selangor, has been compared with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam for the US; the use of "third degree" interrogation, with physical and mental violence, branding, even the threat of or actual executions, and should it have been necessary, as during the Second World War, the transfer of suspects to centres outside the area or the country - like those the US are currently using at Guantanomo Bay today, to effect further questioning by more trained, uncaring military professionals.
The author indicates that "sexing up" i.e. the abuse and misuse of intelligence by Prime Minister Blair alone, or together with spin doctor Campbell prior to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 on "weapons of mass destruction", was nothing unique or without a precedent in Britain's imperial post-war history. As it was known that the enemy could be around every corner, it was to Britain's advantage to dress every conflict in terms of the Cold War, and divert the US towards Britain's decolonising strategy. In 1953 Britain managed to persuade the US to intervene in Iran when the nationalist Premier Mossadeq announced the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil company, and to protect British interests they spun a false story that it was important to force regime change to halt the spread of Communism; instead, three years later, in October 1956, not being able to lure Eisenhower and the US to regime change by toppling President Nasser, and finding assassination with Bond-type gadgets too risky to accomplish, Eden was forced to go it more alone in collusion with France and Israel to invade Egypt.
Suez has since been considered the most embarrassing foreign incident in British history - Eisenhower and the US decided, stood up with the rest of the world and blow righteous wrath against an anachronism as colonialism, which in turn brought the resignation of Prime Minister Eden, the rise of Nasser; it cooled the Special relationship with the US, and had Macmillan not temporarily taken a more accommodating line it might have ended the relationship, as well as may have changed the ongoing peaceful transfer of intelligence in the colonies and the role of Britain as a major power even sooner.
Walton has explained that he and other historians will face many problems. The principal one is that many records were destroyed before independence, with the more sensitive documents re-written as dummy files so as not to arouse suspicion about missing records. The "originals" he was told were sent to Britain on the grounds of the general term of "national security", though there is no guarantee that what survived in the boxes at Hanslope Park were the real originals or copies of doctored versions. If someone was ordered to doctor history, who says it was not done again, and again. The is a whiff of Big Brother in little Britain.
As a historian and a teacher the author states that history can act as a guide for the present, as well as a warning for the future. Only when all the records are made public will people learn the lessons of the past, to prevent them being repeated. In reality, in a sense there is a feeling that he is pessimistic, as when that occurs it will only be a shadow or a partial vision of the past will be revealed. Besides, the further away from the period, the less certain individuals feel past lessons of colonial imperial times are relevant in a far more liberal, equal environment.
It is important to view life through the eyes of a very understanding forgiving protagonist, such as Nelson Mandela in South Africa, or of the mention things HM Queen Elizabeth has also addressed during her visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011. After admitting of costly past mistakes and sacrifices by all sides, it is vital for people and countries to remember to move forward. An open history of secrets of a past empire through Empire of Secrets will be illuminating in order to build something new; so even Walton's partial vision is a step towards a better understanding of something previously less or totally unknown. It should never be used as the seed of future hatreds, otherwise it is destructive, and to be avoided. This book then is a must for journalists in our instant 24 hour news society, demanding lively feedback in blogs, emails, and informal social network groups, the function in the past of political parties and institutionalised associations.
Finally, it is not as it is claimed in the inside flap reminiscent of a Le Carré novel. Calder Walton helps both historians and readers of spy-fiction to review John Le Carrè's novels better: to distinguish the historical fact from the fiction, which is the heart of Le Carré, and it is this which makes Walton's new work highly praiseworthy and well-recommended.