Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The Defence Of The Realm - Christopher Andrew

I’ll come to the subtitle of this book shortly, but this is the much publicised history of MI5 celebrating the centenary of its foundation. Christopher Andrew was made a member of the Security Service in order that he should have access to all their files as well as to staff.

Given that he had a hundred years of history to cover, not just of the Security Service, but of the political and social context in which it has operated, a thousand pages seems a tad sparse, especially as this is [a] the first history by an ‘insider’ to be made public and [b] the shortage of histories based on source material (rather than gossip and the bias of disaffected ex-members of the Service). One suspects an editorial decision to go for a single volume history, but it does seem something of a lost opportunity.

As the author is at pains to point out, the intelligence community has had very little exposure in the way of in-depth and high quality historical assessment. This is, of course, partly because of the nature of their work. However, there is no real operational reason why earlier parts of the Service’s history should not now be scrutinised. British intelligence during the Second World War has been treated to a very comprehensive multi-volume analysis (and very interesting it is as well). The work and context of MI5 (along with SIS, GCHQ, and Special Branch) could well provide interesting historical works, not least because of the light it would shed on what are often otherwise inexplicable decisions and events.

For all that, this is a very readable narrative of the work of the Security Service. We are not only treated to a chronological history of the operations carried out by the Service, but also of the internal organisation and the ups and downs of the Service as an organisation. Much of the earlier history is well covered in more popular texts and there are few surprises. There are times when I wanted to know more; plenty, in fact. We are all too often told that something came to the attention of the Service, but never how. In the early days, when you could happily have fitted the entire staff into my flat and still had room for the cat, it seems nothing short of a miracle that they not only discovered things, but were able in both World Wars to not only counter the espionage threat posed by Germany, but run an elaborate network of double agents and misinformation operations.

Post-World War Two history is also given a new perspective, especially during the period when the British Empire was dissolving. The relationship that the Security Service had with countries emerging from Colonial rule was quite remarkable. Quite how one views that depends on one’s attitude to post-colonial rulers, but those with whom the UK did business seemed, for the most part, to be very grateful for MI5’s assistance in ensuring the transitions were, again for the most part, peaceful.

The closer we get to the present day, the less informative the book becomes. There may be good operational reasons for this, but as the book never discusses working methods in detail, this begins to cause problems. And here it would be apposite to consider the subtitle of the book: ‘The Authorized History of MI5’. Christopher Andrew makes a big play on the distinction between an ‘Official’ history and an ‘Authorized’ history. His claim for the latter – in which he has full access and authorial independence to be critical where he sees fit – is somewhat tarnished by several facts. He is a well known writer on matters of intelligence and would not have been given the job if he was outright critical. And his approach to what are some of the more controversial events of the late 20th and early 21st centuries leave one wondering whether he left his critical abilities outside on Millbank every time he walked through the door.

This is not to say I am worried that he does not agree with my perspective on events like the Lockerbie bombing or the shooting dead of three unarmed members of the IRA in Gibraltar, for example, but in the case of one, no controversy (or any of the plausible alternative evidence) is mentioned, and in the other it is dismissed as mistaken. Whilst the size and scope of the book does not allow for in-depth discussion of these (and other controversies), they are handled in such a way as to call in to question the author’s impartiality. And, as a consequence, one is left wondering about other events as well. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but it easy to see how such conspiracies are fed.

If you know little or nothing of the history of MI5, this is a book worth reading. The author can write well and makes an interesting and clear narrative of complex events. And it certainly offers a new perspective to events of the last 100 years. I do feel, however, that it was a missed opportunity to give us more detail than already exists and to be more robust in the discussion of events that are by no means as clear cut as the author would have us believe.