Archives, spies and the end of Empire

A review of Calder Walton, Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire, (London: Harper Press, 2013).  (Paperback edition published 2014)

Nothing excites an historian quite as much as a breaking archive.  There is a frisson of excitement at easing off a slightly corroded paperclip that can only mean that a bundle of papers have lain unobserved for half a century.  Of course, in many cases the contents are so dull and routine that their continued mute existence is assured.  The files of the British security services were long excluded from being released to The National Archives (TNA) at Kew, and so when in the late 1990s these files started to be carefully and slowly released, it was a matter of excitement coloured with the strong suspicion that this would be a sanitised and censored archive.  When the large set of files was released in 2001 it cast fresh light on some aspects of British history, and more have followed in regular releases ever since.  But one has to assume that Calder Walton must have experienced mixed emotions when, with his book (based on a long period of PhD research and post-doctoral study) nearing completion, a whole new tranche of papers were released to TNA.  These were part of a cache of papers that had been squirreled away in Hanslope Park, the home of the government’s Communications Centre, part of the state’s security and surveillance network.  More prosaically, it is a repository for Foreign and Commonwealth Office papers.

The irony is that the source of these papers is one of the secrets of Empire that are the subject of this book.  As Walton shows, when Britain handed over power in its former colonies from 1948 onwards, it took many of its files with it and destroyed many more, including those relating to security issues.  While some of those contained sensitive information about operational matters, others bore the imprint of the unsightly underbelly of colonial rule.  The British colonial rulers went as far as creating dummy files to leave behind to make the gaps less obvious and cover their tracks more thoroughly.  Walton’s subject is not subsequent to the history of these files, but their existence was far from being secret.  The Kenyan government requested that theirs be returned in 1967 and continued asking until the early 1980s.  The retention of these papers was even raised in Parliament in 1971.  Their status was reviewed in 1995, but no change in policy was made and the records remained in limbo.  What is most startling is not that that there were those within the Foreign Office who wanted to destroy the papers, but that the TNA were more than happy for that to be done.  The possibility that some have been destroyed remains.

This archive was, however, slowly forgotten about.  In 2005, five years after the passing of the Freedom of Information Act, the first of a series of requests was made for information on the Kenyan Mau Mau Uprising 1952-1956, but it took years of persistence for the Foreign Office to divulge its treasure.  In the end it was only when three historians, David Anderson of Oxford, Caroline Elkins of Harvard, and Huw Bennett of KCL, found evidence of the existence of files repatriated to Britain amongst the papers left behind in the Kenyan National Archive that led to the High Court judge hearing the case of victims of British torture during the uprising to demand that the government release the documents.  The government’s own report into the failure to disclose the papers before the judicial order suggested that this was a cock-up rather than a conspiracy (redacted version can be seen here), but this left many sceptical

At best, the failure to release the papers was a heritage conspiracy, the existence of the files may have been repressed in the collective memory of government to a point where they only resurfaced in the nightmares caused by judges, academics and victims.  But since less innocuous enquiries relating to the archive have been met in the years immediately before 2005, for example an academic studying cargo cults in the New Hebrides and by Colin Murray and Peter Sanders as a source for their Medicine Murder in Colonial Lesotho: The Anatomy of a Moral Crisis (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), such a lapse of memory would appear to be selective.  As the imperial historian Richard Drayton has pointed out, most of the papers released since 2011 from the Hanslope Park cache have been anodyne or contain information already well known.  The absence of full lists of what it in the archive and what has been destroyed means that what is released is viewed with a jaundiced eye.  (Richard Drayton, Britain’s Secret Archive of Decolonisation, History Workshop Online, April 2012)

This shows the central problem that Walton faces.  His central thesis is that these new archives, primarily the slow release of security service material in the archives that has occurred since the late 1990s but also the newly released material that started from 2011 which he has hurriedly integrated into his book, transforms our understanding to the decolonisation process.  Particularly, he argues that the role of MI5 (which was responsible for intelligence in the Empire as well as domestically), the signals intelligence generated by GCHQ and, to a lesser degree, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, aka MI6, responsible for foreign intelligence and counter-espionage) was key in the decolonisation process.  He suggests that just as the disclosure of the story of World War II code breaking, particularly ULTRA, has transformed our understanding of both the general course and many particular events of that war, so these new files have the potential to revolutionise our understanding of the process of the dismantling of Britain’s Empire in the twenty years that followed.  Despite considerable rigour and dogged pursuit of his hypothesis, the problem is that (as, to his credit, Walton ultimately admits) the overall narrative of decolonisation is very much altered by these new sources.

Walton is well qualified for his task.  He worked as Christopher Andrew’s research assistant on MI5’s authorised history, Defence of the Realm (2009).  This is a controversial work in that it is based on preferential access to MI5’s closed archives.  Andrew had a free hand and near untrammelled access to the archives, although MI5 retained and exercise the right to veto material in the book, and he is certainly an independently minded writer who wrote a revealing book, excusable in its length since it is the only chance the rest of us will have to sniff much of those MI5 archives.  But it remains galling for other historians who cannot gain access to the MI5’s files, and large sections of the footnotes are, in effect, redacted to ‘Security Service Archives’.  On balance, it is important and it is good that Andrew’s book exists, but it does reflect the imperfect environment in which the contemporary British historian operates.

What this does imply, however, is that Walton may be in an interesting position of knowing without being able to spill the beans.  There are, naturally, a large number of citations to Defence of the Realm in Empire of Secrets, but one has to assume that Walton’s view that MI5 played an important role in the decolonisation process was formed in the period in which the Defence of the Realm was being researched, but this is not so well supported in the available archives that have been released to the TNA.  This is, of course, utter speculation but it is at least one possible interpretation of his insistence that intelligence did make a difference and his admission that the available evidence does not do much to change our understanding of the history of the period.

This raises the question of how a historian can deal with a new archive that is not the basis for a revision of previous understandings of the past.  The most obvious choice is to write a history that is heavily based on the contents of the archive, reporting on the archive and placing it in context.  There are such histories emerging based on these security archives, for example James Smith’s British Writers and MI5 Surveillance 1930-1960 (2013) does exactly what it says on the dust sleeve (see my review here).  It is likely that there is simply not enough depth in the released papers on MI5 and decolonisation to take such a case study approach.  What might have been more advisable then is to write a metahistory, one that focuses on the sources, what they say but also where the gaps are.  This could focus on the nature of the sources, how they have been produced and what this says about the nature of their production.  This would, of course, be of interest mainly to professional historians and may have failed to stimulate the interest of publishers.  The third option is to tweak the existing history with the added detail that the new material offers.  This is what, for all its claims, we have here: a general history, starting with the MI5’s pre-war years; a large section on its World War II heyday and a chapter on Palestine to 1948, none of which is directly related to the end of Empire.  Then what follows is a Cook’s tour through various de-colonising moments, from India, to British Guiana, Malaya, the Gold Coast, Kenya, Rhodesia and the Central African Federation and Aden to mark the highlights.  There are also sections on Iran and Suez which provide vital context to decolonisation, but more importantly the special relationship with the USA and its Cold War setting.

I know that it is the fashion now, but it is a particular bugbear of mine that many books (usually at the publisher’s insistence) have footnotes only at the end of a paragraph, not at the end of a piece of information based on that source or group of sources.  Empire of Secrets takes this further, often having a footnote only after two or three paragraphs.  I know no-one but an historian will read skipping between the text and the footnotes (or more accurately endnotes, I’d really like them at the bottom of the page) asking what’s the source here’, but it is important.  Footnotes are not just a courtesy, and not simply to identify the source.  Full access to the provenance of assertions in the text is part of the reading process, and to obscure that information dilutes and confuses historical writing (rant over, for the time being at least).  Here the question is how much of this material is based on these new and breaking archives, and the answer appears not that much, although the nature of the footnoting makes it hard to say for certain.  The issue here is that the bulk of the narrative is carried by secondary sources, even when analysing the security services, casting doubt on the hypothesis that these new sources create a new and transformative element in the historiography.

Thus, much of what is presented here will not be new to anyone who has read Andrew’s Defence of the Realm, Robert Aldrich’s output, particularly his book on GCHQ and the more specialist histories on decolonisation such as David Anderson’s work on Kenya.  Walton’s view is that before the Second World War the security services were amateurish and under-resourced.  The head of MI5 in the 1930s not only declared his role in Who’s Who but included his home address, and even in 1938 the agency had only thirty staff.  The mass internment of German and Italian aliens in 1940 was a sign of MI5’s weakness.  It is persuasive to argue, as Walton does that Britain (domestically at least) was a liberal state with little political policing.  MI5 and the SIS had no police powers, and it they needed to act they had to do so through the police Special Branch.  Although after 1945 much of the wartime security apparatus was dismantled, the security services began to develop a close relationship with the USA in the context of the Cold War.  It is interesting to note in the context of Edward Snowden’s recent revelations that as early as 1950 the British signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, was a conduit to the NSA for intelligence on US citizens to the Federal Government’s National Security Agency, which was (and is) precluded by law from spying on its own citizens.  GCHQ even had its own little bit of sovereign territory in the NSA HQ in Maryland where they could work (although, note, as discussed above, Walton derives this material from secondary sources)

The themes that Walton develops in the role of the security services in decolonisation were failures of intelligence caused not by the agencies themselves, but either by being underfunded or having their intelligence ignored.  Thus, the actions of colonial administrators, politicians and the military all come in for heavy criticism, but the judgement in this book is that the security services do not especially share in that blame.  The evidence here is that where they were given the resources, they produced profiles of nationalist leaders which showed that few were in the thrall of Moscow and acted as a calming influence on Whitehall and counselled against overly aggressive and precipitous action.  In short the intelligence agencies produced intelligence when they were given the resources, but even then their political masters disregarded it.

The point that I would question is whether Walton’s judgement that the actions of British imperial policy makers and colonial administrators can be seen as intelligence failures.  When a group of people repeatedly make the same ‘mistake’ there is often an underlying motivation, it is not a mistake at all.  If advice is ignored, it is because there is a greater force upon the actor.  This can be seen in the British plan to bring the USA on board with their plan to remove the nationalist Mohammad Mosaddegh from power in Iran after 1951.  It is well known that British used the spurious augment that he would further Communist interests as a lever on the Americans.  As Walton himself points out, the British interest was in maintaining control of oil resources, and the ‘failure’ in the policy was in underestimating the degree to which the USA would succeed in shaping an outcome in their own interests.  That Walton can add to this that the security services produced briefings that he was not linked to the Communists thus seems a little beside the point.  Similarly, Britain imprisoned a series of independence leaders (Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah and Hasting Banda to name but a few) despite intelligence reports that they were nationalists not communists.  Walton sees these as intelligence failures, but the repeated pattern of behaviour on the part of British colonial administrators suggests, as with Mosaddegh, that the claim on their independence leaders were in the thrall of Moscow was more a cover for clinging on to power than an error of intelligence.

Walton goes on to argue that the repeated imposition of states of emergency in British colonies was the result of more intelligence failures.  Particularly, Walton believes that well funded intelligence gathering with implanted agents in the nationalist milieu would have allowed colonial administrators to more readily anticipate and diffuse nationalist movements.  Quite aside from the legitimising of such colonial secret policing which this implies, this offers a counter-factual rather than attempting to understand what was happening.  (It is not the historian’s job to say ‘they should have done this’, rather they should look to explain why they did that and what the consequences were.)  It would be interesting to see this material integrated into a more nuanced understanding of what the late Empire was, for example (if David Reynolds’ argument is followed) that it was a ramshackle and under-resourced by-product of Britain’s fading economic dominance of the globe, and in this context the need for status militated against letting go while the lack of resources made it inevitable.

This lack of an over-arching perspective is visible in other places too.  In the context of the treatment of the Mau Mau by the British and local forces acting under their authority in Kenya, there is considerable discussion of torture.  Here Walton sits on the fence, being both unable to say that torture was institutionalised in British imperial rule, and also to be clear that not only did military forces on the ground torture and execute, but that the military hierarchy tolerated such abuses and everyone conspired to kick over the traces when they left.  Walton begins to develop an interesting theme when he argues that the security services’ own playbook suggested that interrogation could only work by gaining the trust and co-operation of the interrogated.  What goes underdeveloped is the idea that as independence movements became more strongly rooted in colonial societies, such appeals to nationalist opponents become less and less credible.  So the use of naked force both became more inevitable and was the last futile gesture of late colonial society.  Walton repeatedly uses the anachronistic term ‘hearts and minds’ to describe the policy (or more often its absence) of winning consent of the ruled in colonies, missing the point that there was little cultural space for pro-imperial sentiment as the sun set on the Empire.  There is much interesting material here that relates to the tension between the desire to maintain colonies but retain good relations with independent states, but it is under-developed.

There are other enticing morsels dangled here.  Hannah Arendt’s view that colonial policing is one source of European authoritarianism is mentioned (in the post-war context, this is probably most notable in France).  So is the idea that by creating poorly trained local security forces in newly independent states that reflected the political control of the metropolis over the colony, a potentially political secret police was created that laid one of the bases for authoritarian rule.  Neither idea is developed.

Empire of Secrets is a wide ranging work with much interesting detail, but perhaps too wide ranging with too much detail.  It does point to the possibility that archival material may be retrievable that will further our understanding of a number of British decolonisations, particularly in Guyana and Kenya.  It does also emphasise that working on new archives is often a thankless task and perhaps evidence that it is the second mouse that gets the cheese.

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One response to “Archives, spies and the end of Empire

  1. Pingback: Archives, Spies and the end of Empire | British Contemporary History

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