Exit strategists

Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire, by Calder Walton, HarperPress, RRP£25, 448 pages

The end of empire is a familiar story. To old imperialists it was a shame-faced retreat, a scuttling away; to more progressive types it was an overdue recognition that the colonial era had passed, that freedom and self-determination were the twin pillars of the modern age.

“Intelligence”, Calder Walton writes, “is the missing dimension of the history of British decolonisation.” Empire of Secrets, his first book, sets out to rectify this omission by examining the role played by the Security Service, popularly known as MI5. Walton reckons that the British retreat from empire was “in general relatively smooth and successful” – especially compared with the “disorderly withdrawals” of France, Holland and Belgium. Some of the credit for this should go to the Security Service, which provided “the fancy footwork” during these years.

Empire of Secrets claims to be “the first study devoted to examining the involvement of British intelligence” over this period. It does, however, owe much to Christopher Andrew’s best-selling history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm (2009). Readers familiar with Professor Andrew’s book will recognise many of the quotations and anecdotes – indeed, Walton himself admits to “overlap”. That there is a degree of academic consanguinity is scarcely surprising, since Walton was Andrew’s research assistant and wrote his Cambridge doctoral thesis on the subject.

The originality of Empire of Secrets lies in the way Walton mines recently released Security Service archives to reveal the part that the secret state played in the public drama of Britain’s colonial retreat. Inevitably, it had an important contribution to make in combating the insurgencies that flared up against British rule in Mandate Palestine, Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus. Intelligence gathered on future nationalist leaders Kwame Nkrumah in the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, for example, allowed MI5 to calm fears that Britain was handing its former colonies over to communist stooges of the Soviet Union.

Empire of Secrets is a good read: Walton’s prose bounds along, the nitty-gritty detail of intelligence leavened with occasional flashes of humour. He is also robust in his judgments. He has no truck, for example, with the notion that the Jewish terrorist gangs that operated in 1940s Palestine should be glorified as “freedom fighters”. Likewise, he rejects as “inappropriate” any comparisons between the mass detentions of Mau Mau by the British in Kenya and the Soviet gulag system.

Walton has had access to the first tranche of declassified Colonial Office files from the “lost” archive at Hanslope Park. This archive, consisting of 8,800 files from 37 different British dependencies secretly removed by colonial officials as they departed, contains some of the grubbiest secrets of the end of empire.

Declassification of the archive began in April 2012; before that, the British government had always denied that it even existed. The archive reveals, for example, evidence that Britain operated a “shoot to kill” policy against terrorists in Malaya in the 1950s. It also lays bare the disreputable way in which Britain forcibly removed the population of the tiny Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia in order to make way for a US military base. Work on the archive’s secrets has only just begun; much is yet to be revealed.

The fruit of nearly a decade’s research, Empire of Secrets is an important addition to the literature on decolonisation. It shines new light into the murky world of intelligence that underpinned the formalities of departure, the anthems and flag-lowering ceremonies, the wheeling parades and high-flown sentiments of nationalism.

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