A fresh exploration of MI5’s role in the prickly process of extricating Britain from its colonial grip.
Having worked closely as a research assistant on Christopher Andrew’s official history of MI5 (Defend the Realm, 2009), historian Walton introduces much newly declassified information for a startling look at the Security Service’s role in smoothing the transition of power as Britain began, after World War II, to relinquish (or lose) its hold over its colonial empire. Unlike Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, in charge of gathering intelligence from foreign (non-British) sources, the domestic MI5 was also delegated as Britain’s imperial intelligence service, in charge of counterespionage, countersabotage and countersubversion across the colonial empire. Walton is certainly an expert in sifting through these layers of official distinctions, and he writes with methodical authority, first examining how the services were formed in 1909 during peacetime in response to fears about Britain’s “colonial frailty” in the aftermath of the Boer War, considered by some as the first blow to the British colonial bulwark. Gradually, in the 1930s, MI5 began posting officers to British territories overseas, moving from a skeleton crew to a growing force of career professionals, especially after World War II as the Cold War kicked in and terrorism in the Middle East ramped up. From here, Walton moves from one hot spot to another, tracing MI5’s counterterrorist measures in Palestine, the Malayan Emergency, and insurrection in African colonies like the Gold Coast, Nigeria and Kenya. These measures were more brutally executed than the British record had previously allowed—e.g., the quelling of the Mau Mau insurgency of 1952. MI5’s mission was to keep former British colonies from drifting into the Soviet orbit and to vet newly elected leaders of communist tendencies.
A good first step at clarifying decades of official lies and failures.