To celebrate the centenary of the formation of the Security Service (MI5) in 1909, the intelligence historian Christopher Andrew was commissioned by MI5 to write a history of the organisation. Although the author was ‘given virtually unrestricted access’ to nearly 400,000 files, to produce a true history of a secret service is a tricky proposition by definition, and, for the most part, we have to take what he says at face value (the book is impeccably sourced, but most notes bear the bland description, ‘security service archives’). From his previous work on British intelligence, it is also clear that MI5 considered Andrew to be a safe pair of hands, and nothing in this present volume will shake that belief. These caveats apart, his account seems to ring true, and, if nothing else, it allows a rare insight into the workings of the Security Service and how it has protected the United Kingdom from espionage, subversion and terrorism.
MI5 was set up as a branch of Military Intelligence to counter the possibility of German espionage before World War I, as much a consequence of the popular spy mania sweeping the country as any actual danger. In 1914, under the leadership of Vernon Kell, the poorly resourced and poorly manned MI5 enjoyed success in rounding up the more important of the Kaiser’s spies – who, it must be said, were pretty hopeless – as well as making Britain a hostile environment for espionage to flourish. The spying war with Germany would continue into the next round of hostilities, and after an uncertain start it proved a golden age for MI5. The double-cross system developed in 1941 was an undoubted intelligence triumph: all of the Abwehr’s agents operating in Britain were caught and turned by the British, sending a steady stream of false information back to Germany.
The Security Service was less successful in countering Soviet espionage, with all branches of British intelligence penetrated by the Soviets. The exploits of the ‘Magnificent Five’ (Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and Cairncross) are well documented here; they caused real damage to MI5 that continued to have a corrosive effect on the service even after the spies were unmasked. Not only were the KGB and GRU far more skilful than their German counterparts, the sheer weight of Soviet resources directed at Britain made it hard for MI5 to counter the threat. But MI5 did have its victories, and the mass expulsion of 105 Soviet intelligence officers from Britain in 1971 marked a turning point; from then on Soviet influence began to wane.
Until the 1970s MI5 was primarily a counter-espionage and counter-subversion organisation, but the advent of the IRA and Islamicist bombings brought counter-terrorism to the fore. MI5 was slow to react to the IRA, although it faced the problem of not knowing who, among other intelligence agencies, would co-ordinate the British government’s response. MI5 was eventually given the lead role, and through cooperation between it and MI6, the Police and Army, successfully muzzled the IRA bombers. In the battle with Islamic terror, the Security Service should be congratulated for the number of bombing attempts it has foiled, with the obvious exception of the 7/7 bombings in 2005, for which little blame could be attached (the 2010 paperback edition of this book provides additional, new information on these setbacks for the terrorists).
Andrew successfully captures the ethos of MI5 – apparently, a happy organisation – and provides good pen portraits of the eccentric and sometimes lunatic characters that the intelligence world inevitably attracts. And through virtue of the book’s considerable length, he is allowed to develop themes that otherwise would be passed over. There are also many interesting anecdotes and vignettes. To list just one: MI5 was in the forefront in recognising the real danger of Nazi Germany but Kell found himself bashing his head against a brick wall trying to persuade Chamberlain of the threat. In a despairing attempt to catch Chamberlain’s attention, Kell allowed Hitler’s reported description of the British Prime Minister to be forwarded directly to the recipient: the Führer considered him an ‘arsehole’ – which apparently made a ‘considerable impression’, although too late to change British foreign policy.
The Defence of the Realm is a fine work of scholarship, where a veritable mountain of information has been expertly sifted and condensed to provide a coherent and well-written narrative, and through the unprecedented access given to the author it is, and will surely remain, the definitive history of the Security Service’s first 100 years.
Penguin, 1050 pages, £14.99 (p/b); Allen Lane, 1032 pages, £30 (h/b)
Buy DEFENCE OF THE REALM on Amazon