Cover image of "Empire of Secrets," a book about British Cold War espionage

Six pivotal events set the course of history in the twentieth century. The emergence of the United States as the world’s preeminent economic and military power. The Bolshevik and Chinese Revolutions. World Wars I and II, often lumped together into a latter-day Thirty Years War. And decolonization, accelerated by the dissolution of the British Empire. The last-named of these events is the subject of Empire of Secrets, Calder Walton’s illuminating study of British intelligence at “the twilight of Empire.” It’s a penetrating look at the dark side of British Cold War espionage.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Cold War espionage in a quarter of the world

At the onset of World War II, Britain’s empire spanned the world, covering one-quarter of the planet’s land-mass and housing one-quarter of its people. By 1965, just two decades after the conclusion of the war, little was left of the empire. And the imperial linchpin, India—encompassing the present-day nations of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh and including two-thirds of the empire’s population—had long since gone its own way, gaining its independence in 1947. But the process of decolonization was far from smooth. In six of its colonies—Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Rhodesia, Cyprus, and Aden—Britain faced long-running armed insurgencies. “Burying the British empire was a far more bloody affair than has previously been acknowledged or supposed,” Walton writes. Elsewhere, discontent led to less violent conflict, but conflict it was. And the challenge that represented forced the mother country’s intelligence establishment into a leading role in managing the separation.

Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War, and the Twilight of Empire by Calder Walton (2012) 406 pages ★★★★☆

Photo of Indian Prime Minister addressing a crowd on the country's Independence Day, August 15, 1947, an event accelerated by the role of Cold War espionage in the former colony
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, often regarded as the architect of modern India, addressing a newly independent India on the country’s Independence Day, August 15, 1947. This event is widely regarded as the most momentous in the decades-long history of decolonization. Image: Wikipedia

“Shameful acts and crimes” as the empire dissolved

After a cursory history of British intelligence from the nineteenth century through World War II, Walton depicts the role of MI5 country by country in a roughly chronological order, usually beginning in 1945. He covers all the hot spots, focusing largely on the six nations where Britain fought against a determined insurgency before granting independence. Americans today, preoccupied by memories of the protracted wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, rarely remember the violence that erupted around the world as former European colonies sought to leave the empire. But the fighting in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Rhodesia, Cyprus, and Aden in the years leading up to their independence dominated headlines around the world for years.

Meanwhile, although the process was far more peaceful, Britain, with MI5 playing a prominent role, was engaged in a contentious struggle in dozens of other colonies, notably including Ghana (then the Gold Coast) and Guayana (then British Guiana)—not to mention India, which dominated Britain’s fears about its empire throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Walton also chronicles the behind-the-scenes-role of British intelligence in the US-engineered 1953 coup in Iran, which brought Shah Reza Palavi to power, and the 1956 British-led assault on Egypt in the Suez Crisis. And none of this paints a pretty picture. Walton quotes liberally from primary sources “detailing the most shameful acts and crimes committed in the last days of the British empire.”

How Britain punched above its weight in the world

During the protracted process of decolonization, Britain’s MI5 was the imperial security service. The country’s better-known Secret Intelligence Service, SIS or MI6, generally took a back seat to their colleagues and sometime rivals at Thames House. When the former colonies gained their independence, the two switched places, with SIS taking the leading role. Of course, the newly independent countries might well have sent Britain’s spies packing. But that didn’t happen. With only a few exceptions, the former colonies chose not to break all ties with Britain. Nearly all remained members of what is today the 54-nation Commonwealth of Nations. Encompassing nearly all of the former empire, the Commonwealth continues to inflate Britain’s stature in the world. And that’s largely due to the continuing role of the UK’s intelligence establishment in its former colonies.

MI5 maintains overseas stations in many of the nations of the Commonwealth. And, perhaps even more significantly, Britain’s GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), its counterpart to the American National Security Agency, is responsible for signals intelligence in the 54 nations of the Commonwealth in an arrangement with the US (and largely funded by the Americans). Thus, “the intelligence provided by Britain’s secret services allowed London to punch far above its weight in the years after 1957, for the rest of the Cold War.” It’s unclear to me to what extent that may still be true. However, what is true is that GCHQ is one of the “Five Eyes” alliance through which Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand pool their signals intelligence.

Map of the Commonwealth of Nations, where Britain still maintains spy outposts as a legacy of Cold War espionage
The Commonwealth of Nations today (formerly the British Commonwealth). Image: World Population Review

The sad legacy of the British Empire

Americans have long questioned the British establishment’s perspective that its empire played a positive role in the world. Although Britain built railroads and ports and built schools and hospitals, the benefits flowed largely to a tiny native elite. And the entire enterprise was dominated by overt racism and an unabashed policy of using the colonies as markets for British goods while treating them as sources of raw materials.

But it was not just the racism, draconian economic policies, and official violence of colonization that doomed so many of the world’s former colonial states to poverty. A large share of the world’s population today lives within borders arbitrarily drawn by the colonial powers. Apart from the catastrophic decision to partition India, catapulting the world’s largest Muslim population into conflict with the even more numerous Hindus, much of the African map features straight lines and other irrational borders that throw together disparate and often antagonistic groups of people. The British are responsible for much of that. Some, not all, of those groupings disappeared with the end of empire. But border wars continue to flare up in Africa to this day as a direct result.

About the author

Photo of Calder Walton, author of this book about British Cold War espionage
Calder Walton. Image: Bennett Craig – Belfer Center

Calder Walton is an Assistant Director at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He specializes in the history of intelligence, broadly concerned with grand strategy and international relations. Empire of Secrets is based on research he conducted as a graduate student at Trinity College of the University of Cambridge. His new book, Spies, will be published in 2023. Its focus is the intelligence war that Russia has been waging against the West for a century. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his partner, Catherine, and son, Hayden.

For an interesting take on this book which puts it into the larger perspective of British writing on the Empire, see Ed Vullaimy’s review in The Observer (January 31, 2013).

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