The Defence of the Realm (Christopher Andrew)

*****

As the cover helpfully says, this is an authorised history of MI5 (more lately, the Security Service) from its beginnings shortly before the First World War to more-or-less the present day.

And I was certainly kept very interested–I spent more-or-less a whole day in my dressing gown since I couldn’t tear myself away from the book to get dressed.  There are 1044 pages in my Penguin paperback, of which 861 are the main text and the remainder are appendices, notes, and an index.  Actually the index isn’t that useful–it really only allows you to look up proper names and isn’t very helpful for general themes.

Why is it so interesting?  I think it’s because everything’s so clear at the beginning where it’s clear who the bad guys (Germans) are, what they want to do, how we want to stop them and what happened.  ‘What happened’ is clear because as well as the action being relatively simple, the author isn’t constrained by having to wriggle round what he’s not allowed to say.  So you follow him confidently into the murkier areas of Soviet espionage, counter-subversion and counter-terrorism.

Can you believe what he says (or is he hopelessly constrained by his position as authorised historian)?  Well, writing about Bloody Sunday (on p 620) the author says:

Major General Robert Ford, Commander of Land Forces, insisted that ‘There is absolutely no doubt that the`Parachute Regiment opened up only after they were fired on.’  Nationalists were convinced that, on the contrary, the British soldiers were guilty of premeditated murder.

That’s entirely even-handed, and we now have the conclusion from the Saville Enquiry that the military view given above is not in accordance with the facts.

Andrew does seem keen to discredit the various renegade (or repentant) Security Service operatives like Cathy Massiter and Michael Shayler (and indeed Peter Wright) who have surfaced over the years.  That leads to one asking if they were so awful, how did they get taken on in the first place.  In fact Andrew seems to be broadly sympathetic to Security Service attempts to join the modern world in recruitment, training, and indeed having a legal basis, while sharing its antipathy to performance indicators.  One could ask would he (or indeed they) like to live next to a nuclear power station that eschewed quantitative indicators since an explosion would only happen once.

It’s interesting to see things from a different angle:  for instance, the Official Secrets Act as a necessary and overdue piece of legislation, rather than an instance of war hysteria.  And similarly to see what we have lost:  the Post Office refusing to allow opening of suspects’ letters, since it would destroy public trust in the mail, and the meticulous respect for private property.  We were free once, and now we’re just frightened…It’s interesting to contrast the detailed description of procedures for intercepting mail and obtaining Home Office Warrants for telechecks (phonetapping) with the complete silence about more contemporary methods of communication.

Certainly a completely absorbing day’s reading.  It’s actually a very easy read–I can’t remember any instances of acronyms of personages being introduced without prior explanation, and there weren’t any of the authorial tics that can become so irritating when repeated over 1000 pages or so.

Picture of Christopher Andrew from 'Novoe vremya'

Among the reactions in the Russian press, Vedomosti are surprised that Klaus Fuchs expected to be left alone even after being found out, that MI5 had to mount a PR campaign to expel the 105 Soviet ‘diplomats’ in 1971, and the amount of freedom that Andrew was given indeciding what secret materials to refer to, while Novoe vremya are most interested in the details of defectors from the Soviet side.

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