Defence of the Realm: The Official History of MI5
MI5’s history has been shrouded in mystery for a long time, despite various embarrassing disclosures and the whole Peter Wright legal struggle. For the first time, however, MI5 has consented to allow a historian access to its achieves to produce the first official history of MI5 – which joins a series of various unofficial disclosures from people who worked for MI5 in the past. It is a weighty tome, but very interesting, even though it is surprisingly – or perhaps unsurprisingly – disingenuous in places.
The story starts back before the First World War, when Britain was caught up in the invasion scare and there was a popular belief that the ‘Security Service’ would take care of the German spies. That belief, as this book makes clear, was not rooted in fact – the Security Service had barely been born, although it already had fame, both inside and outside Britain. It became very involved with tracking German spies and agents and, although always short of manpower, was able to round up most of the German agents on the outbreak of war. As is well known to most interested people, MI5 effectively ran the German intelligence networks in the UK during both World Wars and was able to collect a surprising number of German accolades for ‘its’ agents. This sometimes bordered upon farce – the book lists a series of incidents when the entire network came far too close to disaster – yet it all held together remarkably well.
MI5’s role during the inter-war period was sometimes murkier. It became involved with communist subversion and counter-fascist activity – Mosley and co do not seem to have been much of a threat, despite close links with Germany – although it missed out on a set of leads that would have led it right to the Cambridge Five, the most accomplished group of Russian spies in Britain. (Ironically, the Russians never quite believed their own success and feared that it was all a plot.) It also had few illusions about Hitler and attempted to warn the government that Hitler could never be trusted, although its warnings were not always heeded. Possible links with German anti-nazis were ignored and Hitler was allowed to gain supreme power unopposed.
The book goes into considerable details of the post-war period, when the Labour Government was more than a little suspicious of MI6. Some Labour PMs suspected that MI5 was a bastion of the establishment, although many changed their tune when they realised how many of their backbenchers had been contaminated by the communists – mainly represented through the CPGB, a mouthpiece for Moscow. Ironically, the Communists lost much of their influence after Moscow embarked upon a series of moves that were very difficult to ‘spin’ in their favour, although their subversion remained a clear and present threat. They attempted to gain control over Trade Unions and other potential leavers, as well as peace groups and suchlike. The CND, among other groups, was backed by Moscow. It is sometimes hard to tell how much of a threat the communists actually represented. The book seems to veer between a monolithic hive mind and a handful of men plotting in basements.
It also covers the Cambridge Five and the disaster they represented. It is alarmingly clear that MI5 got much closer to the truth than is commonly realised, although it was far too late to prevent most of the damage. Peter Wright – of Spycatcher fame – comes across as a paranoid fool, suspecting the then-DG of MI5 (Roger Hollis) of being the ‘sixth man’. It is hard not to wonder if Wright had a point – Hollis was never very effectual as a DG.
The book is at its most disingenuous when dealing with the War on Terror. It admits to failures in procedure that allowed terrorists to strike in London on 7/7, yet it misses out on various vital facts. It is very well known that warnings had been coming in for years about the activities of Abu Hamza and his band of terrorist-traitors, including several who would later appear in Afghanistan. London was warned by people as disparate as the American CIA, the French, various reporters and even members of the Muslim community…and nothing was done. Given a priceless opportunity to demonstrate strength and resolve, London and MI5 fumbled the ball and wrecked ghastly damage on the war effort. The book doesn’t even give a nod to these problems, preferring to concentrate on the issue of bureaucratic nonsense and other such stupidities that were beginning to creep into MI5. MI5 was left playing catch-up after 7/7, a catch-up that should never have been necessary. An open admission that the system was flawed would have gone much further.
Overall, this book is a fascinating glimpse into a very different world. It’s well worth a read, but it is also worth studying carefully – and never quite taking anything for granted.