Jan/Feb 2001 Book Reviews

MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations

Stephen Dorril
Fourth Estate

reviewed by David Skea

This is a historian's book and is, literally, a heavy book. It runs to some 900 pages, starting off with a six page list of acronyms and ending with sixty pages of notes and then a forty page index. So, what with the physical effort of holding it up to read and the frequent referencing, first to the list of acronyms at the front and then to the notes at the back, it does not make for an easy read. The contents do not make for an easy read either. If you are expecting a Le Carré or Ian Fleming style of story-telling then you will be disappointed This text is packed full of names and events written in a factual, rather dry, historian's style which, after twenty pages or so, begs for you to take a rest. Taking it up again inevitably means back tracking for a few pages just to pick up the story-line again. Each page is a dense compilation of facts and events difficult at first to grasp due to, in my case, unfamiliarity with the people involved. Consequently it has taken me some four months to get through it all. A refresher course in post WW2 political history would have helped.

The book is divided into sections each more or less self contained and tracks MI6's post WW2 activities, from a hot to a cold war, through Soviet Russia, the Balkans, the Middle East to modern times. Dorril would have it that immediately after WW2 MI6's activities were based on Britain's pre-war attitudes and practices, more at home in the clubs of Pall Mall and St James and little suited to a post-imperial power virtually bankrupt from the war. Consequently it would seem that management of Britain's post war intelligence-gathering activities were left in the hands of a mixture of frustrated former members of the wartime SOE, desperate for active military engagement, reactionaries who were more afraid of the then British Labour government than of the red menace abroad, and a few socialist devotees for whom communism was the future and spying the career of choice. And what did this mean? To some, WW2 had been merely an interlude in the long fight against communist Russia and hence after WW2 the battle was renewed. The end justified the means and if Nazis wanted for war crimes and murder were recruited and given new identities, because they had access to useful people 'on the other side', that was just one of the prices that had to be paid.

Dorril reports that writing about MI6 was not an easy task. It is impossible, under the British laws presently shielding MI6 and its sister service MI5, to write about its daily activities, and readers will no doubt be aware of the British Governments reactions to Peter Wright's book and of its attempts to prevent the recently retired head of MI5 from publishing her memoirs. However MI6 does have a history, and a lot of this is now in the public domain—far more than anyone had realised, least of all the secret agencies. He acknowledges the help of many—names no doubt that will be familiar to those "in the trade"—also the sterling and greatly appreciated efforts of the staff at Huddersfield public library.

So how much of this is believable? Stephen Dorril has been a researcher and writer on the activities of the security and intelligence services and related aspects of contemporary history for nearly 20 years. The book is well researched and, with the notes and referencing, would meet the requirements for a thesis at most universities. Most of what he writes is arguably true (how true only MI6 can say) and in time this book will no doubt become a valuable resource for those researching late 20th century political history. However, believing it all offends me morally. One is left with the feeling of: is all this cloak and dagger malarkey really necessary in this day and age? Is punishing the innocent and rewarding the guilty the right way to continue into the 21st century? Do the ends really justify the means? I think not. Perhaps if more people read this book they might think the same and who knows in time things might change. However I'm not optimistic.

PS: Although the book is full of acronyms it is well edited. I only came across one typo. Once BOAR is used instead of BAOR. Or maybe I had my eyes shut later on!


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