Book review: The Black Door - Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers

Written by Keith Simpson MP on 20 July 2016 in Culture

As the dust starts to settle on the Chilcot Inquiry, Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac provide a fascinating account of the use of intelligence by successive prime ministers.

The Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War took a lot of evidence relating to the acquisition, analysis and use of intelligence by the British establishment, and in particular by Prime Minister Blair.

In the executive summary of the report there are a number of trenchant observations and criticisms. It can be argued that many of the lessons learnt highlighted by Chilcot have already been acted upon, not least the crucial role of the National Security Council established by Prime Minister Cameron in 2010.

Aldrich and Cormac are Professors of International Relations who have specialised in studies which include GCHQ and the role of British intelligence in countersurgency in former colonies. They have worked the archives both public and private and benefited from off the record briefings by officials, members of the agencies and former ministers.

Surprisingly, it is the first study looking at nineteen successive Prime Ministers from Asquith in 1909 to Cameron in 2015 and how they have used intelligence. When MI5 and MI6 were founded in 1909 Asquith showed little interest and they fought hard to maintain their budgets, their independence and their staff. At various stages over the last one hundred years they have struggled to retain their individual identities – some people have argued for the sake of economy and rationalisation that both services should be combined – and to remain relevant as threats have declined and emerged – the end of the Cold War and the rise of international terrorism.

It is only in the last thirty years that the agencies have been publically acknowledged by the government and placed on a statutory basis. A crucial element in their survival has been the development of cypher and code intelligence and the penetration and reading of those of our foreign and domestic enemies. But the agencies have always had to fight against the tendency of ministers, and Prime Ministers, to publicly use intelligence from this source for immediate political, often party political advantage, ignoring the consequences that those penetrated will alter their codes and increase security. Lloyd George and Baldwin were both guilty as charged.

Aldrich and Cormac are particularly revealing about the government management of intelligence and security, with SIS and GCHQ coming under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Secretary (but for how much longer?) and MI5 under the Home Secretary. The real weakness has been the struggle to bring together intelligence and analysis as is shown by the history of the Joint Intelligence Committee first established in the 1930s.

But it is the interest shown in and use of intelligence by successive Prime Ministers which makes The Black Door so fascinating. Aldrich and Cormac show that both Churchill and Attlee revolutionised the relationship between intelligence and No 10. Churchill was fascinated by intelligence and in wartime gave the agencies the resources they needed and relied upon the committee structures to process the raw material, but at his worse consumed too much of the unrefined data and jumped to too many conclusions to browbeat the chiefs of staff.

Attlee maintained close personal links with the heads of the agencies and was a shrewd judge of character. Eden misused intelligence, particularly over Nasser and Egypt, and used carefully selected data to bolster his predetermined policy – something Blair and his associates would repeat in the lead up to the Iraq War. Heath and Callaghan wore the duties of intelligence oversight lightly, whilst Wilson became paranoid about the agencies being implicated in plots against him. Whilst Thatcher, like Churchill, had a boundless enthusiasm for intelligence, she was, nevertheless, sceptical of their ability to protect and enhance British interests. She was apt to use private individuals and organisations in her war against global communism.

Under Major there was a significant shift towards more openness and oversight and an emphasis on “economic well-being” which involved spying on one’s allies and partners – nothing new there but it became increasingly significant to compensate for the UK’s loss of real power. Aldrich and Cormac’s damning indictment of Blair was that he was “an incompetent intelligence consumer and poor manager of secret service.”

In setting up the NSC Cameron created a formal mechanism to force interaction between the heads of intelligence and the top policy makers. This created greater efficiency and coordination but allows a Prime Minister to cherry pick intelligence and to think that intelligence provides the answer to ever difficult problem.

The UK intelligence establishment has had a renaissance after the post Cold War doldrums and a new raison d’etre with the emergence of global terrorism.

In many significant areas it provides quality raw material and analysis which carries weight with the USA and other allies. But the agencies themselves realise they are engaged in new multi-dimensional challenges, including cyber warfare, and that they cannot always provide an immediate answer, whilst Prime Ministers are in danger of being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of intelligence. They need the qualities of both Churchill and Attlee.



Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland and books editor for Total Politics.


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