Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

The Secret State
Peter Hennessy
London: Penguin, 2003.
£7.99, 320 pages, ISBN 0141008350.

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen


Peter Hennessy is well known as one of the founding fathers of Contemporary Record, now Contemporary British History, a respected, flourishing journal, and for his extensive work on post-1945 Britain (1), and it will therefore come as no surprise that he should have decided to tackle one of the great defining moments of post-1945 history, the so-called Cold War. As he explains in his Introduction, this was not simply a matter of International Relations or Military History but an all-pervading phenomenon which led to the creation of a particular atmosphere in the country:

It is the Cold War which gives the UK of the late forties, the fifties and the sixties one of its most special flavours and distinguishes it from what came after, even though formally the Cold War had another two decades to run.

But at the same time, he correctly adds, ‘The Cold War was a specialists’ confrontation, not a people’s conflict’ and this gives him the underlying leading thread for his book, viz. to what extent was the shadow of the Bomb—which was ever present in the background for the ordinary population—a devious means of political and social control? If patriotism be the last refuge of the scoundrel, can the nuclear threat not be seen as the last refuge of Government officials (‘Whitehall’ in the conventional language of British politics) who have always had the cult of secrecy?

The first victims of a nuclear emergency would have been the Communist Party of Great Britain, identified as the ‘enemy within’, on which MI 5 had eventually accumulated ‘a quarter of a million files’ (a remarkably disproportionate figure if one bears in mind that ‘Party membership had stood at 17,500 at the outbreak of the war in September 1939, fallen to some 14,000 in the period of Nazi-Soviet co-operation and surged to 56,000 at its peak in 1942’). The main Home Front danger, as it was perceived in case of Soviet attack, was a massive strike organised by Communist-controlled Trade Unions. But even MI 5 only estimated that there were 30,000 Communists among the 8.7 million Trade Unionists in the United Kingdom—though they were disproportionately represented in the higher echelons of the Trade Union hierarchy, with ‘thirteen General Secretaries and at least one in eight of all full-time officials’. Moreover, this tiny Communist elite was the subject of permanent surveillance on the part of MI 5 (with the inevitable ‘hidden microphone […] embedded in the wall’ of the Party HQ in King Street, London), and even though Hennessy tell us that ‘The detailed contingency plans for the round-up are not yet declassified’, one can presume that they featured prominently among ‘the usual suspects’ to be rounded up immediately in case of national emergency and transported to the Isle of Man, like the ‘enemy aliens’ and Mosley during the Second World War.

A secondary danger came from the idealists of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament from the mid-1950s—the defining moment being the explosion of the American H-Bomb at Bikini in 1954, with the nuclear contamination of Japanese fishermen 85 miles away, outside the exclusion zone. MI 5 and the CPGB were objective allies against this newcomer. The CPGB was slow to abandon its support of the Soviet nuclear programme, which of course CND condemned. As for MI 5, as Hennessy puts it, ‘the real question for them was what kind of a threat did a non-CP-penetrated CND represent?’ With this we are back to the ‘special flavours’ of the 1960s alluded to in Hennessy’s Introduction, with a magnificent description of the scenes which became routine fare for television viewers:

This element of CND, the image of the aged and distinguished Bertrand Russell sitting down outside the MOD in Whitehall, or demonstrators being carted away, very roughly in some cases, and placed in police ‘Black Marias’ after the Committee of 100’s sit-down in Trafalgar Square on 17 September 1961, is the one that chiefly remains in the popular memory—partly because it was imitated endlessly by the student protest movement, powerfully driven from 1965 by the escalation of the Vietnam War, into which much of CND-style activist politics mutated.

From then on, especially after the March 1968 anti-Vietnam War protest outside the American Embassy, Hennessy continues, ‘the student demo factor was firmly built into transition-to-war planning’. The central question was whether this new subversive threat could be controlled in case of emergency, but unfortunately it is too soon to know the answer given by MI 5, since its report of autumn 1968 to the Chiefs of Staff, Security of the United Kingdom Base in the Pre-Attack Phase of General War, is not yet declassified. It seems that to the traditional CPGB menace the report added ‘known Trotskyist or anarchist groups’, neglecting the threat form ‘other protest groups’ (presumably the CND and anti-Vietnam War students). Now, if the conventional enemy was the Soviet Union, why should ‘known Trotskyist or anarchist groups’, which hated the Stalinists even more than the Capitalists, or CND and anti-Vietnam War petty bourgeois with no particular liking for the Totalitarian State in the abstract, join forces with the Communist Party of Great Britain and its benighted fellow-travellers? In spite of the considerable mass of internal documents which he has examined, Hennessy does not seem able to explain why MI 5 and other services of the ‘secret state’ did not ask themselves this common-sense question. An unpleasant possibility would be that, since all these organisations then shared some form of anti-Americanism, in mild or acute form, the real (though unavowed) definition of the threat was not a potential Soviet attack on Britain, but a weakening of the ‘Special Relationship’, now that Britain had clearly become a client-state of the United States (‘a nuclear mendicant’, as Hennessy caustically calls Macmillan’s Government) for the supply of its missiles. This is of course a complicated issue, as there is no denying than any weakening of the ethical standing of the United States (in Vietnam or elsewhere), by reducing the legitimacy of their massive arms-building, also implied a military weakening of Britain’s position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Therefore, by denouncing the hypocrisy of the international policy of the United States, British anti-American agitators and demonstrators of whatever persuasion could easily be labelled as objective (sometimes naïve, sometimes wily) allies of the Soviet Union in the propaganda war which constituted a large part of the Cold War. If the absolute priority of the British ‘secret state’ was to win the Cold War, it could not afford to tolerate criticism of its only powerful ally and supplier. In this, therefore, there seems to be a perfect logic in the subversives-on-top of-reds-under-the-beds syndrome which characterised much of the period after 1954.

Still, the ‘secret state’ was not very good at finding the real pro-Soviet enemies in its ranks, and Hennessy, whose earlier work (2) makes him one of the experts on the subject, recounts the ‘profound shock’ which followed the arrest of Klaus Fuchs in January 1950, and he points out the irony of Kim Philby being ‘almost certainly one of the chief framers’ of the British security services’ study, The Spread of Communism Throughout the World and the Extent of its Direction from Moscow (September 1946), with the acerbic comment that ‘No doubt Philby directed that very document to Moscow himself’. In connection with this central problem of preserving the secrets of the would-be ‘secret state’, Hennessy has a very interesting and extremely well documented discussion on ‘Positive Vetting’, the practice of obtaining information on proposed recruits to ‘sensitive’ posts.

The centrality of the problem also appears from a societal point of view: if the Soviet Union represents Totalitarianism, what does the Free World stand for? If the answer is personal liberty, then the State interfering with your political opinions (because you may defect to a Communist power) or your sexual practices (because you may be submitted to blackmail by a hostile power) is a contradiction in terms. Hennessy explains very well how much the authorities of the ‘secret state’—all good Britons with a liberal education—were embarrassed by this contradiction. Still ‘PVing’ was gradually extended from the senior Civil Service to the Armed Forces and even to ‘senior officials of Civil Service trade unions who were involved in pay and conditions negotiations on behalf of public servants within the secret state following the Radcliffe Report of 1962 which examined the implications of, among others, the case of John Vassall, the homosexual Admiralty clerk who had been blackmailed into spying for Russia’. Interestingly, Hennessy adds, ‘The vetting of senior politicians has never been admitted’, though new Prime Ministers were given a dossier on their colleagues before making any appointments.

Thus it gradually appeared that fighting the internal security risk, i.e. the elimination of Soviet espionage in Britain, was an uphill struggle, but if news of the Home Front was bad, news of the external menace was even worse—and increasingly so, with the Soviet Union always producing its bombs and the missiles to carry them to Britain earlier than expected by British Intelligence. Hennessy reproduces a gloomily fascinating table prepared by the home defence planners at the time of the Coronation, based on the hypothesis of the Soviet Union dropping 132 A-Bombs ‘of the Nagasaki type’ on selected population areas (35 on Greater London, 12 on Birmingham, etc.) of the United Kingdom: the result was 1,378,000 dead (Hennessy usefully reminds us that the count for the Second World War was 380,000 dead in the Armed Forces and Merchant Navy, plus 60,000 civilians). Estimates of Soviet bomber strategy left a warning-time of between three and sixty minutes, depending on the technique of flying, which dictated radar detection possibilites. By 1961, with the Soviet Union now capable of sending H-Bombs to Britain, only six to nine bombs (even Khrushchev discussed the exact figure with the British Ambassador in Moscow!) would put the United Kingdom out of commission on the first day of a war.

The conclusions were inevitable, and found their way into the Strath report of 1955, which Hennessy sees as ‘one of the most important documents of the 1950s’, rightly giving generous extracts from it: nothing could be done for the general population, chaos would be immediate and ‘in several parts of the shattered kingdom, civilian government would have to give way to military rule for a time’. Curiously, in this connection, Hennessy does not use the Orwellian image of Nineteen Eighty-Four, probably because Big Brother’s status is not clear (though of course one is reminded of Marshal Stalin), but that of Civil War and Commonwealth Britain, with the Government planning ‘to reconvert Britain to a Cromwellian state ruled by Major-Generals with, in this case, literally absolute powers’. Of course the leaders of the country would have access to impregnable shelters—the official language referring to ‘protected accomodation’ while Hennessy bluntly speaks of ‘Bunkerdom’—the ultimate bunker, codenamed TURNSTILE, being intended for the Prime Minister and members of the War Cabinet, with senior military and Intelligence staff—210 people in all, ‘the innermost circle of the Cold War secret state’ (Hennessy provides a full list of functions—no actual names were given—from a document declassified in 2000). The ‘last redoubt’, as Hennessy calls it, was connected with a railway tunnel built by Brunel under the Costwolds near Corsham

Hennessy vividly documents how the JIGSAW discussions which took over from Strath in the 1960s were in the hallowed tradition of Whitehall muddle and improvisation, with the AA (Yes!—not some top secret Atomic Agency, but the good old Automobile Association) playing a role in keeping the Prime Minister informed in case of nuclear attack when he was in his car. The ‘bunker people’, as he calls them, are the first to admit today in interviews that they always had serious misgivings over the unrealistic nature of some of the provisions made for them, like the issue of money by the Treasury when it seemed ‘that the immediate survivors, terrified and desperate, would seek to acquire what they needed by any means available to them—barter, looting, violence or whatever’. By contrast, the Royal Air Force personnel interviewed tends to see the risky missions it would have been called to carry out if surviving the first strike—the attempted retaliatory bombing of Russian cities, piercing Soviet aerial defences—as just another job, which some would have done ‘unhesitatingly’.

The last chapter, an Epilogue on 'The Safety of the Realm: Retrospect and Prospect', has to be read in the light of the contrast recently pointed out by a British Intelligence official, from the point of view of nuclear deterrence, between the supposedly rational Soviet enemy of the Cold War and the new apparently irrational Islamic fanatics of the post-September-11 world: 'How does one deal with an enemy who has no industrial base; doesn't mind dying and would regard being nuked as a short-cut to Paradise?' As Sir Christopher Mallaby put it in 2002, 'the Soviet Union, in its ponderous, bureaucratic way, was predictable. But intelligence in this new world disorder is the world's most difficult jigsaw'. The conclusion which Hennessy suggests does not provide any grounds for optimism, as it seems that the good old Cold War was finally preferable to the current situation - for Whitehall, but also for the general population.

Anyone interested in the post-war history of Britain - and not only of course in its military and diplomatic history - will find the book a 'must-read', since Hennessy uniquely combines the research flair and thorough scholarship of the best historians with the gripping narrative
style of the successful non-academic writers. With its fascinating Appendices, its superb footnoting, its impeccable proof-reading (not a
single misprint was detected) and its comprehensive Index, there is no doubt that The Secret State sets very high standards in the field of publishing on contemporary Britain. If one accepts that the best history writing relies on a subtle balance between the patient obtention, skilful presentation and convincing interpretation of archival and other sources, then The Secret State undoubtedly falls in that category.

*First published London : Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 2002.

(1) Cf. Hennessy, Peter. Never again: Britain, 1945-51. London: Cape, 1992; and Whitehall. London: Secker & Warburg, 1989 (Revised edition with a new final chapter. London: Pimlico, 2001).

(2) Cf. Hennessy, Peter & Brownfeld, Gail. 'Britain's cold war security purge: the origins of positive vetting'. Historical Journal, 25 (1982),
965-74 and Hennessy, Peter & Townsend, K. 'The documentary spoor of Burgess and Maclean'. Intelligence and National Security, 2 (1987), 291-301.




Cercles2003
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.