Tudor times apart, together with the brief dictatorship of Cromwell, the British interest in secret intelligence has been a comparatively recent development. And, to be entirely objective, the British have not proved all that good at it. A certain uneasiness overtook the Foreign Office during and after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 when it was discovered that Continental nations were building 'large and influential intelligence organisations within their military establishments', to quote F. H. Hinsley, the sole historian to have been allowed free access to the files of SIS. 'Great Britain had to follow suit.' It did so lamely and rather unsurely through newly-formed and somewhat despised intelligence branches inside the War Office and the Admiralty. Only service drop-outs, or, alternatively, rare intellectuals seemingly unfitted for military and naval command, tended to drift into these branches, such was the prevailing suspicion against any activity as ungentlemanly as spying. A Secret Service Bureau was set up in 1909 to act as a screen between the service departments and the handful of British agents on foreign soil. What the latter brought in was virtually non-existent, and there is a plaintive note in a War Office comment (admittedly bearing the date 1907) which said: 'The only consolation ... is that every foreign government implicitly believes that we already have a thoroughly organised and efficient European Secret Service.'
LRB 18 September 1980 | PDF Download