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Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.

 

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Disrupt and Deny

Spies, Special Forces, and the secret pursuit of British Foreign Policy

 

Rory Cormac

 

OUP,   10 May 2018

As Britain is under attack from covert forces on a more evident basis, Cormac’s new book is timely. He is Associate Professor of International  Relations at Nottingham, specialising in intelligence history. The book primarily covers the period since WW2; the shrinking British Empire and severe economic pressures after the toll of WW2 made an increase in covert action very attractive for our political leaders. It was a force multiplier “a means of closing – or at least concealing   - the growing gap between responsibilities and resources….Leaders obviously do not take public credit for covert action, but it creates a space in which their interests can be more overtly pursued.

 

The Middle East was (and remains) an obvious playground, with continued economic interests in the region’s energy assets even as we withdrew from the likes of Aden. Perhaps the most continuous thread in the narrative is the unceasing struggle between the Foreign Office and the military for control of covert operations;  the former predictably reticent, and focussing on deniability, the latter more gung-ho. Lord Selborne, wartime Minister of Economic Warfare (in charge of SOE),  is quoted as saying that putting the FO in charge “would be like inviting an abbess to supervise a brothel”!! There are plenty of tales in the book which suggest that the two sides were engaged in such internecine warfare that the common enemy was sometimes overlooked.  Such episodes are enlightening in the context of the British reaction to this year’s Skripal affair.

 

The book is academically rigorous: there are, for example, typically more than 150 references for each chapter! At times the narrative is less than spell-binding – it reads more like an extended PhD thesis. And, unavoidably no doubt, there are periods when raw material is thin. This improves when more recent times are discussed, particularly in the coverage of Northern Ireland (where obviously there is at least some access to protagonists on both sides of the struggle).

 

Overall a reasonable reference volume, but not as gripping a read as might have hoped.