For decades now James Bond has vied with the queen as the personification of Britain for the rest of the world. This is perhaps more appropriate than many realize, for as Rory Cormac documents in his book covert action — a term denoting activities ranging from propaganda efforts to direct political and economic manipulation —has emerged in the postwar era as a prominent tool of British foreign policy. His book describes the development of this approach, as well as its successes in failures in achieving British goals in an era of imperial decline and global eclipse by the postwar superpowers.
The employment of covert action was not something that the British embraced at first. Though Britain has a long history of intelligence activities, Cormac notes that it was not until the Second World War that the British professionalized their efforts. In the aftermath of the war, the Foreign Office took over the direction of intelligence activities abroad, a move with important ramifications for their subsequent employment. Though the first foreign secretary to exercise this control, Ernest Bevin, was initially reluctant to utilize covert action, deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union soon led to its employment in response to Soviet aggression. Often in close cooperaton with the Americans, British covert activities increasingly became a preferred tool of achieving British aims, albeit not always successfully.
This was true as well in the areas of Britain's former imperial control. Here British leaders were far less reluctant, seeing covert action as a useful means of maintaining influence in areas long viewed as part of their sphere of influence. Over time, however, the use of covert activities proved increasingly controversial politically, and nowhere was this more true than in Northern Ireland. With the ongoing Troubles the region soon became a hive of intelligence activity in the aftermath of the army's failure to restore peace, though many of the activities operated in a grey zone legally. By the end of the Cold War, though, covert action was nonetheless established as a useful tool for achieving Britain's goals abroad, one employed down to the present day.
Cormac's book offers a highly enlightening overview of an often little understood dimension of British foreign policy. While many of the details may be familiar from the reporting of journalists and the headline-grabbing revelations of memoirists, Cormac's archival digging and inter-connective analysis exposes the degree to which covert activities have established themselves as an essential tool of policy execution. Though stronger in its earlier chapters (reflecting perhaps the greater abundance of information available to him), this is nonetheless a book that will be enjoyed by students of both the history of British intelligence and of postwar British foreign policy. By shining a light into these long-shadowed activities, Cormac has helped us to better understand the role they have long played, even if it was unappreciated both and the time and for decades afterward.