The British secret service from 1918 to 2009

The end of the First World war saw a great reduction in the size, scope and remit of the intelligence service. In 1919 the Secret Service Committee was created to look at the organisation and direction of British intelligence.The German threat had been defeated, but in its place was a better organised and more menacing foe – The Soviet Union. Bolshevism had triumphed with the 1917 revolution, and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, known as MI6) lost no time in trying to infiltrate agents and spies in an attempt to see what is going on.

The changing threat was also reflected, subtly at first, by a changing definition of intelligence. Although still overwhelmingly military in content, “intelligence” began to get more involved in political matters: at home a growing concern in the 1920s was Soviet involvement in workers’ strikes, while abroad the Comintern tried to spread the communist revolution worldwide.

Not everyone thought that the intelligence services were a good thing. The highest profile opponent was the Foreign Office, which disliked MI6 for two reasons: espionage was seen as ungentlemanly, and the fact that agents abroad were attached to British military missions undermined the gentle efforts of the Foreign Office, similarly, any attempt of MI5 or MI6 to get involved in diplomatic intelligence was seen as treading on their toes.

These views only began to change in the late 1930s and with a resurgence of the German threat. By the outbreak of war in 1939, MI5 and MI6 had been complemented by the Joint Intelligence Committee, an overseeing body designed to bring together the disparate elements of the intelligence apparatus in an attempt to avoid duplicating effort.

British Intelligence in Dublin 1920

Britain’s intelligence services again had the good war. Although some elements were terminated after the conflict, SOE being the best known, the intelligence agencies continued to flourish – largerly because the foreign threat seemed so real. The Sovie Union once more became public enemy number 1, and despite the rise of other foes, it remained the core function of British intelligence. In 1990/1 that all changed with the collapse of the Soviet block and the end of the Cold War. To many people the intelligence agencies had won and were no longer needed, but for those in the shadows the work continued – though the diversified threat required a new set of responses.

MI6 Headquarter

Today the work of the intelligence agencies is in the public sphere like never before. The main agencies have websites, open recruitment and, starting in late 2009, authorised histories will be published on MI5, MI6, and the Joint Intelligence Committee. Intelligence is no longer the missing dimension of governmental work, yet its work remains as crucial now as it did 100 years ago.