Despite being one of the best known and long-lived police units, books providing detailed histories of Special Branch are thin on the ground. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the secret nature of its work. On the other hand, one sees quite a few histories of its counterpart, MI5. So perhaps it is often, and mistakenly, seen as the poor relation in the spook family, despite the fact that it pre-dates most other spook organisations in the UK.
The last book which offered a comparable insight was Nigel Allason’s The Branch: A History of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, covering the area 1883 – 1983 and containing deliberate obfuscations. (N.B. the author is better-known of his writing as “Nigel West”).
Thus, I was looking forward to seeing what this book had to offer, not least as the authors were two former members of Special Branch. That they are not professional writers is immediately obvious; this book is not something you would sit down with for an enthralling read.
Given that the authors are both former Special Branch officers, one would expect a bit of an insiders’ viewpoint. If they really bring anything new to the story it is not clear, particularly given how much they focus on the better documented first half of Special Branch’s existence. The period for which they presumably served is far more reticent on detail. It is telling of the secrecy with which the affairs of Special Branch are still conducted today, that ‘a history’ written by insiders is little more than a PR piece dependent on sources already in the public domain.
The book does not stretch the history of the subject particularly or add much beyond updating Allason’s work. The recounted stories are not really new, and much can already be found elsewhere, in contemporary papers or in histories of MI5. The reliance on Christopher Andrew’s official history of the latter is readily apparent to anyone who had gone through that tome in detail.
The main focus is on the Irish aspect of Special Branch work, discretely shoving much of its other questionable activity to one side. There is no question of whether what they were doing was right or wrong, or acknowledgement that people would be concerned by Special Branch’ activities and the lack of oversight. Nor is there any discussion of internal politics which might have given enlightening insights into the unit.
In short, there is not much in the way of self-doubt to be found here. Something I found particularly offensive is that they completely skirt over the work of one of its units, the Special Demonstration Squad. Given that the publication of this book was just months before the SDS is to be the subject of a public inquiry, that is beyond remiss. This is even harder to stomach when on closer reading it becomes apparent that at least one of the authors is quite familiar with the inner workings SDS.
Reading this book would give you the impression of a solid, efficient police organisation, staying on mission to save the UK with a stiff upper-lip as they put the country first, indubitably correct in their assessment of the enemies of the state. However, the authors’ unwavering loyalty ultimately makes this history anodyne. Anyone who has been following the spycops saga is perfectly entitled to ask in a sardonic voice, ‘really?’
In conclusion, if you are looking for a basic overview or starting point of the subject, then get this book – it is a nice collection in one place of most things we already knew, providing a handy reference rather than magisterial oversight. Otherwise, the sins of omission will only make you angry.