A World Shaped by Spying – Literature review by Robert Dover

Dr Robert Dover (University of Leicester) reviews:

  • Christopher Andrew, The Secret World, Allen Lane (London), June 2018, pp.960, ISBN-13: 978-0713993660

  • Mark Urban, The Skripal Files: The Life and Near Death of a Russian Spy, MacMillan (London), October 2018, pp310, ISBN-13: 978-1-5290-0688-9

“The clichés around intelligence being a much-misunderstood activity, of it being the ‘hidden wiring’ are clichés precisely because they contain a large kernel of truth. Both the books under review here aim to illuminate this activity, and to perform a kind of public service.

For Christopher Andrew, his canvas is wide and ambitious – he is aiming to explain and understand the role that intelligence has played throughout our development as an organised species, whilst making some narrower points about how policy makers and politicians continually under-perform because they are incapable of learning lessons from intelligence history. Mark Urban’s canvas is more limited, in the sense that he focuses in on an individual caught up in sweeping moments of contemporary history, and then someone who becomes the focus of what might become a pivot in international affairs.

But they are both interested in the same core questions, that of the role and use of intelligence, the impact that intelligence operations can have on individuals and on politics. We can extract broad lessons from both books, and curiously the length of The Secret World does not help it yield more advanced or more numerous lessons – as one might have expected. I will take each book in turn, because that offers some clarity and simplicity, but also because the two books – whilst offering similar qualities – are very different, as will become clear.”