A British “Way” in Covert Action


Rory Cormac is an associate professor of international Relations at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces, and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy (OUP, 2018). You an follow him at @RoryCormac.

Unacknowledged interference in the affairs of other states is all around us. Most infamously, Russia stands accused of a range of dirty tricks, from meddling in the US presidential election to an attempted assassination on British soil. More generally, covert action is also associated with the United States, the CIA, and Cold War coups, from Iran to Chile.

The UK does it too.

Not only has Britain conducted covert action for hundreds of years, but recent governments have looked to spies and special forces to advance national interests as discreetly as possible.

Such prioritisation is paradoxically visible; security reviews and oversight reports are littered with references to event shaping and disruption as more money is ploughed into the secret state.

Although we can only speculate about ongoing Whitehall debates over how best to wield these tools, it is now possible to reveal a “British Way” of covert action.

It comprises of five parts.

  1. Maintaining the status quo

Covert action masks decline. Successive governments have turned to spies and special forces to hide the gap between Britain’s global responsibilities and its dwindling capabilities. Covert action forms an appealingly inexpensive tool to preserve influence.

For Britain, covert action is rarely – if ever – about expanding power or territory. Instead, leaders always framed it as a counter-attack to maintain the status quo. The notorious attempt to liberate Albania from 1949 was about protecting Greece. Overthrowing the Iranian prime minister in 1953 preserved influence in the face of the nationalist challenge. Operations in the moribund empire were framed as preventative, designed to forestall Moscow’s exploitations of potential power vacuums.

Britain – so it goes – has never done propaganda, only counter-propaganda. Now there is talk of counter-disinformation work.


Quiet influence operations form the vast majority of covert action. It is wrong to think simply in terms of paramilitary activity – such as arming and training rebels. This forms a tiny proportion.

Britain long used propaganda as a cornerstone of covert action. It was a background constant to divide, discredit, and enable other activity, both covert and overt.

Propaganda operations sowed the seeds two years before the 1953 Iranian coup. And in Egypt, although outlandish assassination plans against President Nasser are most memorable, propaganda formed the backbone of the UK’s operations there too.

Propaganda formed a constant during longer campaigns in South Arabia, Indonesia, and Northern Ireland. It provided a backdrop for disruptive and special operations in all three theatres.  The government continues to take what it euphemistically calls information operations or strategic communication very seriously in the ongoing fight against terrorism.


Britain has traditionally been cautious in its covert action. Even the larger operations, such as to liberate Albania, began as small pilot schemes to be scaled up if necessary.

More broadly, covert action is about disruption. Since 1945, SIS has talked of planting stink bombs to disrupt Communist Party meetings; disrupted Egyptian subversive bases in Yemen; disrupted Indonesian military activity against Malaysia; disrupted supply routes feeding the 1970s Omani insurgency; disrupted terrorists in Northern Ireland, Uruguay, and Lebanon; and disrupted Soviet activity in the Afghanistan in the 1980s.

This is still true today. SIS Chief Alex Younger talks leading an upstream service which disrupts terrorists and keeps the enemy in their half of the pitch. This thinking is remarkably similar to Harold Macmillan’s request for SIS to disrupt anti-British activities at source some 60 years ago.

Maximum deniability

Caution leads to indirectness. The British approach is about facilitation. Covert action creates conditions conducive to a coup or, as was the case with collusion in Northern Ireland, killings.

British covert action involved training Albanian émigrés, discreetly encouraging the Indonesian military’s crackdown against Communism, and lobbying other countries to support the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviets during the 1980s.

Britain worked through allies – especially the Americans – and was content to let partners take the blame when things went wrong. The botched overthrow of the Syrian government in the 1950s, for example, is known as the Iraqi Plot – not the British Plot.

Policy integration

Britain relied on a small network of old boys for much of its covert action after the Second World War. They included mavericks such as David Smiley, but the most prominent – and radical – was Julian Amery. He practically served as an unofficial minister for covert action, never far from the shady side of British international relations from the 1940s until the late 1980s.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of covert actions running wild with no accountability. The overwhelming majority of schemes – however outlandish – can be traced back to the prime minister and foreign secretary.

The Foreign Office had a veto throughout the post-war world and covert action remained integrated into policy as far as possible. Although civil servants went round in circles debating whether to organise it through interdepartmental committees or embed it within the Foreign Office, the government maintained control throughout.


Britain’s “way” encompassed many trade-offs. Its “they started it” mentality helped legitimise so-called unBritish activity, but led to a reactive “whack-a-mole” approach. Caution created a mismatch between means and ends: disruption tactics will never be enough to liberate a country. Meanwhile, indirectness increased anonymity and deniability, but at the expense of control.

Despite these trade-offs, Britain has generally – with some notable exceptions – taken a relatively sensible approach to covert action. It embraces pinpricks, pilot schemes, propaganda, and policy integration. That said, there have been moments of madness, not least in Northern Ireland.

We do not know what is going on behind closed doors these days, but Britain’s approach to covert action has remained constant for more than 70 years.

Image: a crowd pulling down the statues of the Reza Shah, Iran, 1953, via wikimedia commons.

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