Letting it get out

Bernard Williams

  • Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation by Sissela Bok
    Oxford, 332 pp, £12.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 19 217733 8
  • The Secrets File: The Case for Freedom of Information in Britain Today edited by Des Wilson, foreword by David Steel
    Heinemann, 166 pp, £4.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 435 83939 X

It is often said that the British are obsessively interested in secrecy. It is less often said how deep and peculiar this obsession is, and how much more there is to it than the well-known fact that British authorities are exceptionally secretive. Our interest is in secrecy as much as in secrets: it is the process, the practices and irregularities of keeping and revealing secrets, that concerns us. This interest in process rather than in content, together with the unconstructive and unfruitful nature of the obsession as it is regularly displayed, for instance, in the Sunday papers’ excitement about spies, makes it like an attachment to pornography. It is typical of it that we find it hard to distinguish fantasy and reality. The unceasing scratching at past espionage is obscene partly because fact and fiction have merged: Blunt, Bill Haydon, Smiley, Peter Wright seem by now all at the same distance.

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