Boarder or Day Boy?

Bernard Porter

  • The Culture of Secrecy in Britain 1832-1998 by David Vincent
    Oxford, 364 pp, £25.00, January 1999, ISBN 0 19 820307 1

It was Richard Crossman who described secrecy as ‘the British disease’. As with other alleged vices anglais – strikes, spanking and sodomy spring to mind – this seems on the surface to be unfair. Other societies have undoubtedly been as secretive. Soviet Russia, for example: I don’t suppose it was any easier to see your medical records there than it is here. But there are at least two British peculiarities. One is the depth of our secrecy. Not only are we secretive, we are secretive about how secretive we are. We aren’t allowed to know, and don’t on the whole seem to care, what is being kept from us. That is rather special; and a major factor, claims David Vincent in this path-breaking book, in our governance.

It can have ludicrous effects. One was the refusal to acknowledge that we had any ‘secret services’: until recently, MI5 and MI6 had no official existence. Questions about them in Parliament were ignored; writing to them was like sending messages to Father Christmas; they operated from invisible headquarters: shoddy office blocks in London, blanks on the Ordnance Survey map. The contrast here with Russia is obvious. Everyone there was aware of the KGB, its headquarters were a landmark in Moscow, people shuddered as they hurried by. Millions must have passed MI5’s old registry in Curzon Street without a tremor. We just did not know it was there.

Even possible recruits to the secret services were kept ignorant of their existence. I know because I was once interviewed for MI6 without realising it. (Or it may have been for the Information Research Department.) It was when I was about to graduate from Cambridge, and a fellow of my college suggested I try. Only on his death much later did I learn, from his obituary, of his M16 connections. By then, complaints had been made by Labour Members of Parliament about what they suspected was the narrow social base – upper-class, public-school, right-wing – of the existing secret services. MI6 probably regarded me as a relatively tame grammar-school oik. (I went to a Direct Grant school. It had pretensions to public-school status, and boarders, but we all knew it didn’t make the grade socially.) The interview was curious, conducted in a crumbling corner of Carlton House Terrace by the spitting image of Rosa Kleb in From Russia with Love. I remember one exchange. ‘Do you mind telling me your politics?’ ‘Oh, sort of moderate Labour.’ ‘Jolly good; so long as you’re not a Commie – eh, what?!’ That seems to have been good enough, for I passed the interview, as I recall, but then got the research grant that was my real priority, and so withdrew before the second interview. This, apparently, was when ‘they’ told you who ‘they’ were. I had no idea of this, until I began doing some historical research in this area, twenty years later. Would the real public-school candidates have known right away? Or is this as good an illustration as I think it is of the success with which the secret services hid even the fact of their existence in the Sixties?

It was a brilliant wheeze. If no one suspects anything is hidden, they won’t go trying to sniff it out. What more perfect cover could there be for pursuing vital national work, without fear of dangerous interruptions from outsiders? You avoid the suspicions that attach to better-known secret agencies, and the dangers of wing-clipping that follow. The Spycatcher episode confirmed this: a little corner of MI5 was revealed (allegedly) to the public gaze, and rumours that had been successfully snuffed out – usually by rubbishing the rumour-mongers – crept to the surface again. The Zinoviev letter; MI5 connivance with Fascists in the Thirties; KGB infiltration; the bugging of allies; the ‘Wilson plot’: all began to take on some credence once more. The last, especially, though a marginal theme of Peter Wright’s book (he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about: Wilson was obviously a rotter), rocked people’s trust in MI5. That could be taken to justify the secret services’ strategy all along. Any publicity would inspire paranoia, which they couldn’t hope to allay even if there was no cause for it. No one would believe them. If any of that paranoia seeped through into public policy, it could be fatal, quite literally: if, for example, it shackled the services in their fight against real subversion, IRA bombs or Islamic extremists plotting biological death against the West.

This is the problem which lies at the root of Britain’s form of secrecy. If we had not been so hostile to secrecy, the fact of it would not have had to be kept as secret as it was. The liberal prejudice against secrecy originated in the 19th century, deriving first from a reaction to some notorious spy scandals in the 1810s, and secondly from a growing ideological conviction that publicity was the one climate in which to nurture goodness and truth. Josephine Butler, for example, believed that you would not need police forces if you had a free press. The general opinion was that secrecy inevitably gave rise to corruption – ‘every thing secret degenerates,’ Lord Acton wrote. It was a ‘foreign’ trait, and in the form of covert surveillance, it was also believed to be counterproductive. Spying was supposed to sniff out unstable social elements, but stability depends on trust, and if people thought they were being spied on they would no longer feel trusted by their government, and consequently be less trusting, obedient and stable themselves. Espionage, in other words, created its own need.

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