The Culture of Secrecy in Britain 1832-1998 
by David Vincent.
Oxford, 364 pp., £25, January 1999, 0 19 820307 1
Show More
Show More

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 MI6 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.

Not all governments shared this view. Certain people, they felt, had to be spied on: foreign refugees whose plots could embroil them with continental neighbours, for example, or Irish-American Fenians who carried their bombing wars to the British mainland. Even in these areas governments feared – probably rightly – that liberal opinion would pounce on the slightest evidence of a ‘secret police’. Hence the depth of the hole they dug to bury the first ‘Special Branches’, with no one save their officers and one or two people in authority knowing of their existence. Gladstone deliberately absented himself from a Cabinet meeting in order to avoid learning about the new Special Irish Branch. A Home Secretary found he had to let his secret service supremo go because there was no way of paying him without letting Parliament know. Secret service work carried on, but unofficially and deniably. If this had been a less liberal country, it might well have become a less secretive one.

There were other motives, too, behind this ‘secret secrecy’. One was the perceived need for flexibility. Critics of government secrecy have rarely asked for it to be abolished entirely, for everything to be made transparent; only for it to be delimited and defined. What sorts of circumstance justify letters being opened at the Post Office, for example; or telephones tapped; or e-mail intercepted; or people being tailed and bugged? The first time questions of this kind were asked, during a famous public row over the Government’s interference with Mazzini’s correspondence in 1844, ministers refused point blank to answer. The reason, Vincent explains, was to leave their hands free for future contingencies, for threats that could not be foreseen, but where governments might need to act quickly to find out what was going on. They will have been thinking mainly of the working class, separated from them by what Dickens called an ‘iron barrier’, and feared precisely because they knew so little about it. The Mazzini case was ostensibly about external affairs – the betrayal of a foreign freedom fighter – but domestic considerations clearly lay behind the Government’s stickling for secrecy despite the furore it aroused. In much the same way, the first three Official Secrets Acts may have been directed more at unknown future subversives than at the foreign spies who provided their excuse. It cannot be a mere accident that these successive entrenchments of the principle that governments could choose their own targets for surveillance roughly coincided with the moments of greatest labour and popular unrest in modern Britain: 1844, 1889, 1911 and 1920. This must explain, too, the deceit and trickery that were notoriously employed to magic the 1889 and 1911 Bills through Parliament.

The ‘class’ thing is important in other ways. Official secrecy was exercised mainly by the upper-middle classes. That was supposed to make it all right. In their hands it was called ‘discretion’, ‘reserve’ or ‘reticence’, gentlemanly qualities much admired at that time. Reticence indicated judgment, seriousness, stoicism and probably – though this was sometimes questioned – ‘hidden depths’. Allied to the other characteristics of the gentleman – ‘courage, truthfulness, honesty, unselfishness, generosity, modesty, composure, thoughtfulness, and a self-denying lack of ambition for external recognition’ in Vincent’s list – reticence could only be a beneficent trait. It was also believed to neutralise secrecy’s demoralising tendencies. Gentlemen could be entrusted with secret knowledge without fear that they would exploit it corruptly, or partisanly, or even ‘bureaucratically’. (It is remarkable how the British Civil Service managed to avoid this last taint – largely, Vincent claims, because of its gentility.) As a result, ‘British secrecy was not to be confused with continental despotism, because in the end it was in the hands of men of honour.’ And honour was a matter of birth, upbringing and type of education.

This was the second distinguishing mark of British – as opposed to other countries’ – secrecy. It was more a ‘cultural’ than an institutional phenomenon – hence Vincent’s own interest in a subject that has not generally attracted his sort of ‘cultural historian’ before now. The British tradition, he argues, rested more on an unwritten ethos than on an overt structure or set of rules. This helps to account both for its success, which can be credited very largely to the culturally-bolstered probity of those who exercised it; and for its resilience – cultures are able to adapt to changes in circumstances more subtly than institutions can. Hence the hold gentlemanly reticence still has on certain areas of British public life, including the secret services, despite the relative scarcity today of English gentlemen.

Gentlemanly reticence was never unproblematical, however. ‘What had been a badge of the honourable’, Vincent writes, could easily become ‘the cloak of the unprincipled’. Gentlemanly ideals may have been powerful prophylactics against venality, corruption and (until Philby and Co.) treachery, but they were no match for other viruses. Indeed, they may have helped spawn some. The public schools were central to the inculcation, through bonding, of gentlemanly values; and it was there that gentlemen received their first lessons in secrecy: through private initiation rituals (later perpetuated in adult freemasonry); and covert couplings in the dorms. (Two vices anglais are possibly connected here: Vincent shows how the code of ‘secret secrecy’ protected grown-up gays, too.) In marginal schools like mine, such rituals and practices even divided the boarders from day boys. Occasional homosexual scandals were passed off to us as ‘bullying’. I don’t think I was the only day boy who had no idea that something more (or less) might be involved. We were entirely separate.

This was not an environment to foster a broad or balanced social view. In the more public services such a view could be fostered simply by contact – however vicarious – with the outside world. In the secret services – just like Oxbridge colleges – it appears this didn’t apply. Edward Heath describes MI5 operatives as the sort of men who would follow people on the Underground because they were reading the Daily Mirror. Lords Carver, Beloff and Dacre – establishment figures, with hardly a pale pink political opinion between the three of them – all at one time or another characterised the secret service personnel they came across as limited, obsessed and politically prejudiced. It is this – together with some better material evidence than Peter Wright’s – that makes the rumours of secret service plots against Labour Governments in the Twenties and Seventies not entirely implausible. Secret secrecy is quite reasonably distrusted; it can be abused.

Gentlemanly secrecy had the further disadvantage of being vulnerable to damage by non-gentlemen. Any administrative arrangement in which insiders and outsiders are seen as different social animals runs the risk of causing resentment in the latter, and upset if they are ever let in. The prospects of this grew from the 1850s onwards, as meritocratic pressures mounted for entry into the Civil Service by competitive examination, without regard to background; and as the Service itself expanded into functions that were regarded as too lowly to be suitable for gentlemen. That was another motive behind the Official Secrets Acts: to bind lower-class employees, after a number of ‘leaks’ that had been traced to them, by the same constraints that their gentlemanly masters had always accepted instinctively.

It has not invariably worked. Non-gentlemen still cannot be trusted. Most secret service whistleblowers, for example, have been grammar school oiks, like Peter Wright (Bishop’s Stortford High School) and, more recently, David Shayler (John Hampden Grammar, High Wycombe). The latest, Richard Tomlinson, doesn’t quite fit – he got a scholarship from a state primary school to a ‘prestigious public school’. The motives for whistleblowing can be various: high principle, personal disappointment, publicity-seeking, mischief-making, but a feeling of alienation from the dominant culture is usually a common factor – Shayler’s girlfriend, Annie Machon, another former MI5 employee, has spoken of this in television interviews. Much of the strongest external criticism of the state bureaucracy over the past twenty years has come from people – like Margaret Thatcher – who felt excluded from it, or patronised by it, on grounds of class. Her revenge on the whole Civil Service was diabolical. Bonding is not very useful if it leaves the unbonded – especially the powerful unbonded – feeling so aggrieved.

This may well do for the culture of secrecy in the end. Its destruction won’t be caused by Labour – even if it comes about under them. Vincent is scathing about Labour ministers’ past record in this field. Despite ambitious promises, they never delivered. Most of them seemed to think it did not matter. James Callaghan, for example, believed that all the fuss about open government and the like was something got up by the chattering classes, and of no interest at all to his working-class constituents, who had more important matters on their minds. He may have been right, though Vincent cites opinion polls to show that when people were asked about things like phone-tapping they usually gave conventionally liberal replies. He also points out that Labour had its own indigenous tradition of secrecy. Mostly, it will have derived from a different culture entirely, though it is possible to imagine the public-school ethos affecting it, too. Not every Labour minister went to a secondary modern or even a grammar school. (The present Home Secretary, as it happens, went to my school. I wonder whether he was a boarder or a day boy.) There are also those who will tell you that ‘MI5 has something on them.’ It knows of their Communist pasts, or – worse – their activities as MI5 moles in their university Labour clubs. That’s why they do its bidding. All nonsense, of course. Well, probably. Under the tradition of ‘secret secrecy’, who is to know for sure?

If the British tradition of secrecy is endangered, the real damage will have been caused not by Labour or even the civil liberties lobby, but Margaret Thatcher and the forces she represented. Way back in 1960, Thatcher was personally responsible for the Public Bodies (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Act, which, as Vincent points out, was probably the most effective ‘open government’ measure for half a century, though it was mainly directed at the great unwashed. Once in office, Thatcher’s peculiar and potent mix of libertarianism and totalitarianism proved less conducive to openness. Nigel Lawson claimed she was obsessed by her secret services. She also encouraged unofficial covert agents, her use of which during the miners’ strike is now widely known. So is Michael Heseltine’s shameless abuse of his secret powers over the Belgrano affair and against CND. In his case, the whistleblowers, Clive Ponting and Cathy Massiter, can be seen as representing the older, honourable order, protesting against ‘ungentlemanly’ subversion (by a man who had had to ‘buy his own furniture’) from the inside. In this way their unease was symptomatic of a deep tension. For years secrecy had been upheld, disguised and justified (upheld because disguised and justified) by the ethos represented by Ponting and Massiter. Thatcher augured a different ethos. It wasn’t against secrecy, but it was deeply hostile to the forces which had maintained official secrecy. This is what caused the leaks and the sudden elevation of the whole issue of secrecy to the top of the political agenda with – for example – the publication of Spycatcher in 1986. All this was the result of the monster she had unleashed – or ridden to power – in 1979. Of course, she did not grasp this. It is the nature of unleashed monsters to cause more mayhem than you expect. Hence the crass measures taken by the Thatcher Governments to try to limit the damage, like the worldwide Spycatcher trials. That failed; hence the present crisis.

Vincent may possibly be right when he claims in his ‘afterword’, dated February 1998, that with the publication of New Labour’s 1997 White Paper Your Right to Know, promising freedom of information, ‘the subject of this book was consigned to the past.’ That, however, looks something of a hostage to fortune. Great advances have admittedly been made. On a number of fronts there is much greater transparency than there used to be, mostly in the sense that people are allowed access to far more information about themselves than ever they were in the past. Even in the field of national security glasnost seems to have arrived. The secret services now have a statutory existence. We know who heads them, and where they operate from. (We could hardly miss it in the case of MI6’s extraordinary golden pyramid at Vauxhall: surely a decoy?) They issue glossy booklets telling us about themselves, and recruit in university careers offices, rather than out of the corners of Oxbridge tutors’ mouths. Doesn’t this promise a new era of openness?

Glasnost, however, is not the same as openness. Its meaning (I’m told) is much closer to the English ‘publicity’. Publicity is perfectly compatible with essential secrecy, for you publicise what you want to. Openness allows people to find out what they need to know, and there is as yet little sign of openness, properly defined, in the secret services. New Labour’s Freedom of Information Bill expressly exempts them, to the fury yet again of campaigners, who are trying, but I doubt will be successful, to get them included. Members of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, which is currently supposed to oversee the secret state, are known to be unhappy at the control the services still exert over the release of the information it clearly needs in order to do its overseeing properly. Historians like me are concerned about MI5’s lack of consultation with them over the recent destruction of thousands of its old records, and the Home Secretary’s apparent intention to allow its officials to ‘weed’ the rest of their archive themselves, albeit under ‘objective’ guidelines that few of us regard as anything like adequate. Secrets, it turns out, are still regarded as the property of the secretive; there is no presumption of a public ‘right to know’. The secret services are still to have control of their histories, highly controversial though they are. That is depressing, and contemptuous of democracy, and the upshot will be that Britons will know less about their secret past than Russians do of theirs. Who can be at all confident that this piece of the culture of secrecy is about to be ‘consigned to the past’ under Mr Straw – even if he does turn out to have been a day boy?

Too much can be made of ‘culture’. It explains many of the forms that British secrecy took in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, and – to some extent – its longevity. It is Vincent’s invaluable contribution to have established this for the first time. Previously, secrecy was regarded mainly in political terms; that now looks inadequate. But is ‘culture’ a complete and self-sufficient explanation? Vincent is not entirely clear on this. He deals with such questions in metaphors. (While the lack of jargon is welcome, some cultural theory might not have come amiss here.) ‘Attitudes and values …’ he says at one point, ‘became not merely the cladding but the very framework of the edifice.’ But edifices – if one must use this analogy – also have foundations, which are more vital to their permanence than their frameworks; in this case, were the foundations predicated on the form of the building, or vice versa? In other words, was the culture of the time responsible for the secrecy, or only for the forms it took? Was it the fons et origo, or just a means? If the latter, what else lay behind British secrecy? Don’t we need to look further; both in order to explain it historically, and also, perhaps, to be prepared for future forms?

It is not difficult to think of ways in which the state – or whatever replaces it as our master in the new age of the global market – could guard its mysteries if these were still thought to be essential to the exercise of its power. There are a thousand techniques available. One is simply to dig deeper tunnels beneath those that have been opened to public scrutiny. In 1988, Lord Kennet suggested the following strategy for secret services worried by too much ‘openness’:

It might be a good idea if each service was divided into two parts, one of which was visible to the public, consisting of two or three people with good manners and a nice bottle of sherry in the front office who were accessible only on confidential terms; the rest being the operational side, which remained totally unknown to everybody. It seemed to me that this was the safest way to save the bacon of those services from undue publicity.

That was meant as a joke, but something very like it had been done on several occasions in the past. Sidestepping is another trick. In the 1840s, Lord Palmerston neutralised the danger that he feared from Parliament’s newly established right to call for diplomatic despatches by instructing his diplomats to send their sensitive stuff in private letters. One could easily imagine something-like that happening under the impact of Freedom of Information today. Like tuberculosis responding to antibiotics, secrecy has a way of developing new strains.

It could also take on new ‘cultural’ forms. Free-market capitalism, which marked the death of the gentlemanly ideal, has a dozen associated values it could put in its place. Company loyalty is one. The notion of sensitive market intelligence is another. The cynicism and apathy engendered by a commercial press are a third – simple fear of the sack has always been a justification for keeping mum. It is arguable that in recent years these have been far greater barriers to the greater availability of essential public knowledge than the ethos of the public-service élite. If the material need or desire for secrecy is there, people will find the cultural means to achieve it. So the alternative to one culture of secrecy could very easily be another culture of secrecy. The only real antidote would be a sense of true democracy, but that does not seem very likely just now. Indeed, merely to invoke it in this day and age sounds pious and pretentious.

In the meantime, there is life in the old culture yet. In the secret services, for example (which are only one topic in Vincent’s wide-ranging book), it seems to be clinging on. MI5 and MI6 can best perform their vital tasks under a cover of honourable secrecy – too much accountability might be dangerous – and with our trust, which, if it was not always deserved, should now have been re-established by the new climate and recent reforms. Some of us might be able to accept this (no promises), if the secret services in their turn would show good faith by coming clean about what was done by and under them in the days before the climate changed. Otherwise, there must always be suspicions, and – it has to be said in the face of all the circumstantial historical evidence that has accumulated – perfectly reasonable ones. There were goings-on in the dorm. After all these years it could not do very much harm to let the day boys have a peek in before it’s swept clean.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences