Vol. 35 No. 3 · 7 February 2013

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What Spies Do Next

Katrina Forrester mentions the former undercover police officer Mark Kennedy in the context of sexual abuse, but he also represents another aspect of the murky intersection between state and corporate spies: they are often the same people at different stages of their careers (LRB, 3 January). Despite suggestions in the press that Kennedy had an anguished change of heart and eventually sided with the people he was spying on – a good angle but entirely untrue – he left the police before he was exposed as a spy in October 2010 and was preparing to set up his own private security firm. As a freelancer, he would keep tabs on the same activists whom taxpayers were effectively paying him to befriend.

Kennedy was also reportedly in contact with Global Open, a private security firm that specialises in assessing the threat to corporations from activists. Global Open is run by the former Special Branch officer Rod Leeming, whose career trajectory has, like Kennedy’s, taken him from police to corporate spying. Undercover work among political groups gives agents the necessary skills, as well as the contacts, for a career in the private sector spying on them.

Duncan Money
Balliol College, Oxford

At Brunete

Jean McNicol writes that, according to Paul Preston, the Brunete campaign was a ‘strategic irrelevance’ that ‘merely gave Franco the opportunity to kill a large number of Republicans using the Messerschmitts he had just acquired’ (LRB, 24 January). The impression is conveyed that the whole thing was a turkey shoot for the Francoists. In fact, Brunete was anything but irrelevant; it was a key battle in the war from almost every perspective. The offensive was staged at a time and place of the Republic’s choosing, when morale was high following the victory of Guadalajara. Brunete was a Soviet show in nearly every department. The new Popular Army had been organised, trained, and armed with an enormous amount of state-of-the-art Soviet war matériel, including some 130 T-26 tanks, more than a hundred fighter and bomber planes, and a huge artillery park. The Republicans numbered seventy thousand. Franco’s best troops and equipment, meanwhile, were engaged on the Basque front in northern Spain; a mere 2500 Nationalists occupied four villages in the immediate fire-zone. In the opening days of the campaign these primitive settlements were destroyed, but each garrison held out for long enough to provide the Nationalist high command with crucial room for manoeuvre. The campaign ended in mutual exhaustion, with the Nationalists having regained more than half the territory initially lost to the Popular Army.

Rob Stradling
Penarth, Glamorgan

The Shit We’re In

John Lanchester reminds us that ‘governments are not households’ and goes on to claim that austerity ‘helps placate the “bond vigilantes" on the international debt markets’ (LRB, 3 January). He’s right about the former, but that means he’s wrong about the latter. Unlike a household, the UK state issues its own currency. All of its debts are denominated in that currency. This monetary sovereignty means that the UK state can never be forced to default on its debts or to pay a rate of debt interest higher than the rate it chooses. (In fact, the UK state doesn’t even need to tax and borrow in order to spend: those constraints are voluntary.) This is in contrast to the countries in the Eurozone, which have given up monetary sovereignty and, like a household or, say, Camden Council, really do have to raise revenue; hence the involvement of the bond vigilantes with these countries. In Japan the state manages to have both a debt-to-GDP ratio that would give George Osborne a coronary and government bond yields that are the lowest in the developed world. The risks of ‘unfunded’ spending, as for the UK, aren’t insolvency and high borrowing costs but inflation and currency depreciation.

Steven Wall
Shimonoseki, Japan

Lives of the ‘Titanic’

In focusing on the establishment’s efforts to use the Titanic disaster to knock back the suffrage movement, Thomas Laqueur neglects its continual efforts to water down the rules for safety at sea (LRB, 24 January). He mentions the slovenly Board of Trade’s failure to apply load line legislation to vessels above a certain weight, but not that the directors of the White Star Line had reduced the number of lifeboats on the liner to just half the figure provided for by the ship’s designer. W.T. Stead, editor of the Review of Reviews, died in the sinking. He had been campaigning on the issue since 1886. The crew of the Olympic mutinied for the replacement of the missing lifeboats prior to its hurried dispatch to sea as the Titanic’s substitute. They won their case in just two weeks.

Nick Howard

Gentlemanly Pastime

In her witty response to my piece about Eliza Haywood Norma Clarke cites the troubles of wily Ralph Griffiths, an expert in getting himself arrested for seditious – also, Clarke notes, obscene – libel, and then in getting off (Letters, 24 January). The difference is that Griffiths’s Ascanius came out just months after Culloden, when the ministry was still paranoid about Jacobitism, and sold alarmingly well: 1750 copies in a few weeks, said Griffiths’s printer. Haywood was late to the game with the Goring pamphlet, and her pamphlet stayed on the shelf.

As time went by, it became increasingly hard for publicity-hungry authors to get prosecuted for seditious libel, not least because, as the authorities had known since Defoe in 1703 or even William Prynne in 1637, conviction could backfire badly. Except in really prominent cases, quiet harassment was a better way to keep the lid on things. In 1755-57, John Shebbeare had to bring out five increasingly strident Jacobite pamphlets before finally forcing prosecution with an over the top sixth pamphlet. Handbills fêting ‘the British champion’ were distributed around the pillory at Charing Cross; Shebbeare lounged at ease on the scaffold, shielded from the sun by a parasol, surrounded by cheering spectators.

Thomas Keymer

In Defence of Rights

Helena Kennedy and Philippe Sands (LRB, 3 January) and Stephen Sedley (LRB, 24 January) defend the role and relevance, subject to possible specific reforms, of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and deprecate the need for a UK Bill of Rights, in the one case expressly and in the other by implication. Far be it from me to devalue the pan-European function of the Convention and its court in defining and protecting our rights, still less do I wish to associate myself with the growing chorus of those, including our Eurosceptic politicians, who advocate the ‘repatriation’ of rights as a stepping-stone to their curtailment or, worse, abrogation.

At the same time, I believe it would be wrong to overlook the significance of the pioneering work done by our own human rights activists on a piecemeal basis, sometimes building on the more enlightened strains of English common law or on statute, to advance rights in Britain ahead of European initiatives. Take the right to life protected by Article 2 of the ECHR. The ECHR is hedged round with qualifications; the original 1950 Article 2 contained an exception for ‘lawful executions’. It was this which gave David Maxwell Fyfe (a prime mover of the original ECHR), as home secretary in 1953, licence to refuse a reprieve of the death sentence on Derek Bentley for the murder of PC Miles, against the advice of his two senior civil servants and the jury’s recommendation of mercy, and in the face of a public outcry. So much for the ‘minimum standard of democratic conduct’ which he had claimed for the ECHR. (Bentley’s conviction was ultimately quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1998.) It was not until 1983 that Protocol 6 abolished the death penalty in peacetime without qualification and until 2002 when Protocol 13 abolished it in all circumstances, thus for the first time in history giving capital punishment its quietus throughout Europe.

But before this had happened, not least because of revulsion over the state killings of Bentley and Ruth Ellis, Sydney Silverman’s private member’s bill in 1965 had abolished the death penalty in Britain. So it was an indigenous bill of rights, a parliamentary statute rather than the ECHR, that blazed the trail when it came to the unqualified right to life in the UK. And why not indeed, as Chris Purnell suggests (Letters, 24 January), a bill to reinforce the ECHR by, for example, promoting the right to work?

Benedict Birnberg
London SE3

In a Box

Premature burial, which Deborah Friedell writes about, used to be a real-life worry for me when I worked as a forensic investigator (LRB, 3 January). In 1978 I took a job as an investigator for a medical examiner in the US. I would be called to the scene of a death to pronounce the person dead and investigate the circumstances. It’s not as easy as you might think, especially in a wreck off the highway at night with just a small flashlight. A stethoscope is of little use. If you can get to the carotid and femoral arteries, observe the abdomen and chest and tap on the cornea, you’re good to go after three or four minutes. I’m not looking to see if they’re alive: I’m making sure they’re dead. That’s a big difference. I know of two cases where a person was pronounced dead and was later found alive. In the first case, my partner and I happened to be in the emergency room when the deceased came in; death had been pronounced twenty minutes earlier, but my partner took a look and saw that the person was still alive. In neither case did the patient ever regain consciousness: they died again about a day later of the diseases of old age that caused their first deaths.

Jack Sturiano
Ypres, Belgium

Among other measures employed in the past to ascertain death, Deborah Friedell includes ‘enemas of tobacco smoke’. Can this kindly practice be the origin of the mystifying (to me) phrase used by contemporary North Americans for flattery, ‘blowing smoke up your ass’?

Paul Brightwell
London NW6

What a State Might Do

Robert Buckeye does not help his argument that things were better under Communism by claiming that ‘it would never have been possible in imperial Russia or the Austro-Hungarian Empire for a peasant to be a teacher, a miner a lawyer, a woman a doctor’ (Letters, 24 January). To take just a few examples: under Dmitri Tolstoy, minister of education from 1866 to 1880, the Russian government encouraged young peasants to train as teachers; Adolf Schärf rose from poverty to take a doctorate in law from Vienna University in 1914, later becoming the sixth president of Austria; and women were practising as medical doctors in both countries well before the end of the 19th century.

It is also mistaken to suggest that ‘under Communism, at least at first, the playing field in Eastern Europe had been level as it had not been before.’ While of course after the war previously excluded groups had opportunities they had not had earlier, the playing field was never level: from the first significant parts of the population were shut out of civil society.

Mark Etherton
London W2

Product Placement

Oh no! I thought I was in the elite club with my LRB subscription but until Jonathan Hauxwell mentioned it I didn’t know there was a rule about how to fold the thing (Letters, 24 January). Please advise.

Eva Joyce

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