Ponting bites back

Tam Dalyell

  • The Right to Know: The Inside Story of the ‘Belgrano’ Affair by Clive Ponting
    Sphere, 214 pp, £2.50, March 1985, ISBN 0 7221 6944 2

Contrary to the impression formed in some quarters, I do not know Clive Ponting well. Apart from a three-hour meeting in the presence of Brian Raymond, his remarkably gifted and industrious solicitor, in the early autumn of last year, I have never had a proper conversation with him. And that meeting related to the issue of whether I should lend my voluminous files and records of letters – some thirty-two boxes which would have taken up a large part of a pantechnicon – since he found himself in the position of having to defend himself without access to the Ministry of Defence records. I felt that I should keep my distance from Mr Ponting, and doubtless for his own good reasons Mr Ponting felt that he should steer clear of me. As Bruce Laughland, his counsel, and Jonathan Caplan, the deputy counsel, were to reiterate in court, they were counsel for Mr Ponting and not Mr Dalyell. There were differences. For example, before the trial Mr Ponting said he did not share my contention that the Belgrano was sunk, above all else, to scupper the Peruvian peace plan. Now, he displays an open mind on the role of the Peruvian proposals, and on the basis of information available to him from the Foreign Office, does not exclude the possibility that the former USS Phoenix, survivor of Pearl Harbour, was sunk by Mrs Thatcher, not because the 44-year-old threatened our boys, but because politically Mrs Thatcher could not afford peace.

Readers of the London Review of Books include among their number a significant proportion of those who operate in the stratosphere of the Civil Service. They will be glad to know that their erstwhile colleague Mr Ponting has, in astonishingly short time, produced a beautifully written book, a tribute to the English prose which they rightly value. Some of them may not be quite so happy about his assertion that the style favoured by top civil servants is bland and neutral: that toughness and the ability to take decisions and carry through difficult policies are not considered to be great virtues, that problems are not there to be solved but avoided, and that the greatest of all abilities is to be able to ‘draft around’ a problem. The Right to Know is much more than a good read and ephemeral wonder: it will, I believe, be required study for graduates, undergraduates, journalists and many others interested in the government of Britain. In particular, I am agog to know what the readers of the London Review are going to make of the role of Sir Clive Whitmore, currently the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, as it emerges from these pages.

In our system of adversarial politics, Members of the House of Commons cannot, alas, get to know civil servants well, unless the MPs are ministers. As Dick Crossman’s PPS, I had the privilege of having proper and fruitful conversations with the Dame (Evelyn Sharp), the late Sir James Waddell and others. Equally, as members of the Labour Delegation to the European Parliament, John Prescott and I were ‘educated in the ways of Upper Whitehall’ by Sir Thomas Brimelow, the former PUS at the Foreign Office, who became a Labour Peer and a British representative at Strasbourg. But it is no surprise to me that in over twenty years as an MP I have met my contemporary Sir Clive Whitmore only once. That was when I had to go formally to the Ministry of Defence to say that I did not have in my possession the diaries of Narendra Sethia, supplies officer on the Conqueror. Sir Clive received me and behaved with perfect correctness and real charm.

In Mr Ponting’s first proper job as a Principal, his immediate boss was Clive Whitmore, later to be Principal Private Secretary to Mrs Thatcher. By 1983 Whitmore had been catapulted from his position as the Prime Minister’s aide to the Permanent Secretaryship of one of the great departments of state, above the heads of a galaxy of talent who might well have expected the job. No previous prime minister has gone to such lengths to place her ‘own men’ in the pivotal positions of the Civil Service. (On the other hand, I suppose I had better not make too much of a song and dance about this: if the customs of Civil Service promotion had prevailed, certain discontented persons might have been more inhibited about talking to me!)

Let us now turn to the extraordinary scene, pictured by Mr Ponting, of the meeting on 30 March 1984 to decide how to answer the letters from Denzil Davies and myself, dated 19 March. It got going just before 10 a.m. and lasted until nearly one o’clock. Anyone who knows Michael Heseltine knows that he is a rapid dispatcher of business, even by senior ministerial standards. To spend three hours wondering how to answer a couple of letters is blue-moonish, and speaks volumes about the concern to hide. ‘This was a long meeting by his standards,’ Mr Ponting writes, ‘and a number of other appointments that morning had to be cancelled. By the end there was a long queue of people outside in the private office waiting to see the Secretary of State.’ John Stanley was present at the meeting. So was Sir John Fieldhouse, the First Sea Lord, who had been Commander-in-Chief at North-wood during the Falklands campaign. So was Sir Clive Whitmore, who ‘had decided to attend the meeting once he heard it was about the Belgrano.’ Why precisely does the Permanent Secretary give up his morning schedule to scurry along to a meeting to which apparently he has not been asked by the Defence Secretary? Permanent Secretaries, I am told, have more than enough to do without inserting themselves into meetings where their presence has not been required.

I believe that Mrs Thatcher posted her faithful Principal Private Secretary, Clive Whitmore, and her faithful ex-Parliamentary Private Secretary, John Stanley, to the Ministry of Defenceto make sure, inter alia, that no one did anything they shouldn’t – such as, for example, letting any cats out of the bag on the topic of the Belgrano. Moreover, just as Harold Wilson wanted an eye kept on Jim Callaghan when he was Foreign Secretary and therefore placed the reliable David Ennals as Number Two in the Foreign Office, so Mrs Thatcher wanted to keep her potential successor, Michael Heseltine, ‘under surveillance’.

Readers of the London Review of Books, if they are interested, must really look for themselves at Ponting’s description and chronology of meetings: Heseltine and Whitmore pushing off to Downing Street on Friday afternoon to consume oceans of prime ministerial time, meetings reconvened on a Sunday afternoon, and general frenetic activity. The frenetic activity was not confined to Ponting’s Whitehall: the Intelligence Services had been equally hectic in March 1984, trying to identify the sources of leaks, and I may be forgiven for wondering whether any of those involved in Westminster/Whitehall had by then been told of the brutal and callous murder of a 78-year-old rose-grower in far away Shrewsbury – Miss Hilda Murrell.

I may seem to be putting nothing past the political and Civil Service masters of this country, in these changed days from those of Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson, guileful but scrupulous leaders: so let me quote Ponting. In relation to the detection date of the Belgrano,‘Sir Clive Whitmore’s view was that we were not telling a direct lie. He argued it was all right to imply this as long as we did not explicitly state it as being correct.’ At the very least, it is incumbent on Sir Clive to give us his version of events. If what Ponting says is untrue, Whitmore versus Ponting should follow Regina versus Ponting. If true, many British people will find it quite appalling that a very senior civil servant indeed should come to feel that he has to behave in this way towards Parliament. Anything passes, as long as it cannot be nailed as a direct lie! Some Tory MPs tell me that the ‘bounder’ Ponting should have complained through the proper channels. Had he done so, what kind of reception do they imagine he would have received from Whitmore and Thatcher?

A large number of puzzles remain. In his wind-up speech on the Belgrano Debate on 18 February, for example, John Stanley said: ‘I have seen it widely reported that Mr Ponting knew all. Mr Ponting did not know all, and Mr Ponting did not know the most important of all.’ If Mr Ponting, who was asked to put together the so-called Crown Jewels, did not know all, how could Mr Heseltine, for whom this task of documentation was carried out, know all? Do Thatcher, Whitmore and Stanley know something that Heseltine didn’t? If there is nothing to hide, why go to such inordinate lengths to perpetrate deception?

A matter even more important than the deception of the House of Commons arises out of Ponting’s book. It is that of crisis management. On page 88 Ponting writes:

  The 15.00 signal from HMS Conqueror was decoded and understood in North wood by 15.40 and passed to the Ministry of Defence in London. What happened next? Nothing. The Naval staff at both Northwood and London obviously felt that Wreford-Brown’s information was only of technical value. Why? The Royal Navy had just been given the political authority for an all-out attack on the Argentinian Navy – the exact course of the General Belgrano was no longer of any importance. They did not tell Ministers. Admiral Lewin had just got them the authority they had wanted for the last three weeks. They could now show the politicians what the Navy could do. They were hardly going to risk having the whole show called off at the last moment. Mrs Thatcher and the rest of the War Cabinet had been quite happy to give them a complete free hand to take whatever military action they wanted.

Contrast this with the exchange between Mrs Thatcher and myself on 4 May 1982:

  Mr Dalyell asked the Prime Minister if she will make a statement on the Falkland Islands.

  The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and for Defence will be making full statements after questions on recent diplomatic and military developments respectively.

  Mr Dalyell: When the Prime Minister referred to political control, did she herself, personally and explicitly, authorise the firing of the torpedoes at the General Belgrano?

  The Prime Minister: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the task force is and was under full political control.

Who is right about ‘full political control’ – Ponting or the Prime Minister?

A most unusual, if not unique feature about The Right to Know is that the author knows far more than he is able to print. He has been extremely careful to rely on published sources. To write at this stage in his life about unpublished knowledge could land him in unwanted trouble with former colleagues, if not back in the High Court.

To understand the events we need to look at them in detail, day by day and at times hour by hour. Before we do so there is one fundamental question to try and decide. Was the British Government, through the GCHQ signals interception establishment at Cheltenham, reading Argentinian signals and was it therefore aware of every move made or planned against them? Early in January 1985 both the Guardian and the Observer published articles claiming that all Argentinian signals were intercepted, decoded and sent immediately to Naval headquarters at North-wood and to Chequers.

This is an oblique way of conveying that Northwood and Chequers did indeed know every move that Argentine ships were to make as soon as they were instructed to do so. Again:

Outside, a number of events were in train that were to transform the situation and eventually cause considerable panic in the Government and lead to me being asked to write the ‘Crown Jewels’. Tarn Dalyell visited Lima and gained more evidence about the Peruvian peace plan. On 12 January 1984, Dalyell alleged that the recall signal early on 2 May was decoded and sent immediately to Chequers. In other words, he alleged the War Cabinet knew that there was no attack in progress when they ordered the all-out attack on the Argentinian fleet on 2 May.

The deception practised on the House of Commons would not have been so deep had there been a perfectly innocent explanation to hand. There was, however, no such explanation. Why has Mr Ponting become more open-minded about the possible reasons for the cover-up? John Stanley may well have given a clue in his wind-up speech in the House of Commons debate on 18 February. ‘Mr Ponting,’ he said, ‘did not know all.’ On the diplomatic aspect of the affair Mr Ponting had to rely on such information as the Foreign Office gave him. Even they may not have known all. Some communications with Peru were conducted through Lord Hugh Thomas, author of books on Cuba, fluent Spanish-speaker and confidant of Mrs Thatcher. The person who did know all was the Prime Minister.