Keeping mum

Stephen Sedley

  • The Spycatcher Trial by Malcolm Turnbull
    Heinemann, 228 pp, £12.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 434 79156 3
  • Reform of the Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911: Government White Paper
    HMSO, 16 pp, £2.60, June 1988, ISBN 0 10 104082 2
  • Official Secrets Bill
    HMSO, 14 pp, £3.00, December 1988, ISBN 0 10 300989 2
  • Security Service Bill
    HMSO, 8 pp, £2.60, November 1988, ISBN 0 10 300789 X

‘There is among the many departments of our well-ordered state a department which would be known if we were Chinese as “The Board of Things to be Known and Not to be Known”.’ Hilaire Belloc, writing in 1925 a satire on England as he imagined it would be in 1953, accurately linked the mandarin élitism of the Civil Service with its determination to control the supply of public information. What is new in the present decade is the assumption of power by a government which shares this determination but which also has definite and disturbing ends in view. Nevertheless the formal processes of public dialogue are still in place, and White Papers and published Bills form a traditional part of them.

The HMSO publications listed here seem to me to be of more interest as pieces of writing than Malcolm Turnbull’s autobiographical account of the Australian end of the Spycatcher proceedings. Turnbull’s book is part of the history of a topic which itself is rapidly becoming history as government applies to the scandal the principle that it’s better to use a deodorant than to have a bath. Nobody can begrudge a lawyer who fought back from zero like Turnbull did the chance of telling how he went 12 rounds with HMG and won on points. But the arrogance that carried him through, laced with a partly affected Aussie contempt for British toffs, doesn’t make good reading. Nor, of course, does official prose as a rule. Official prose tends to be thought of as clumsy and slightly weak on grammar, the sort of thing that goes: ‘Applications are required to be submitted not later than the 1st April with the exception of persons under 18 years of age, these will be dealt with at a date to be notified.’

Government, however, operates at many levels, and the language in which it functions generally corresponds to the level at which it is operating. The awkward English I have instanced will probably have been written by a low or middle-ranking official, and the task will have been consigned to him or her because it is regarded as of modest importance. At the august level of ministerial legislation, prolixity often rules, but in loftily grammatical form. My favourite in recent years was a sentence of a DoE regulation about housing benefit in which the subject was separated from the verb by 123 words. The Court of Appeal, which wanted to uphold its maleficent intent, contented itself with the description ‘Proustian’. Half a century ago, a Chief Justice was prepared to be tougher: ‘It might be possible, but I doubt if it would be easy, to compress in the same number of lines more fertile opportunities for doubt and error.’

These are the nuts and bolts of government. The sleek machine which they hold together and drive is constructed and maintained by the mandarins, and it is they who are the glory of the system. Their presence and their power is not a historical accident, and neither is their prose. Theirs is the educated and assured voice which you can hear in the White Paper on Official Secrets, saying: ‘However, Section 2 in its present form undoubtedly goes too wide. The object of the government’s proposals is to attain a better definition of when, assuming that Section 1 of the 1911 Act does not apply, the disclosure of official information should be a criminal offence.’

You can hear the voice again in Malcolm Turnbull’s account of the Spycatcher trial saying, in answer to a question as to why a decision was taken without the Attorney-General being consulted: ‘I don’t think it was really correct to describe it as a decision ... it was a conclusion to which all those who were consulted came, that there was no basis for proceeding to try to restrain publication, and that being the general view and general conclusion, there was no proposition to put to the Attorney-General.’ The only real difference is that the obliquity is not too well concealed in Sir Robert Armstrong’s impromptu response: in the White Paper it lies low. But there is not much to choose between Armstrong’s fluent evasion and the White Paper’s gracious acceptance of the swingeing injustice of Section 2 (which this government has willingly deployed against its enemies within) followed by the promise of ‘a better definition’ of criminality – by which is meant a recasting of Section 2 to make sure that the next Clive Ponting does not escape.

I do not know whether this stratification of style is found in other countries, but in Britain it has the peculiar advantage of corresponding to the stratification of social power and prestige and to the differentiation of accent that marks it. Spoken and written, the tone has the timbre of authority, of those who alone understand the causes of things – and control them. The Oxbridge accent of the White Paper is unmistakable, just as the spoken words of Sir Robert, now Lord Armstrong, are cast in prose as firm and reassuring as a handshake at a house party or an armchair at the Reform.

This is not a sour or an idle reflection on class in Britain. It is in part an admiring recognition of the extraordinary way in which Britain has developed a dialect that divides people not horizontally by region but vertically by class. But it is also a warning that this audible badge of office, of entitlement to be respected, is a recognised and well-honed tool of government. It was between the two great 19th-century Reform Bills, each enlarging the franchise, that the Northcote-Trevelyan Report proposed a radical reorganisation of the machinery of government, taking the key Civil Service posts away from the patronage of politicians (who might no longer be trusted to exercise sound judgment) and allocating them to an officer corps of career civil servants, to be recruited by examination from the great public schools and the two ancient universities. In 1870 the thing was done, decades before a Labour Party had come into being – as inevitably it would – to challenge the class now seated irremovably in control of the machinery of government. And there that class has remained, while Liberal, Tory and Labour governments have come and gone.

The present government is not, however, just another bunch of politicians to whom the permanent under-secretaries genuflect before getting on with running the country. It has taken possession of the machinery of government in ways which socialists have only talked about. Labour governments, fearing and half-believing the constitutional rhetoric about the impartiality of the Civil Service, have held back from doing what the Thatcher regime has now done with efficient ruthlessness: repopulate the upper echelons of Whitehall with trusted time-servers. But Thatcher has not stopped there. The Civil Service has been made increasingly an agency of the Cabinet, and its skills have been increasingly deployed in persuading us that manacles are bracelets. The ostensible shrinkage of the extent of government has been matched by a huge growth in the intensity and tenacity of what remains, and the smooth tongue of the Civil Service has had even greater success in persuading us that more is less than the lager commercial in persuading us that less is more. It is certainly not an aesthetic attachment to lucid English that has led Thatcher to champion and, characteristically, to secure the rewriting of thousands of official forms and information leaflets in intelligible language. It is a shrewd appreciation that so far as it can, government needs to generate trust, and that form and language, like tone of voice, are a cheap and effective way to do it. Think how easy it is to hate a bureaucracy which gives you unintelligible, badly-presented advice and makes you fill in forms only a member of Mensa can follow. Think how warm you feel towards a government office that tells you what you need to know and invites you to complete a form that leads you gently from simple question to simple question.

Of the two Bills I am looking at, the Official Secrets Bill has had the lion’s share of publicity. It affects the press, and the press has a venal interest in its sources of copy, though it does not have enough allies inside Parliament to halt the juggernaut. The Security Service Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech last year and seemed like a Good Thing. The officially non-existent security services were to be brought under statutory control and, it seemed, into the light of day. The draftsman’s choice of language in the opening clause for acknowledging the existence of the non-existent and legalising the lawless is itself a miracle of suavity: ‘There shall continue to be a Security Service ... under the authority of the Secretary of State.’ Under the authority of ... ? Both Merlyn Rees and Peter Wright must be laughing at that. For as long as anyone can tell MI5 and MI6 have broken the law at will and have let Home Secretaries know as much as was good for them. We know this solely because of leakages to which the Official Secrets Bill will now put a definitive stop.

In Australia and Canada, leaks about security-service malpractice have led to independent inquiries, public reports and legislative action for scrutiny and control. In this country, the chosen remedy is to stop the leaks. And to stop the malpractice? The Security Service Bill is going to give the Home Secretary power to issue warrants authorising any – yes, any – ‘entry on or interference with property’. The fools and bigots who played Tweedledum to Peter Wright’s Tweedledee will no longer be able with impunity to steal, bug and burgle at will: they will first have to get a warrant from a minister or official who depends entirely on them for his information. But it will all have been authorised by Parliament in a statute of deliberate clarity and simplicity of language which, like the recent Interception of Communications Act, also provides for complaints to be handled by a tribunal so secret that the legislation does not give it a name or an address and so circumscribed in its powers that the legislation lays down what it can find and tell people.

Official lawlessness is not a new thing, but it has increased exponentially in recent years. That the political response to exposure and public disquiet is not to halt or control it but to ratify it represents a new stage in the growth of authoritarian government in Britain. Any government embarked on such a course needs to generate all the consent it can. Thanks to the long sight of the Victorian patriarchs, this government has at its disposal a body of skilled copywriters who for a modest salary and a place in the Honours List can make subjection feel like citizenship.