There’s something properly feeble about a country that’s proud of its Secret Police. Did I say country? I don’t quite mean that. That’s too big an abstraction. I’m well aware that lots of people know how spectacularly awful our Secret Police institutions are. Not awful in the sense that they have state-sponsored kidnapping and torture in mind: very little of that has ever happened in Mainland Britain, not since the 17th Century at any rate.
No. We’re talking about something far more banal. We’re talking about the notion that our Secret Police services are corrupt, incompetent, narcissistic and shamefully expensive.
Hardly a month goes by without some instance of this seeping into the news. Last year we even had the amusing spectacle of intelligence service managers agreeing to come before a Parliamentary committee so they could prove themselves accountable by declining to answer questions.
So when I say country, I actually mean the tiny territory inhabited by editors. Newspaper editors, magazine editors, broadcast news and features editors, even fiction editors at book publishing companies.
They are, for good or ill, able to rise above the dismal implications of the mundane quotidian, and remain enthusiastic adherents to the gospel according to Chapman Pincher.
Pincher, now aged 100, has, rather improbably, just published his autobiography – and it is, in more senses than one, a blast from the past. Few writers have done more to create the imaginative framework within which we all write and think and talk about the so-called world of intelligence gathering.
At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 60s, he was a star reporter on the Daily Express (then Britain’s best-selling newspaper) and, though there were some properly sensational materials readily to hand, his great skill was making a little go a very long way. He had an enviable talent for turning drab little men into characters from a John Buchan novel. An updated Buchan, of course, a Buchan who’d not died in 1939 but who had lived long enough to have become aware of Buchenwald and the atom bomb.
As such, Pincher is hugely important to the daydream existence of this country across the whole second half of the 20th Century. He was arguably more influential than, say, Ian Fleming in the evolution of espionage as an imaginative domain, having hit upon a compelling archetypal framework which evolved story by story, scoop by scoop. John le Carré’s fantasy universe, for instance, is Chapman’s rather than Fleming’s. He (Chapman, that is) created vaguely metaphysical pools of shadow and populated them with people of more-than-natural powers; in short, he helped put the spookiness into spooking.
It is a world in which, if there are tragic betrayals (and, indeed, tragic betrayals are essential), there is at least something here that is worthy of betrayal. At heart, there’s a mawkish narrative in play; and no matter how hard or abrasive the outer shell may be, you can be sure there is something sentimental and squishy underneath.
The real world isn’t like that. We all know that. Mostly. And of course, paradoxically perhaps, as I’ve already touched upon, (many) journalists and (most) critically-intelligent editors know just how dismal our Secret Police services are.
My own modest knowledge of the Secret Police world comes largely via a former colleague who served time as a technology correspondent on the Financial Times during an era when the Buggers* (formally known these days as GCHQ) were terribly anxious to be seen to be keeping abreast of the world of technology. And indeed, many Secret Policemen were “embedded” at the major telecoms and datacoms operators, much to the amusement of the middle management natives of those companies.
(The equivalent these days is the situation as regards Google, which has agreed to fund GCHQ’s London station at King’s Cross.)
So, technology journalists had something of an inside track. But their generalist colleagues were hardly disadvantaged. Desk-based intelligence analysts, acutely sensitive to the reckoning that they are basically third-rate journalists, gravitate naturally to their second-rate counterparts at the first-rate news outlets. First-rate in terms of reputation rather than performance, it almost goes without saying: the likes of the BBC, Reuters, the FT.
Journalists, in short, who may be closer than their specialist colleagues to the political settlement. And there’s seepage here too. Politicians and their Whitehall masters tend to be rather cynical about the whole intelligence circus: they rather resent the way that intelligence Mandarins keep control of the agenda thanks to the unhealthy relationship that exists between the Buggers and the Whips’ Offices of the major political parties. But snitch on a colleague when you are a minister and you can’t very well expect to lay down the law when you are a Prime Minister.
Politicians, in other words, have little part to play in the creation of an intelligence mythology: it’s the two way street that exists between journalists and the Secret Police services that is most fruitful in the creation of an imaginative legal tender. For decades, there’s been a reciprocal trade in gossip between the two worlds: and it’s in some senses a mutually beneficial relationship.
Yes, the press loves to anatomise cock-ups; but it does so while implying that these cock-ups are somehow aberrations. They tend to gloss over the notion that our Secret Police services are stuffed with spectacularly stupid men (with a few spectacularly stupid women thrown in for good measure).
If you believe some observers, half a century of shambolic recruiting is to blame. Pillars of the Secret Policing community used to be ex-pat misfits who’d managed to make a name for themselves in one or other of the Colonial Police Forces, most often Hong Kong’s. Then, when the Colonies shut up shop (and with Oxbridge a discredited hunting ground), the intelligence services began fishing for likely candidates in the Territorial Army units affiliated to Redbrick Universities. As a consequence, it wasn’t long before the intelligence world became utterly awash with emotionally unstable fantasists.
(Again, according to the sort of gossip and rumour that former technology journalists may be party to,) the whole business is as dismal now as it has ever been. But this is not to imply that there was ever a Golden Age of Secret Policing in Britain.
The subtext (if not the text) of Chapman’s book runs contrary to this notion, not least because of Chapman’s determination to repeat, for the umpteenth time, his belief that one-time Secret Policeman in chief, Roger Hollis, was a Russian mole.
Old news; tired news. Chapman is a man out of his time; and, yes, there’s has been a melancholy air to some of the reviews in the heavyweight journals. But these reviews have also served to remind us, despite this melancholy, of our continuing devotion to Chapman’s gospel. We all love a good spy story. Or rather, we’ve all learned to love a good spy story, no matter how much cognitive dissonance we have to surmount in the pursuit of that enjoyment.
Because we all sort of know that no major world power, in all the wonderful pageant of human history, has had a more ludicrous Secret Police service than Britain’s. We sort of know, too, that every time it plumbs new depths it is still working tirelessly to become even more useless.
If this were a Davis Cup style event, we’d be in Group Three Europe Zone. Of that, at least, we can continue to be proud.
* There is a troika in play here: Buggers are not to be confused with Special Branch, who do all the theoretically dangerous stuff like arrests and housebreaking; nor should they be lumped in with denizens of the desk-based analytical division, formerly known as MI5, which is staffed by transvestites and chronic alcoholics, though not exclusively so.