At the Hay Festival this year and screened on Sky Arts there have been a series of interviews. An unusual double one was with John Le Carre in conversation with Phillipe Sands about his life, times and writings lasting ninety minutes but put out in two parts. So I repeat in part the title and picture of a couple of days ago. Given the present fuss about information gathering and gleaning it was of interest but shed light on some of our past in this field.
We share a lifespan and the same hair style and apparently some of the cynicism about our present governments and the way thing are. But our paths do not seem to have crossed. He had gone from Lincoln College, Oxford by the time my rugby team arrived for a fixture. He was gone from Germany before my time and returned only a while after I had left. He had a very different career.
We were in London at the same time for a spell in the late 1950's, but unless his sports and music
interests were similar there is little chance of being in the same place at the same time. The only thing that might have been was on a hot summer day the Endell Street open air baths was a good place to be, especially as many of the West End chorus girls would enjoy some fresh air and a splash around.
His conversation needed close listening. I suspect he does not suffer fools gladly unless it is part of the job. There was what was said, what was apparently incidental, what was hinted at and critically what was not said. The links his father had with the Krays were admitted but the name Lord Boothby was dropped. At this point the nose twitched. He was in the Security, his father was in with Boothby, who was privy to Government, the lover of Harold Macmillan's wife, a familiar of the Krays and up to who knows what.
One of those stray memories is when Boothby, a BBC favourite on whom they fawned at the time, proclaimed to the nation that everyone should go and see the Red Army Choir and Dance Ensemble. Boothby was always extreme but his enthusiasm for this lot was extraordinary. The BBC did run a performance. They were good but not that good. Remember, this was the time of the Philby and other scandals. Just how close was Boothby and who was he serving?
If Le Carre (real name David Cornwell) did have a personal line to him then the Security must have known. Just as they must have known about the coming and goings of the Profumo affair. What else did they know and about whom? If students in London were aware of which senior Labour figures frequented the Russell Square men's conveniences and why it is inconceivable that the Security did not know, especially as it was almost literally just round the corner from their offices at the time.
Le Carre attempted to explain the nation of our political and how it operates, note the word "operates" rather than works. Work suggests something productive and with a result. It is his view which I share that for much of the time what happens are the errors, failures of politics and all the unintended consequences. The pernicious and all pervading thing is that access to the secret information is central to government and decision making and this places the Security at the very centre and is often the crucial element.
One aspect of this which this might explain is why during a time of centralised economic and financial controls etc. both Labour and Conservative governments actively encouraged the creation of tax havens whose purpose was the opposite of what their monetary and fiscal policies were try to achieve. It may well be the need to move money and information about transactions in secret overcame any other consideration for decades.
Another involves the whole business of the Security and the Special Relationship with the USA. Le Carre is very cynical and dismissive of this and again I am inclined to agree with his suggestion of the UK government obeying every whim of that of the USA. In this context there is the amazing decision of the Heath government to run down and minimise involvement in satellite development but to bet the research money on supersonic airplanes. Big fancy toys for the elite and a wonder of the age the Concord might have been. But the USA could have built them any time it wanted and what they had was the real advantage of going into space with all that it involved without any real competition for decades from anyone else in the West.
What had this to do with UK Security? Le Carre made no mention of signals intelligence nor is there much hint of it in his work. Yet we know now from recent documents about GCHQ going back to the 1950's. This was the ultimate of secrecy yet what part did it play and how did Security handle it or did it even know how to deal with it? What seems possible is that for a while the UK gave the USA some knowledge without revealing the actual source. This was our Special Relationship.
But going into the 1970's by which time big computers allied to more varied sources including signals were churning a lot of information, the UK was mired. Part of the problem was that the attitude to computers was affected by the "secret garden" attitude. These were new gods to be attended by (expensive) high priests and guarded from the general public. You questioned the information they spewed out at your peril. Unless you had good reason.
This may well have created huge tensions in Security. Le Carre in his "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy" has something called "Moscow Centre" which is pitted against the UK "Circus". The Circus has large numbers of people doing traditional hands on intelligence of all sorts. These include the spy networks, the moles backed by intensive surveillance and the analysis of anything in print or broadcast on radio.
But beyond that is the "Witchcraft" project, a key mole with very special information restricted to very few both in The Circus and in government. But "C" does not trust it nor the analysis made from its contents. It cannot be confirmed by other means and you are dependent on what you are told. It is not too much to suggest that in reality "Witchcraft" was the product of GCHQ listening and then analysis by a limited number using computers.
There was reason to distrust these methods of intelligence gathering by the mid 1970's. The US disaster in Vietnam owed a great deal to gross failures of intelligence and analysis in Washington arising from these forms of information gathering and the assumptions made from them by over active and ambitious people. Moltke's "enthusiastic idiots".
Le Carre is scathing about the Iraq War and again I agree with him. He also feels that our recent governments and the related elite, still devoted to secrecy and inner cabals is essentially "internationalist" in form, structure, belief and policy making. So we are rarely told the truth, even more rarely given reliable information and have become beholden to outsiders.
Much more dangerous is the politicisation of both government and related intelligence services. They are no longer there to do real intelligence or careful independent analysis or offer insights into the complexity of questions or issue or the reality of affairs. They are there to help do the spin, provide excuses and find reasons to defame or destroy those who question and oppose.
In the last analysis the UK has been betrayed and made a place to be exploited and used by others for the benefit of a very few. It may not even survive but revert to a set of governed provinces as it once was.