After Spywatcher — What?
Will anything of lasting value come out of the Spycatcher affair? That was a question I asked myself on a hot evening in August. Along with many others I was packed into Bristol’s Watershed centre to listen to readings from the great forbidden book. One well-thumbed copy was to be raffled at a pound a ticket. Another was to be given away by a local magazine, to the winner of a competition in which you had to image yourself a loony right-wing security agent bent on destabilising the Thatcher government: what rumour would you circulate? The Chair of the meeting reported apologies from a host of celebrities who were on holiday. It didn’t matter that the TV cameras weren’t here, he said (with only a hint of disappointment in his voice). We still roasted under the spotlights because a trade union camera was recording the proceedings.
The event itself had been preceded early in the morning by a warm-up bout between local MP William Waldegrave and a representative of the National Council for Civil Liberties on Radio Bristol. The NCCL representative had spoken in indignant and stirring tones about censorship and freedom of speech, but without any qualifications. This enabled Waldegrave to complain that the NCCL itself believes in censorship (because it supports the Race Relations Act’s embargo on incitement to racial hatred). That point went unanswered, as did the counter-accusation against Waldegrave, that he ignored the seriousness of the charges made in Wright’s book by echoing the government line about secret service officers’ lifetime obligation of confidentiality. Never mind, a discussion was promised after the readings that evening. That might be worthwhile even if the Waldegrave view was almost certain to go unrepresented.
The readings themselves were entertaining if unremarkable. We can be fairly sure that all the interesting charges made in the book are now already in the public domain, and all that remain are the trimmings. So we heard about the familiar alleged plot to subvert the Wilson government. Khrushchev’s vanity, the madness of the alleged plots against Nasser, and the dangers posed for secret service infiltrators of left-wing groups by the promiscuity of their members. The book was well-written and clearly very funny, usually unintentionally. I checked on the safety of my raffle ticket and kept my fingers crossed.
Came the discussion. The Chair suggested, at inordinate length given the tight time schedule, that we confine our attention to four main areas. Alas, he spoke with more insistence than clarity, and when I compared notes with a friend after the meeting we could still only discern three. The first person to emerge from the darkness and brave the spotlight and microphone said he was an ordinary person who belonged to no groups and had never spoken to more than half a dozen people in public. He was just upset to be told he couldn’t read the book. A number of journalists spoke with convincing passion on a matter which affects them to a greater degree than, and in a different way from other people. There was the inevitable contribution from a member of the Smash The State Tendency, prompting early departures from the hall. “Thank you. comrade”, said the Chair icily. But mainly it was “Thank you, Brian”, ‘Thank you. Dawn”, as a succession of figures, doubtless familiar with one another, made their points
A CND representative reminded us of the extent of surveillance over members and conveyed successfully how upsetting it could be to be on the receiving end. A pleasant man from the Green Party said they were entitled to their paranoia too, and told of delayed mail and phones which didn’t work around election time. Well, yes, problems suffered by tens of thousands at other times too. But then, as we all know by now, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. A lawyer pointed out cases where the public interest had been held to outweigh any duty of confidentiality. We were urged to support NCCL and the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.
Towards the end of the meeting the Chair remarked on the unanimity of the opposition which had been expressed to the banning of the book and invited anyone to speak in favour. No one did. The MI5 man (for he was surely there, and surely a man?) kept silent.
My own feeling was that the set pieces we had heard did little to advance understanding or to place the Wright Affair in a wide enough context. To be sure, more than one speaker reminded us that the dirty tricks of secret service agents go on under Labour as well as Conservative governments, that it was a Labour government which pushed through the Prevention of Terrorism Act in ten days, that it was under a Labour government that the ABC trial took place. And we had been urged to look at the broader political issues, and agitate for more accountability. But accountability in what form, and to whom?
Justified feelings of outrage had been expressed, but it was outrage of a very limited kind. Something had been done which was unfair by the rules of the game, but no one questioned the nature of the game. Did the speakers think there should be a secret service at all? If so, how far did they think it would be compatible with its effective functioning to demand that it be publicly accountable? If not, did they recognise that paranoia notwithstanding, other foreign powers had agents who got up to dirty tricks which might affect us? Were they all, as they seemed to be, content with the minimal degree of genuine accountability which elected representatives are subject to? If so, how much control could that possibly leave us, the ordinary members of the public, over “our” security services? If not, what ideas might they have for moulding a more adequate set of democratic institutions than those associated with twelve crosses in a lifetime? Without the raising of fundamental questions like these, there will be many more Peter Wrights and many more undetected dirty tricks.