1980s >> >> no-991-march-1987

The Patriotism Game

Have you heard about the new game they’re playing in Westminster? It’s called “I’m a bigger patriot than you are”. In the blue comer there’s the Conservative team led by Maggie “Falklands-factor” Thatcher. In the rose pink comer there’s the Labour team led by Neil “I’d-die-for-my-country” Kinnock. And sitting on the fence as usual there’s the Alliance in their new yellow team colours. And the prize? Up to five years of intoxicating power; and for the winning team leader residence at that most desirable of addresses – Ten Downing Street.

The BBC put the ball into play by banning a programme about Zircon, a £500 million spy satellite, whose existence had been kept a secret from Parliament. Alasdair Milne, director-general of the BBC, showed his own patriotic colours by insisting that he had not been got at by the Conservative team coach, Norman Tebbit, but had banned the programme all on his own because it “could represent a breach of national security”. However. this bold attempt to enter the patriotism game was not enough to prevent him being declared unfit to play by the BBC chief Duke Hussey.

The Tories picked up the ball that had been tossed in the air by the BBC to loud cheers from all sides and immediately appealed to the referee. House of Commons speaker Bernard Weatherill, who ruled that it was off-side for the Zircon film to be shown to Labour team supporters inside Westminster. But just as Thatcher looked as if she was going to surge ahead in the patriotism stakes, there running right beside her was Kinnock who quickly scored a couple of points for the Labour team by not only accepting the refs decision but also supporting the government’s motion to stop his own team members from seeing the film. He recognised that Thatcher was wielding the national security card – always a trump – and said:

If the Government says that this is a serious matter of national security, I must take their word for it until such time as that claim is substantiated or otherwise.

This earned him and other leading lights of the Labour team a bonus point in the form of a secret briefing on “Privy Council” terms with the Foreign Secretary which convinced them that national security was indeed at stake. But just as Labour were beginning to look like seriously patriotic contenders, some renegade Labour team members were in danger of scoring an own goal by arranging a private showing of the banned film in Westminster. But they were met by a picket consisting of the Serjeant-at-Arms’ linesmen. With some fancy ducking and weaving the renegades headed for Transport House where they watched the film out of sight of the ref.

Kinnock, recognising that the activities of the Labour renegades could lose him points, launched a new attack himself by claiming that if the government side really cared about national security as much as he did, then they would not only have banned the film, but also prevented publication of an article in the New Statesman giving details about Zircon which had been written by Duncan Campbell (who had made the film). This audacious tackle left even some of his own team reeling in astonishment. After all wasn’t the New Statesman a Labour supporters’ mag? What was the wily Welshman up to?

The score was looking pretty even when Thatcher raised the spectre of the “enemy within”, a favourite move for the Iron Lady when feeling cornered. She said:

  Unfortunately, there seem to be people who are more interested in trying to ferret out information of use to our enemies than in preserving the defence interests of this country and thus the freedoms that we all enjoy.

It was a good try but Kinnock had seen it coming and had already dissociated himself from the New Statesman and the unfortunate Campbell.

But this was not the last attack the journalist was going to suffer. Three days later the government raised the stakes by authorising a raid on Campbell’s home and the New Statesman‘s offices by its henchmen at the Special Branch. The Labour renegades led by Robin Cook tried to start a new game – the “We-support-civil-liberties-more-than-you-do” game – and began to look as though they might attract supporters away from the patriotism game. But again the Tory team upped the stakes with another surprise tackle by the Special Branch this time on the offices of BBC Scotland who had made the banned film.

At first they looked as if they might be over-stretching themselves. The BBC claimed that the Special Branch’s authorisation to play, issued under Section Nine of the Official Secrets Act, did not permit them to remove anything they took a fancy to. A judge agreed and made the Special Branch give everything back to the BBC. The Special Branch withdrew, regrouped and armed with a new search warrant issued under Section Two of the Official Secrets Act, launched a new attack which resulted in them carrying off the trophies they had been looking for – anything they could get their hands on that had anything at all to do with any of the six Secret Society programmes. Kinnock was caught off balance by this new tactic and looked as if he was in danger of forgetting which game he was playing. Was it the “patriotism” game or “civil liberties”? He said that the raid was “deeply offensive to the standards of freedom” but then went on to say:

The Government was told there had been a security leak about Zircon last June – not October as the Prime Minister said. For seven months they have done nothing useful. Now they have ordered the police to go charging off to Scotland to search through the whole series.
I thought wasting police time was an offence.

Was this a crafty attempt to play both the civil liberties and the patriotism games at the same time? Would he be able to pull it off? Would people notice that he was asking for films to be banned and also condemning police raids on the BBC as infringements of civil liberties? By this time the Alliance also thought that it was safe the enter the fray. David Owen briefly jumped off the fence to give a rallying cry. “The BBC must not take this lying down” he said. Roy Jenkins was more or less obliged to stick his oar in since BBC Scotland is in his constituency and asked: “What is the supreme objective for which the Government is prepared to look as though it were running a second-rate police state infused by illiberalism and incompetence?” But what did this mean? Did he want a first-rate police state infused with liberalism and competence instead? David Steel asked a similar question: “Is the knock on the door in the middle of the night to become part of our society?”

Meanwhile the game was getting to be more and more farcical: hundreds of people queued up to see a bootleg copy of the banned film; every newspaper was carrying as many details as they could about the “not-so-secret” spy satellite; Sir Frank Cooper, former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, said that “everybody knows where everybody’s satellite is and you can see lists which are published in defence journals of who’s launched what, where, what its orbit is. And I think you can probably do this using schoolchildren in Milton Keynes or somewhere”. And just to put the boot in completely it turned out that the “subversive” Campbell had had a friendly chat over lunch with Sir Michael Havers, the Attorney General. about the film; one of the programmes in the Secret Society series was made with the full cooperation of the Ministry of Defence; and the government really had known about the leak about Zircon and the BBC film for ages without doing anything about it. The Thatcher team tried to win back some lost ground by trying to dissociate themselves from the Special Branch and claimed that they had not authorised the raid on the BBC. So who had? Or had the Special Branch broken away and formed their own independent team?

Or maybe the Tory team weren’t playing the “patriotism” game after all. Maybe it was all a front and what they were really playing was that other Whitehall favourite – “Them and Us”. The rules for this are as follows: “They” are a very small team but have a number of things in their favour. They control, directly or indirectly, most of the TV and radio companies, most of the daily newspapers and other sources of “news”. What’s more they have access to important information that no-one else can see unless they say so. The object of the game is for us to find out as much as we can about government, politics and the civil service. However, they have a few other tricks up their sleeve should we get too close to finding out anything that they think will show them up to be dishonest, incompetent and undemocratic: the umpires — the courts — are usually on their side so that if they say the magic words “national security” then the judges will say that we can’t have the information. Also they can make up the rules as they go along to suit themselves. They can also feed us bits of “news” which show them up in a good light in the hope that this will distract us from what is really going on. And finally, if we get too close to the truth, then they can call up reinforcements in the shape of the police and Special Branch. This doesn’t mean we can’t win. only that it is difficult. However, we have the advantage of numbers on our side. What we don’t have as yet is the determination and clear sense of purpose that are necessary. However, if they continue to behave in the duplicitous and ridiculous manner that they have over the Zircon film, then things might very well become considerably easier.

Janie Percy-Smith