I’ve no doubt this article is very old news to some, but is does highlight a few facts about our “secret police”.
Conceived in sin
Profound constitutional questions have been raised by the actions of MI5 and MI6. They should not be allowed to get away with murder any more
Special report: David Shayler
Special report: freedom of information
Freedom of information bill
Sunday August 27, 2000
He was thanked by strangers in the street for his sacrifices when he returned from exile last week. The greetings were delivered in Beaconsfield, which was not known previously as a Little Moscow of the Buckinghamshire red belt. The newspapers agreed that the tide was with Shayler. They reported the Government had ducked an Official Secrets Act prosecution against him for revealing his most damming secrets – MI6’s definite knowledge of and alleged complicity in a coup attempt in Libya, and MI5’s lazy handling of warnings of the bombing of the Israeli Embassy which led to the building being wrecked and the probable unjust conviction of two Palestinians. Rather than take the serious charges head on, the authorities had gone for Shayler for the laughably petty crime of telling the Mail on Sunday that MI5 kept files on politicians.
As the politicians were Peter Mandelson and Jack Straw, two of the most conservative figures in the history of the Labour movement, I can see why many think the case will be far funnier than Have I Got News For You has been since those forgotten days when Merton had to struggle on a mere upper-middle-class income. The argument doing the rounds is that MI5 will end up being derided as a collection of numpties whatever happens. If Mandelson and Straw are real security threats, then Shayler was right to reveal the presence of traitors at the heart of Government. If they are not, and they quite clearly are not, then Shayler revealed nothing except the dangerous fantasies of a far-right secret police.
I’m all for laughing at the spooks, but mockery can let them off too lightly. Straw is meant to be the Minister who controls MI5. Mandelson has to deal daily with its bureaucrats in Northern Ireland. They are members of a government which determines the budgets and powers of MIs 5 and 6. How are they likely to behave when they learn that they have been spied on for years after they left the Left by the wizened, vindictive souls of the ‘intelligence community’?
The best answer comes from fiction. Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel, All the King’s Men, about the politics of the American South has just been re-published. It has a corrupt politician telling his sidekick, the narrator, to find the dirty secret of a judge who has got ideas above his station.
‘"But suppose there isn’t anything to find?"
‘And the Boss said: "There is always something."
‘And I said: "Maybe not on the Judge."
‘And he said: "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."’
Quite so. Successive American presidents allowed J. Edgar Hoover to ignore the rise of a Mafia and persecute civil rights campaigners because they were terrified about what he had on them in his files. There is at least a suggestion that New Labour politicians are being told to watch what they say.
In March, Peter Hain, the Foreign Office Minister, bravely deplored the prosecution of my colleague Martin Bright for fighting MI5’s attempts to find the sources of our articles on the Shayler case. Within days, the Times and Telegraph were reporting that the Conservatives had ‘revealed’ that Hain was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and, as such, was unfit to represent Britain. It is impossible to decide whether this was a warning from the secret state to a democratic politician not to get ideas above his station. I wouldn’t dream of speculating myself – no responsible citizen wants to be accused of being a conspiracy theorist, after all. Yet it is indisputable that Robin Cook was lied to quite spectacularly when MI6 told him Shayler’s Libyan accusations were ‘pure fantasy’.
As far as we know no official has been investigated for allegedly deceiving the Ministers who are meant to control them. Being a cynical Leftie, I think New Labour would have given the most bigoted factions in the security services everything they wanted without the need for threats. Those Pollyannas among you who believe in the democratic respectability of our system have no choice, however, but to regard Shayler’s allegations about the files as the most serious charges of constitutional impropriety he has levelled.