Britons and Secrecy

I’m still trying to work out why the British seem so much less worked up about the Snowden revelations than other peoples. In the old East Germany last summer, for example, I witnessed public demonstrations in support of him. Angela Merkel has spoken strongly against secret US surveillance of her; other European and Latin American leaders have joined in. In the USA public concern has resulted in a wholesale reform of surveillance practices, at least cosmetically. (That surely should be enough to justify Snowden’s ‘treason’. It implicitly acknowledges that he was right) In Britain, however, it seems only to be the Guardian, some bloggers, and a few MPs. Ministers are totally relaxed. William Hague’s comment originally was that ‘if you are a law-abiding citizen of this country going about your business and your personal life you have nothing to fear about the British state or the intelligence services listening to your phone calls or anything like that.’ Didn’t Goebbels say something similar? Simon Jenkins has called it ‘the motto of police states down the ages.’ Yet the Brits simply shrug, and get back to their more immediate worries; which are, of course, legion.

My surprise at this may be naïve. As a historian I know that opposition to domestic ‘espionage’ of almost any description was almost universal in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain, and indeed a matter of great pride to most Britons, for whom it was thought to distinguish them from nastier foreign regimes like the Russian and the French. The word ‘espionage’ was even pronounced in a French way. ‘Spylessness’ was one of the traditions that defined their ‘national identity’. (Conservative education ministers seeking to use the study of history to inculcate ‘patriotism’ today might take note.) Of course it wasn’t absolute, and you can find precedents for state espionage going right back; but precedents don’t become a ‘tradition’ unless they are joined up, and the occasional uses of spies in and by Britain were not. They were pretty rare, usually harmless, provoked public outrage if they were ever discovered, and were for that reason always hidden from public gaze. I could give countless examples of this prejudice. My particular favourite is the Metropolitan police sergeant in the 1850s who was demoted for sneakily hiding behind a tree to witness an ‘indecent offence’; others are cited in an old book of mine, Plots and Paranoia (1989). So the present-day apathy seems out of historical character. But then of course it isn’t really our history that defines or ‘identifies’ us. That really is a naïve view.

Continental Europe and South America don’t have this ‘tradition’, of course. What they do have, however, is recent experience of state surveillance, and what it can lead to. The Stasi Museum in Leipzig exemplifies this chillingly, and must – together with their Nazi history – explain why Germans are more sensitive to this. (Merkel, of course, comes from the old East Germany.) Our own experience is less obviously cautionary. The Special Branch and MI5 have some skeletons in their cupboards, mainly to do with their manipulation by the political Right, usually directed against Labour governments; but much of that – as well as of many other British historical naughties – is still kept secret (some of it in the only recently discovered cache at Hanslope Park). [Guardian 18 Oct 2013.] Those things usually only get revealed when states – like the DDR – fall. So we are largely unaware.

Another possible explanation is that we are all still in thrall to our upper classes, who never shared the national liberal prejudice against ‘espionage’ to the same extent, if it was done against foreigners and plebs. One interesting sociological fact about the British secret services is that they were invariably headed by pretty posh people, most of whom, at least early on, were recruited either from the military, or from Britain’s colonial service, whose value-systems were forged in different environments. They also never quite trusted democracy, which is why they have been so resistant to effective democratic accountability for their spooks. Then of course there’s the impact of Irish and Islamist terrorism; though it has to be said that there was terrorism in nineteenth century Britain too – though obviously not on the scale of 9/11 – which doesn’t seem to have had this effect then.

But still, the lack of a public outcry does appear anomalous to a historian; and makes me wonder whether it might not be rooted in a fundamental national change when it comes to attitudes to ‘secrecy’. Today we seem quite relaxed about surveillance cameras in every street, Google’s satellite mapping, the use of ATM and shop receipts to track our movements, Amazon nosing in on our tastes in books and music: practices that would have been regarded with horror a century ago. More than that: thousands of people (and they can’t all be pimply adolescents) seem to enjoy secrecy, or pseudonymity, if it gives them the liberty to write rubbish comments on blogs, or abuse and threaten women and young people through Twitter. Again, ‘anonymous letters’ were once regarded as cowardly. Now they are widely accepted. How we’ve changed.

Another relatively un-concerned country appears to be Sweden, where I have my second home. That may be because they’re used to an intrusive State, and because of powerful hidden links they’ve long had with the Americans. I read recently that the Davos people have put their ex-prime minister Karl Bildt in charge of an inquiry into all this. That doesn’t fill me with confidence. You might as well appoint William Hague.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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