The Snoopers’ Charter

A revised version of the Government’s so-called ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ – allowing interception of all our phone and email traffic, among other things – is to be presented to Parliament today. Here’s a historical piece I wrote for the Independent on Sunday (or ‘Sindy‘) – now sadly no longer with us, at least in the print version – a few weeks ago.


In seeking to extend the state’s powers of surveillance over its citizens, Theresa May’s new Investigatory Powers Bill is flouting a long tradition in British history. I’m not sure that the government is aware of this. Conservatives are supposed to respect tradition, as the soil in which ‘British values’ are sown. Hence their enthusiasm for history teaching in school. But they may not realise how important the principle of not spying on their citizens was on the past. Books and television programmes on the history of Britain’s ‘secret service’ trace it back to Walsingham in the 16th century, which is fair enough; but not if it is assumed that it must also have gone on between then and now. In fact, for a long period in the 19th century Britain deliberately abjured this kind of thing. She left herself effectively ‘spyless’, however unlikely that must seem today. So secret service wasn’t a ‘tradition’. ‘Traditions’ need to be joined up.

The reasons why spying was rejected may be instructive. It was ungentlemanly. It could lead to abuse. ‘Men whose business it is to detect hidden and secret things,’ wrote Anthony Trollope in 1869, ‘are very apt to detect things that have never been done.’ The Victorians had learned that from their earlier history, in more revolutionary days, when spies had often morphed into agents provocateurs, or worse. Another important reason was the damage it could do to the trust between rulers and ruled on which stable government depended. ‘Should the practice of spydom become universal’, pronounced The Times in 1859, ‘farewell to all domestic confidence and happiness.’ The novelist Mayne Reid thought that once introduced, even on a small scale, its effect would be ‘wedge-like… cleaving the columns of our glory and sapping the foundations of our dear liberty.’ In the early 20th century, when the modern ‘secret service’ was born, some came to suspect that unscrupulous politicians or agents might harness it against democratically-elected governments they didn’t like; which was by no means out of the question. (Doubts still remain over the ‘Zinoviev Letter’ of 1924, and the ‘Wilson Plot’ of the late 1960s.) Next, spying was fundamentally illiberal. Hence Erskine May, the great British constitutional theorist, in 1863:

Men may be without restraints upon their liberty: they may pass to and fro at pleasure: but if their steps are tracked by spies and informers, their words noted down for crimination, their associates watched as conspirators – who shall say that they are free?

Finally, and perhaps most important: spying was what the French did. France was Britain’s most significant ‘Other’ in the 19th century, the country she measured and identified herself against. A ghastly series of murders in east London in 1811 prompted some contemporaries to call for a more effective detective force to prevent such things. Here was Earl Dudley’s response:

They have an admirable police at Paris. But they pay for it dear enough. I had rather half-a-dozen people’s throats be cut in Ratcliffe Highway every three or four years than be subject to domiciliary visits, spies, and all the rest of Fouché’s contrivances.

(Fouché was Napoleon’s much-reviled Minister of Police.) So, whatever the advantages of a ‘detective’ police might be, France illustrated the downside. ‘Spylessness’ was a crucial identifier of the British against the French. (Also, incidentally, automatic asylum for foreign refugees, even terrorists.) That’s how important to Britain’s national self-image it was.

This could be taken to surprising lengths. In 1851 a Metropolitan police sergeant was cashiered and demoted for hiding behind a tree to observe ‘an indecent offence’. The reason why early policemen were given their silly tall hats was so that no-one would suspect them of being ‘under cover’. When an infant plain-clothes branch was formed in the 1860s it almost immediately had to be disbanded when three of its four senior officers were found to have been implicated in a betting fraud. That seemed to bear out the anti-spy prejudice. The same arguments were repeated later, when London was subjected to ‘terrorist’ threats in the 1880s (Irish Fenians) and the 1900s (foreign anarchists). In response to these, the government did in fact set up a ‘political’ (‘Special’) branch that used spies and informers; and later – around 1910 – MI5 was founded to deal (mainly) with the German spy threat. But both were mainly manned by Irishmen and ex-Colonial officials, whose policing traditions were less liberal. And both were kept strictly hidden from the British public.

It may be this that fuelled the suspicions that have hovered over Britain’s secret policing and intelligence agencies from that time onwards. Secrecy is almost bound to provoke mistrust, and even paranoia. Some of that may be undeserved. On the other hand, however, it also provides a cover behind which these agencies can abuse their positions if they want, without being brought to book. In the 20th century this was exacerbated by the fact that members of MI5, in particular, were often ex-colonial hands, or people trusted by them: politically right-wing, in other words; which affected – to put it mildly – the objectivity of the intelligence they provided. It is some of these people who will have been responsible for plots against Labour governments in the past. No wonder the Left distrusts them.

The answer is probably not to do away with them. Circumstances are obviously very different now from what they were then – the Islamist terrorist threat in particular – and public opinion clearly not so shocked by our current transformation into something of a ‘surveillance state’ (CCTV cameras and the like) as almost any transplanted Victorian would have been. But only so long as the government is aware of how ‘un-British’ its current Investigatory Powers Bill is, historically. And learns from the abuses of the past. The way to do that is to make the secret services more transparent, and fully accountable to the democracy. They say they are aware of that. Good. Secret Services are always problematic; secret Secret Services, however, are even more so.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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7 Responses to The Snoopers’ Charter

  1. Pingback: May and History | Porter’s Pensées

  2. Pingback: Spylessness and After | Porter’s Pensées

  3. Phil says:

    Suspicion of spies and domestic spying died hard. In the 1957 film Town Under Suspicion, the new-broom detective just down from London proposes to solve a small-town murder by leafletting the surrounding streets with an appeal for information. His small-town superior is outraged – “Ask law-abiding English householders to inform on their neighbours? This isn’t the Gestapo, man!” Now, obviously this was fiction – and even in the fiction the Met seem to have been further down that road – but still; 1957. Not even sixty years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

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