Spylessness and After

Historians’ attitudes are often influenced by the history they study. I have to say that my distaste for covert domestic surveillance, secret policing and the like – except in extreme circumstances – has been coloured by the very honourable opposition to these methods I discovered amongst the 19th and 20th century British liberals and socialists I have spent so much of my professional life researching. It was in The Refugee Question, I think, and then in Plots and Paranoia, that I established what I called ‘spylessness’ as one of the major British moral and political principles of the 19th and early 20th centuries; one of the genuine ‘Victorian Values’ that Margaret Thatcher used to pay such lip service to. Unlike Thatcher, I’ve kept hold of these principles, broadly speaking, and have tended to judge Britain’s present-day activities in these areas by them. A couple of posts here will illustrate this: https://bernardjporter.com/2015/01/09/surveillance/; and https://bernardjporter.com/2016/03/01/the-snoopers-charter/. I have, in other words, remained a Victorian liberal in this respect, if not in certain others.

The dominant opinions of any age, however, are bound to be affected by that age’s material circumstances; and in this case there seems reason to think that the Victorians’ ‘spyless’ ethic no longer has much relevance today. This is not so much because the nature of the threats that face us, and our security services, is so much more serious than it was in the age of foreign revolutionary immigrants, Fenianism, violent anarchism, nihilism, communism, ‘free love’ and all the other perceived dangers that so exercised the British police and secret services in earlier times. Rather it’s because of the rapid growth of technologies that are making surveillance far easier than it used to be, and indeed scarcely avoidable, for anyone who uses bank machines or internet selling sites, for example, for any purpose whatever. I’m constantly shocked by the number of times my searching for a hotel on booking.com has been followed, rapidly, by Amazon’s recommending to me books on the very countries and places I was looking at; a minor annoyance, of course, but illustrative of the impossibility of avoiding one’s every action’s being noticed and broadcast. Unless, that is, I chose to live in a wood without phone or computer, eating berries, roots and stray deer. (Even there I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d found ways of disguising surveillance cameras as trees.)

All of which is bringing me to the conclusion that, whatever my personal feelings still are – I especially abhor the distrust that espionage gives rise to – I should abandon my historical and political distaste for ‘espionage’, and learn to accept it. Privacy was a 19th century luxury. The internet has destroyed it, even as a fond ideal. Historically I need to acknowledge this – and to point out the contrast when I’m writing about Victorian times, simply as a contrast, and not necessarily as a fall from grace. Politically we need to find other ways of coping.

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4 Responses to Spylessness and After

  1. TJ (below): These are all a bit late to be covered by my generalisation (C19th and early C20th); which in any case only referred to the general political climate of the time. There were always exceptions, even in the C19th, mentioned in my books. Later on the Public boarding schools – hotbeds of conspiracy – encouraged a less ‘gentlemanly’ ethic in this regard, as I argued in the LRB, 15 July 1999.

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  2. TJ says:

    It’s surprising, given the hypocrisy and double-standards of much Victorian middle class behaviour, that ‘spylessness’ should have become a Victorian ‘value,’ and it has been suggested that the British bourgeoisie have a weakness and a talent for secret behaviour, delighting in knowing things that others don’t, and keeping the people in ignorance. (shown so well in le Carre’s novels)

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    • It was so, nonetheless. The main exceptions were less the ‘bourgeoisie’ than the uppermost-middle classes, who saw nothing wrong in spying on those ‘beneath’ them, but daren’t show it for fear of the popular condemnation it would provoke. It was this class that le Carre’s spooks were mainly recruited from.

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      • TJ says:

        I suppose the middle middle class spies – Cairncross, Leo Long, Nunn May, Alexander Foot, Vassal, – were either ‘corrupted’ or ‘turned’ by their social superiors or they just had secrets to give away or wither ideology or gain.

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