Why the British love their spies

From Sweden’s Axess magazine


Edward Snowden’s revelations have shocked the world. So great was the anger at the allegation that the German secret services helped the US National Security Agency spy on German citizens, it looked for a moment as if it could stop Angela Merkel retaining power. Vladimir Putin, the greatest hypocrite of our age, has taken the opportunity to give Snowden asylum and denounce the US abroad, while cracking down on what freedoms remain at home. Even in the US, a large and angry minority in Congress wants to limit the power of the increasingly Nixonian Obama administration.

There is uproar everywhere from France to Brazil – everywhere, that is, except Britain. The nonchalant lack of concern baffles foreigners. The scandal is as much a British as an American affair. The Guardian – and I should declare an interest and say that I work for the Guardian’s parent company – showed that the Americans paid the British surveillance agency GCHQ to spy on their behalf. More worryingly, the Guardian quoted one happy GCHQ lawyer boasting, “We have a light oversight regime compared with the US”. What he meant was that the British could be bugged without a warrant from an independent judge with far greater ease than Americans could. Surely, that should bother Parliament and public.

British police then used anti-terrorist legislation to arrested David Miranda, the boyfriend of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist covering the Snowden story, at Heathrow airport. Miranda is not a terrorist, but the police did not care and took his phone and laptop anyway. Every lawyer I know describes their behaviour as illegal.

The reaction of the British press was telling. Most of the newspapers refused to defend Miranda. In part, this was because of deep hatreds, which have left British journalism at the mercy of the state. The Guardian exposed the tabloid hacking scandal, and cheered on the Leveson inquiry as it proposed statutory controls on press freedom. The authorities have arrested over 100 tabloid journalists and their contacts as a result. Their colleagues would not defend the Guardian when the police pulled in the boyfriend of one of its reporters. The right wing press wants the state to punish the left wing press and vice versa. Basic freedoms in my country are the first casualty of their civil war.

But there is more to it in that. I have said before that if Swedes want to understand British attitudes, you must remember that Britain fought and won the Second World War. Neither the Nazis nor the communists invaded. We were victorious and our decline as a world power was slow and relatively quiet, rather than the consequence of catastrophic defeat.

Our history explains our tolerance of spies. Collaborators never compromised the reputation of the British state. Unlike Germany, we never experienced the Gestapo or the Stasi. We do not have an inbuilt suspicion of spies who want to bug us without tight legal controls. Despite their disastrous failure to understand that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, most Britons still assume that our spies are “good chaps” who mean well.

For reasons that are not always obvious, British decline has bolstered the spies’ prestige. Britain’s alliance with America is at heart an intelligence alliance. In return for diplomatic support, America gives Britain access to information we could never hope to collect ourselves. It allows us to look as if we are a great power, even though we are nothing of the sort.

That desire to “keep up appearances” – to use a very British phrase – explains a deeper reason for Britain’s reverence for spies. It is no accident that the spy novel was invented and developed by British writers – John Buchan, Ian Fleming, John le Carré. For when a country no longer has mighty armies and factories, it can still believe that its clever spies will allow it retain its status as a great nation by plotting and scheming. We may not have military or economic superiority but we want to believe that our superior intelligence will allow us to continue to manipulate the world.

The British love their spies because they allow us to live an illusion. I see no sign that the affair or the illusion will end.