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Matthew Parris

The spy game catches everyone who plays it

Matthew Parris offers Another Voice

17 July 2010

12:00 AM

17 July 2010

12:00 AM

It’s been a good month for spy commentators. Experts on espionage have been popping up everywhere in the news media, offering views, news and background information on secret intelligence. The exposure of a Russian spy-ring operating in the United States, followed by a spy-swap in which America retrieved four of theirs in return for Russia retrieving ten of theirs (but ‘we got back really good ones’, explained the US Vice President, Joe Biden) has brought the whole business of Great Power intelligence-gathering to the forefront of media attention. Almost everybody loves a good spy story, as spy novelists will attest.

But listening to John Le Carré on the Today programme talking most absorbingly about what the Russian spies embedded in America might actually have been doing (Mr Le Carré thought they had been left more or less marooned by post-Cold-War shifts in the spying game) reminded me of a doubt I’ve had all my adult life: a doubt that has troubled me ever since first encountering the work of ‘Our Friends’ as a young diplomatic officer.

The doubt goes beyond the work of spies, and extends to all those priesthoods upon which, until one has been initiated into them, it is hard to offer any useful comment; but about which, once one becomes an initiate, one is unlikely to remain objective. Where do we turn for dispassionate, disinterested commentary when a specialism has effectively captured all its specialists?

Let me put it like this: all the journalists, correspondents and authors I’ve encountered who know enough about the world of secret intelligence to offer a useful analysis have seemed to me to find an almost boyish excitement in the whole thing, and to have developed a taste for it.

But what’s the causal sequence, because that’s what counts? Is it the case that the more you learn about espionage, the more gripping it becomes for you and the more its importance becomes clear? If so, fine: opinion is based on expertise. Or is it a matter of self-selection: only people inclined to find espionage gripping and important are likely to turn themselves into spy experts? If so, then we should worry. Our commentators are likely to be prejudiced from the start in favour of the field they’ve chosen.


I suspect the latter: that spy correspondents are mostly wannabe spies; and my suspicions are reinforced by the observation that these people are overwhelmingly men, and are inclined to talk in hushed, significant voices, their metaphorical forefingers lightly tapping their metaphorical noses as they speak. They have fallen under the spell of a discipline which anyway fascinated them from the start.

In which case, again, fine. But what if the great majority of intelligence work was in fact a ridiculous waste of time and a global conspiracy between competing spy-services to create glamorous careers for each other? Who would tell us? How would we know?

From the day long ago when I was myself offered a job in MI6 I have doubted the seriousness of the purpose of these endeavours. But having seen reams of the stuff the intelligence people churn out I fast reached the conclusion that the subject was dull as well as (usually) unimportant. It would be my idea of hell to devote a journalistic career to pursuing undercover assignations with deniable sources in the spying business, and remembering who everyone was, and their chains of command, and whether there really was an M, and how the committees and networks related to each other, and who their foreign counterparts were. Instead I start from the observation that we have spies because other people have spies; and, thinking it quite likely that they have spies because we have spies, proceed to the (unexplored) conclusion that we could save a lot of money and ministers’ time by calling most of it off. But exploring that conclusion would take a lifetime. So I must turn instead, and we must all turn, to the commentary of those who are indeed devoting a lifetime to it. And they are not disinterested parties.

Ah, you tell me, but what about 9/11? What about al-Qa’eda? Here, intelligence-gathering must be vital for national security. Sure. And I’ll take your word for it if you can just confirm that the overwhelming majority of our top operatives now have brown skins. Because I don’t think they do.

As priesthoods go, espionage is obviously a pointed example. Not every field, though, repels disinterested attention as spying does. Many areas of endeavour are easily open to amateur inspection from outside or from their customers: teaching, retailing, sport, astrology, cuisine, the railways and the arts are examples. Many offer the public a visible product, and (whether or not we understand how they work) can be judged on it.

Others, arcane though they may be, generate their own internal oppositions. A tribe of economists can always be found to rubbish the usefulness of a rival tribe, and we outsiders can watch them fight and then, from thesis and antithesis, make our own synthesis. Politics likewise. Doctors can spar with homoeopaths; abortionists with Roman Catholics, and in many of the social sciences we can rely on the disciplines themselves to produce questioning expert voices.

But espionage isn’t alone in its potency to capture its own commentators. Defence does too: with honourable exceptions, those sceptical about defence spending have been disinclined to play soldiers as little boys, and are now reluctant to become experts on the operation and value-for-money of the Chieftain tank. The best and perhaps the sole argument for the separation of our three Services is that the only root-and-branch questioning you’ll ever hear of (say) the Royal Navy comes from the Army, and vice versa. Curiously, agriculture too has a remarkable power to repel expert interest from any but those few who half wish they were farmers themselves; and gets a very easy ride in the House of Commons. So does Northern Ireland. There are debates, but nobody comes except the usual suspects.

And as for that cornucopia of committee chairmanships, speakers’ fees, mediators’ business-class flights and commentators’ careers, the Middle East — well, the Arab-Israeli dispute does generate the clash of argument, but never seems to follow up with any questioning of how much the argument matters to the rest of us in the first place. By the time you’ve learned what the exact terms of the Norwegian-brokered peace deal actually were, where precisely Mr Netan-whatever stands on the East Jerusalem settlements question, whether and in whose presence that concrete thing is to be called a wall, a fence or a barrier, and who the members of the latest quartet, quintet or sextet actually are, you’re probably an Arabist, Jewish, or organising a Chatham House conference. What you’re not is an expert who nevertheless doubts the possibility of the United Kingdom playing any useful role at all, and questions the usefulness of even debating the dispute.

We need to make an honoured and perhaps statutory place in our affairs for the bored but well-informed sceptic. Bring on the expert who knows how to yawn.

Matthew Parris is a columnist on the Times.


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