Who Spies on Our Spies?


14 July. London. A bunch of ex-spymasters in London tell us that they may have broken the law about spying on us. Heigh-ho.  Never mind. They probably did it for the best. What they said was that they may have broken the “antiquated laws” they operate under. These of course are the laws designed to protect the likes of me, you and most people who just hang around.

The people who think they might have done something wrong (a subjective allusion) include Lord Evans of Weardale who was Director General Security Service (MI5), Sir John Scarlett who was Tony Blair’s favourite chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (Dodgy Iraq document etc) and Controller MI6 (a TB appointee) and the truly top class former Director GCHQ and sometime Permanent Secretary Home Office Sir David Omand.

Of course the simplicity of the hands-up-fair-cop statement in a Royal United Service Institute report today on surveillance is that in the much bigger scheme most of us do not care a fig about who spies on who because we do not know anything about what goes on.

Furthermore, we watch and love Homeland, Bourne and The Game and we not only believe the ficture but we want to believe it. In our pockets we carry mobile phones that have enough computing power to launch a Mars mission or, if that is not our nanjeu, hack a Pentagon lunch menu.  In short, we believe everything is possible.  With this truth we get a bit of a thrill. We also easily adopt the mood that the confessing troika, or their people, have prevented about 50 other 7/7 atrocities and maybe even a couple of 9/11s by law-shaky surveillance.

When I was told that I had been ‘monitored’ I felt at first amazingly angry and then settled easily into that other illusion: I was important enough to be checked out. Having suffered the humility of being the only one of my own group of 4 at university who was not shoulder-tapped as a potentional MI6 or MI5 candidate I now felt better.  Someone had noticed me after all. If nothing else they would perhaps know that I campaigned for a knighthood for Geoffrey Boycott.

The slightly serious side to all this is that as a people, the British (supported by the SNP perhaps) accept the need for mass electronic and even personal surveillance if we are to be protected from modern terrorism. The difficult bit must be an assurance that the spying is regulated by a third party we all trust.  A job for m’learned friend obviously. It is here that I see behind the story of spying and protection of democratic values the real concern we should have and, it is a concern not about the spying but the question of national trust.

To select a body or a nominated individual relies on the simple question: who do we really trust to look after oour interests – even when we do ot know they exist? The intelligence agencies are nominally under Parliamentary scrutiny and ministerial responsibility. But as a nation we clearly have no regard, even belief in the claims by politicans of democratic honour.  By and large and however likeable some are, we think politicians and especially minister are a shifty lot. So who else to protect our interests.  Retired great and goodies? Forget it.  We saw how even the nicest people could be disredited when the government searched for a chair into the child abuse inquiry.

The Churches? Forget it. Apart from ability and deep belief in compromise, the Churches have little of our support and confidence. You see where this goes? The British no longer have any regard for the great institutions.  Even the monarchy is being rated now as a celebrity factor rather than a constitutional condition.

The answer then must be the one secition of society that is essential to a peoples hope that it may be quietly governed and protected from great political excesses.  The nub of a nation’s hope for democracy is an independent judiciary. That independent judiciary is the surviving institution in Britain that albeit sometimes reluctantly has the nation’s trust.  The rest have gone bad.

Our spy masters are not all bad TV-tinted personalities. Let them by monitored annually by a trio of our judges – not retired ones either.  A judge is never in search of the truth.  He or she listens to the argument and then decides on balance which side has been best presented and hopefully believable. That is what we need to protect us if indeed we need protecting.

Meanwhile, Cheltenham, Embankment and Vauxhall have my number.  The trigger word is: Sir Geoffrey


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