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Our spies are amiable duffers: it's the Establishment way

Matthew Parris

I bet dodgy intelligence is in part to blame for the Iraqi weapons fiasco, and I bet Lord Butler of Brockwell does not quite find it in his Establishment heart to say so. His mustard-keen Establishment nose will pick up the scent, his hawk-sharp Establishment eye will see what went wrong and his lightning-quick Establishment brain will draw some spiky conclusions.

Brain will then convey a message to his Daimler-smooth Establishment tongue: “Not in front of the children.” You do not hire a public servant to rubbish other public servants to protect the reputations of politicians — and if it is for this that Tony Blair is hoping, then I bet he has made a mistake.

That would be a pity. Easy as it would be to blame Mr Blair alone for the mess we are in, British spooks should not be allowed to get off so lightly. I know some very nice spooks. I have never met a seriously malevolent or totally unhinged British spy. They are a clubbable crowd. It’s just that I harbour serious doubts as to whether they are much good.

Always when we inquire into a failure of policy, a human catastrophe or a miscarriage of justice, we are tugged by a subterranean desire to discover a single cause, usually human, as the culprit. To a mind thus framed, it comes as a disappointment to suggest that with intelligence on Iraq, nobody messed up big-time and everybody messed up small-time.

Much of what MI6 will have reported will be found to have been true as far as it went, but it won’t have gone that far, and spies and their political masters will have tried to push it further than they should. Some of what they will have reported will be found to have been false, and they and their political masters will have believed it too readily. And so from the accretion of slight miscalculations and minor errors of judgment and emphasis, a large untruth will have been floated upon a pontoon of small exaggerations: questioned by few because it was comfortable for a prime minister to believe, expedient for a bullying press secretary to demand and convenient for those who served him to deliver.

This is not a hunch uninformed by personal experience. At Cambridge and Yale, I was headhunted by MI6 and though, in the end, I turned down the job they offered, I stayed intermittently in touch. There are some clever people among them, whom I risk offending now, but the truth is that British Intelligence is a long way from the world of laser intellects, razor judgment, steady aim and deadly accuracy beloved of the readers of James Bond novels. In fact, it’s stuffed with duffers. This is Britain. What else did you expect?

Duffers are disposed to believe duffers — witness the debacle of Lloyds — and a certain type of public-school duffer is well equipped to impress a certain type of public-school prime minister. The upper reaches of MI6 do not extend much outside the British Establishment, nor are they the brightest of that bunch. But to a nimble-tongued but insecure prime minister in need of reassurance, the smell of malt whisky and leather in the Travellers’ Club in Pall Mall, the half-wink and the tapped nose — “believe me, Prime Minister, there are dark forces at work and we only know the half of it” — can be irresistible.

The fact that they do only know the half of it, and quite possibly the wrong half, escapes the reckoning. Mr Blair, who is not quite part of the Establishment but wants to be, believed these people. Lord Butler, who is, will not. But he is unlikely to give the game away.

The top echelon in MI6 today will be my age and a little older. When, in the early Seventies, they tried to recruit me, I am sure that the Service was in difficulties in finding people of sufficient calibre.

“Evidently,” I hear you murmur, but let me elaborate. At the time, I was also seeking appointment as an administrative trainee (AT) in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). This was the highest level at which a young graduate could enter the Diplomatic Service and placed you in the fast stream, from which ambassadors, heads of department and permanent secretaries are mostly drawn.

Competition for this grade was intense for all Whitehall departments, but stiffest for the Treasury and the Foreign Office. To get there you needed (1) to pass the general Civil Service examination, a series of written tests conducted annually in schools and town halls across the country and sat by tens of thousands; (2) to pass what was called “Cisby” — the Civil Service Selection Board, whose tests involved a few days in London, sitting exams, talking to psychiatrists, conducting practice committees, making practice reports and the like; (3) to pass “Fisby”, the final selection board, where a panel of distinguished grey heads, having taken up your references, cross-questioned you further.

For would-be spies, the idea was that one went through all these hoops just as a bona fide would-be AT would do. The new spy would then appear to the outside world to have joined the Diplomatic Service in the ordinary way. His subsequent career would proceed conventionally, but in fact, behind the cover of a diplomat’s career (in which, typically, he would never quite reach the top) he would be operating as one of what in the regular FCO we called “our friends”.

Before all this began, I was taken aside by the MI6 contact to whom a Cambridge don had introduced me, and assured that I didn’t need to clear any of these hurdles to stay in the running for the job in Intelligence that I was seeking. Even if I failed the general Civil Service examinations, let alone those later tests designed to weed the field further, I might still qualify. I doubt my recall could be faulty because I remember my bemusement when the assurance was repeated in case I had missed it. I remember, too, how very keen my contacts at MI6 were (when in fact I did clear all the hurdles for the regular Diplomatic Service) to persuade me to stay with them.

My clear impression that MI6 was scraping closer to the bottom of the barrel than was ideal is reinforced by the experience of a friend a little younger than me, who, after leaving Oxbridge but making disappointing progress in his chosen field, was surprised to be contacted out of the blue by a don he knew from undergraduate days. Had he thought about joining MI6? He agreed to a chat and learnt that this was an exciting career opportunity and he would learn the use of a gun. Might they send him the application forms? The forms never came. After a few months, he asked the don what had happened. Inquiries were made. British Intelligence had sent the application to the wrong address. My friend decided to pursue this career no further.

Is the dismaying picture not reinforced by the impression we receive of the spies whom we do get the chance to study, when they kick up a storm and go public? I do not imply that these deserters are typical of the faceless ones who stay, but haven’t you sometimes wondered who recruited such buffoons in the first place?

The British Establishment represents mankind’s closest approach to a perfect state of socialism. Asking from each according to his ability, and providing for each according to his needs, it is enormously tolerant of mediocrity as long as you play the game and stick to the rules.

Admittedly (like that other democratic Utopia, Ancient Athens), a slave class is required to support the favoured caste, but within the caste a considerable sense of equality prevails. Everybody goes to the same (mixed-ability) schools and emerges dressing the same, talking the same and with the same sense of honour and the same careful manners. As an American lady observed, the embellishment of a public school education is such that it may be necessary to marry a certain type of Englishman and live with him for five or six years before you are able to discover that he is completely stupid.

British Intelligence provides the ideal and perhaps last redoubt for an increasingly beleaguered British Establishment. Soon it may be the only public service not subjected to government targets or performance assessments. So well-fortified is the stockade that we are not even allowed to speak to them, know their names or ask them what they do. It must be pretty cosy in there.

And you think that a mandarin who has spent his whole career brilliantly defending his own mandarinate from four pesky prime ministers in a row is going to ride to the rescue of the present anyway-doomed occupant of No 10, kick down the spooks’ walls and assault the tribe whom diplomats call “our friends”? Dream on.