Monday, 22 July 2013

Warnings from history: one in an occasional series

Robert McCrum is a very important man these days, in media circles at least. No, make that 'in liberal bourgeois media circles', which isn't quite the same thing. He's an associate editor of the Observer, former editor-in-chief of Faber and Faber, and a big cheese in literary reviewing. A taste-maker for the chattering classes, of whom I am decidedly one (except for the income, London pad, Tuscan villa and Cotswolds bolt-hole).

But Mr McCrum is also a novelist, and in 1980 he published In The Secret State, and hailed by Auberon Waugh no less as 'A major talent in the world of thrillers'. Lots of literary types think they have a thriller in them: Jonathan Freedland writes tosh as Sam Bourne, JK Rowling was recently outed as apparently rather good thriller-author Robert Galbraith, and Mark Lawson has written several accomplished novels. Perhaps McCrum thought that all journalists should be capable of churning out a novel. Or perhaps he has a political axe to grind which can only be fully explored in fiction: I came across In The Secret State while looking for novels by politicians.

Certainly In The Secret State is a deeply political novel. Its central protagonists are Frank Strange and James Quitman (most of the characters have unsubtly suggestive names): Strange is the unfairly-deposed head of a British intelligence division, and Quitman is his diffident junior torn between loyalty to Strange and the department when they come into conflict. It's all very sub-le Carré: strange could be a lazy first draft of a Smiley novel. The characterisation is limited and the scene-setting (unavoidably, I suppose) dated: the love interest is 'doing well' in PR. We know this because she drives a company Ford Cortina in 'shiny red'. Secretaries are conniving little sex-pots, and computer operations have to be described to us in considerable detail.

And yet it's not a bad novel, despite structural and literary flaws. The main interest is the background, which is late-70s Britain's perceived decline. Bombs are going off, the deep state is turning fascist and treasonous, the body politic has turned septic as suspicion and selfishness fester. McCrum, like le Carré, rejects simplistic Reds-under-the-Bed stuff, preferring to examine the consequences of a security apparatus which decides for itself what constitutes the national interest, and what means are acceptable for preferred ends. In a sense, it's a very British version of an essentially American genre: the oppressive government (Europeans tend to fear corporations more than their governments).
What's really interesting about McCrum's novel is its interest in information processing and harvesting. Some passages could be plonked into a modern spy novel without much editing at all:
'I'm getting frightened by the state we all live in now… Census records, school records, health records, social security records, political records: I don't think most people realise how much personal information is collected by the department… The power we have over people, that's what's frightening, Frank'.
     'Don't you believe in the safeguards?'
     'I wish I could. But the security forces we serve are beyond Parliament… There's no accountability worth speaking of. … Take our data-gathering programme. There's no stopping it. Each scrap of data leads to another piece of data. It gathers momentum of its own accord'.
And later on:
'I'm not just talking about simple census facts, age, sex and so on, but also political behaviour, personal spending patterns, travel, in fact almost a day-by-day, characteristic-by-characteristic record of movements, affiliations and behaviour of all listed individuals… every time we have one of those "emergencies" more and more civil liberties get curtailed without a single protest, freedoms that were won by generations of agitation. I mean the enlargement of police powers… the corruption of the jury system in state trials, and the illicit surveillance of so-called subversives. That's what happens in the secret state'. 
The only unconvincing aspect of this last speech is, sadly, that it's delivered by a left-wing Labour MP determined to stand up for civil liberties: one of the most depressing things of the last 30 years is Labour's mutation into a disgustingly authoritarian party in thrall to the security services of government and the private sector.

Apart from that, everything McCrum writes has become true. He writes of the police infiltrating pressure groups and inciting them to commit atrocities:
'This is an old Nazi trick. It justifies the emergency measures the department is taking these days, and, as it were, proves the claims made…about the threat to our society'
In our own time, policemen adopted dead babies' names to infiltrate and even lead the activities of law-abiding pressure groups, fathering children to further the trick and committing perjury. All without oversight. They decided who were the subversives (people campaigning for better fast food, and the parents of a murdered black boy), without anyone to deny them. They decided what constituted subversion and normality, a deeply political act, and played hardball opposition, knowing that nobody would every contradict them. Elsewhere, Prism and Tempora collect and analyse every phone call, tweet, text-message and Facebook update. Secret trials, under the name 'closed material procedures' replace open jury trials when the state has something of which to be ashamed.

The only trick McCrum missed was the intervention of the private sector. The bad guys in his novel have been using state assets to trade with terrorists, arms dealers etc for money.
'Information is a sort of currency like anything else, it just happens that Preece has had free access to rather a lot of it. Preece has supplied trading banks, large companies and multinationals with confidential data. He has sold personal information about prominent people without their knowledge. He has also worked as an agent for other private data-accumulating organizations which, as you know, are not restrained by law'.
The more the crisis of British society grows, the greater will be the temptation to enlarge the programme. The problem is that Hayter is not an elected politician, but a bureaucrat whose powers and behaviour are accountable to no one…
The British state hasn't changed in this regard. The deep, unelected state tames ministers. Defenders of civil liberties during election campaigns (as Labour, the Lib Dems and even the Conservatives have been in recent memory) become enthralled by the mystery and horror presented them by the civil service, or by the apocalyptic visions of a US whose demands can never be refused. And besides, what politician or spy is ever going to refuse more information?

What has changed is that we don't need Preece any longer. The customers are the same as in 1980, but we've become our own agents, whoring ourselves round the corporations without a single thought for the ramifications. . The private sector has built a far greater surveillance system than any government every could. Rather than trawl through our activity, they facilitate it. We hand over every single detail of our lives, from where we are, who we're talking to, what are our deepest fantasies, how we vote, whom we shag and everything else: without a moment's thought. And they in turn hand it over to governments and to private corporations to make sure we remain obedient little consumers. I have no doubt at all that any of you could work out my name, email address and work address in moments, given the clues scattered carelessly about this blog.

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