Poor Bloody Infantry

There is an ongo­ing cam­paign to save Bletch­ley Park for the nation, in the teeth of gov­ern­ment oppos­i­tion. As his­tor­ic Brit­ish monu­ments go, the ques­tion of wheth­er to pre­serve it for pos­ter­ity should be a no-brain­er. Bletch­ley is not only where Hitler’s Enigma code machine was decryp­ted, along with many oth­er sys­tems, which argu­ably gave the Allies the intel­li­gence advant­age that led to vic­tory in World War 2, it is also where the first digit­al elec­tron­ic com­puters, code­named Colos­sus, were oper­ated. Two land­mark events of the 20th cen­tury.

Recently The Times repor­ted on this cam­paign. The art­icle also the dwells at some length on how long Bletchley’s secrets were kept by the 10,000 people who worked there dur­ing the war. Although this inform­a­tion was declas­si­fied after 30 years, the habit of secrecy was so deeply ingrained that many former employ­ees nev­er breathed a word. The art­icle laments the passing of this habit of dis­cre­tion from Brit­ish life, stat­ing that politi­cians and seni­or intel­li­gence officers now appear to view the pos­ses­sion of insider know­ledge as a good pen­sion fund when they come to write their mem­oirs.

Over the last dec­ade we have see a myri­ad of books emer­ging for the upper ech­el­ons of gov­ern­ment and intel­li­gence in the UK: Alastair Camp­bell, Robin Cook, Wash­ing­ton Ambas­sad­or Sir Chris­toph­er Mey­er, ex-MI5 chief Dame Stella Rim­ing­ton. Even Tony Blair has appar­ently signed a sev­en fig­ure deal for his mem­oirs.

All these books have a num­ber of char­ac­ter­ist­ics in com­mon: they are lengthy, but say little of rel­ev­ance about the burn­ing issues of the day; they appear to have been writ­ten for profit and not in the pub­lic interest; and not one of these writers has ever even been arres­ted under the Offi­cial Secrets Act, even when there is clear prima facie evid­ence of a breach.

Yet these dili­gent authors are the very people who are the first to use the OSA to stifle legit­im­ate dis­clos­ure of crime, cor­rup­tion and incom­pet­ence in the highest levels of gov­ern­ment and intel­li­gence by real whis­tleblowers, who risk their careers and their free­dom. The hypo­crisy is breath­tak­ing.

But was the old-fash­ioned, blanket dis­cre­tion, vaunted by The Times, really such a good thing? The code of “loose talk costs lives” may have made sense dur­ing the Second World War, when this nation was fight­ing for its life. The work at Bletch­ley was mani­festly a suc­cess, obvi­at­ing any need to blow the whistle. But who can tell how these pat­ri­ot­ic men and women would have reacted had they wit­nessed crimes or incom­pet­ence that dam­aged our nation’s secur­ity, led to the deaths of our sol­diers, or even pos­sible defeat?

Also, was the 30-year non-dis­clos­ure rule around the work of Bletch­ley really neces­sary? After all, the war had been won, so how could dis­clos­ure bene­fit the enemy? This unthink­ing applic­a­tion of the stand­ard rules cost the UK dearly. In fact, it would be accur­ate to say that it severely dam­aged the UK’s eco­nom­ic well­being – some­thing the OSA is sup­posed to pro­tect.

In 1943 the Brit­ish were the world lead­ers in digit­al elec­tron­ic com­put­ing. The dra­coni­an Offi­cial Secrets Act pre­cluded the devel­op­ment and com­mer­cial use of this know­ledge in Bri­tain after the war. In fact, mind­bog­glingly, the Colos­sus com­puters were dis­mantled and the research des­troyed.

There were no sim­il­ar pro­vi­sions affect­ing the Amer­ic­an cryp­to­graph­ers who had been sta­tioned at Bletch­ley. Con­sequently, after the war they enthu­si­ast­ic­ally applied Brit­ish research and tech­no­logy to devel­op the US com­puter research pro­gramme and even­tu­ally the mar­ket, pav­ing the way to the suc­cess of Sil­ic­on Val­ley and the dom­in­a­tion of the world’s IT mar­kets for dec­ades. What price the famed Brit­ish stiff upper lip and dis­cre­tion then?

Of course, there need to be leg­al pro­vi­sions to pro­tect real secrets that could affect Britain’s nation­al secur­ity. How­ever, this should be pro­por­tion­ate and bal­anced, and should not pre­vent the devel­op­ment of new research and tech­no­lo­gies, the expos­ure in the pub­lic interest of crime, and cer­tainly not the fact our coun­try was taken into war on the basis of lies.

Real­ist­ic­ally, how­ever, in the age of the inter­net such leg­al pro­vi­sions are increas­ingly mean­ing­less. Des­pite this, more and more coun­tries appear to be adopt­ing Britain’s mod­el of anti­quated and dra­coni­an secrecy legis­la­tion.

We live in a coun­try that crim­in­al­ises any dis­clos­ure of sens­it­ive inform­a­tion – unless it comes in the form of mem­oirs from seni­or politi­cians, White­hall offi­cials or spooks of course. As always, there is one rule for the gen­er­als and one for the poor bloody infantry.

For the good of our coun­try, we need to rethink this legis­la­tion.

Comments are closed.