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.