British governments love secrets, and hang on to them.
Spycatcher is cited with some glee by people who enjoy seeing an overbearing government making a fool of itself. It was a book written by a former M15 officer about the supposed goings-on in that establishment, and was published in Australia in 1987 because it had been banned in Britain. It alleged that MI5 had conspired to undermine the premiership of Harold Wilson, had bugged Commonwealth conferences, had plotted to assassinate President Nasser, and that its former Director General, Roger Hollis, had been a Russian mole.
It was a rather bad book written by a man aggrieved about his pension rights, and the government would have well advised to let it lapse into obscurity. However, the Prime Minister at the time was Margaret Thatcher, in whose nature such a course of action did not lie. A great deal of legal bigwiggery descended on Sydney with the object of suppressing the book. The only thing anyone can remember about the case is an expression used by Sir Robert Armstrong, Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet secretary; in one of his replies he said that he had not lied about the matter in question, he had been “economical with the truth.” The roar of ribald Aussie laughter is still echoing.
The British Government lost the case, and appealed. While the appeal was in progress the book, which all along had been available in Scotland, was published in the USA. The American publishers, Viking Penguin, set up stalls selling copies at airports where flights were departing for the UK. A lot of copies made the trip and were not stopped at customs.
The Sunday Times started publishing extracts. Other newspapers printed reviews. The Government lost its head and threw injunctions about. Sales had reached two million. By the time the Law Lords ruled that no law had been broken because the book no longer contained any secrets, there were copies in every bookshop in the land. The final humiliation for the Government came in 1991, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that it had breached the Human Rights Act by attempting to gag the press.
Peter Wright recouped his pension and died a millionaire.
The Thatcher government was just doing what it knew. Five years earlier, during the Falklands War, an Argentine Exocet missile had struck HMS Sheffield amidships, causing a devastating fire. Twenty sailors died and a further 24 were injured. The disaster was reported in the press, but not in any detail. The report of the Board of Inquiry was suppressed.
Thirty-five years later, the full, unredacted account has just been released (Guardian 15 October). It is a miserable catalogue of inadequate command, warnings ignored and procedures omitted. The anti-air warfare officer was having a cup of coffee in the wardroom when the missile struck; twelve minutes later he was still insisting it had not been a missile. This was partly because the intelligence assessment he had been given was bulky and difficult to read. The radar was being used for another transmission, and a warning from a sister ship that Argentine fighter jets were approaching was not heeded. The firefighting equipment was inadequate. There is a lot more.
No court martial was held. Two officers who had been found guilty of negligence by the Inquiry were “spoken to.” There was fear of “creating the wrong atmosphere in the press and souring the general euphoria,” in the words of the Commander in Chief, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse. A senior civil servant (Clive Ponting) described it as “too great a catastrophe to be made public.”
The Admiral’s words are perfectly credible to anyone who remembers the public jubilation after the Falklands victory, and knows how indebted to it Mrs Thatcher was for her victory at the subsequent general election. One imagines the conversation around the polished table: nothing could bring the sailors back; publication could always wait. It would compound the grief of the families and do the MoD no good. National security was involved.
National security is always involved when the government wishes to cover something up. It is the argument that never fails because it cannot be challenged: the would-be challenger lacks the information that would serve to challenge it. That information is secret. The stratagem is neat, but because it is so waterproof and so frequently invoked it commands little respect among the populace. However, that doesn’t matter, because the populace can do nothing about it.
Current circumstances allow Theresa May a new variant of “national security,” but it is essentially the same idea. It is that to divulge any information she doesn’t want to divulge about Brexit would “prejudice the Government’s negotiating strategy”. She has used this ever since becoming Prime Minister. David Davis used it last week when he refused to release the more than 50 studies the Government had commissioned into the effects of Brexit on different sectors of British industry.
That the Government had enquired at all into the effects of Brexit on the economy was news to most of us: it had always affected an insouciant optimism. So it should have been reassuring that the Government had done something. More than 50 seems rather over the top, but it had surely done the sensible thing.
Now it is doing the next sensible thing, and keeping the information to itself.
Is anyone surprised? This is Britain. This is a Government that has always refused to explain its plans for Brexit (it “means Brexit”). And this is a Government, hanging on by a tiny, bought majority, that is entirely preoccupied by internal battles and its own imperilled status. Such a government may, possibly, have a perception of where the interests of the country lie, but it is not going to follow it. Probably it does not have such a perception at all: its thinking is captive to its need to survive. The only thing it is free to do is protect itself.
This is why the studies were commissioned. They weren’t to help us prepare ourselves for the effect of Brexit. They were to help the government prepare for the effects of Brexit on us.
The Government’s nonsense over its negotiating position needs to be called. It is behaving as though predictions of what will happen to the UK economy after Brexit are a military secret, instead of a matter of legitimate concern to many countries. Anyone is free to research the economic facts, and the EU has doubtless done so. And we are not at war. If the Government thinks we are, that is because it is at war – with itself, a sizeable section of the electorate and the bogey-figures it has conjured up in Brussels.
If the studies Mr Davis is trying to suppress belong to anyone, they belong, not to the Government which has commissioned them, but to the people Brexit will affect.
What’s more, our taxes have paid for them.
There are several possible responses to an abuse of power. In some countries they riot in the streets. Here, we usually prefer a legal challenge. Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP for the South West and Gibraltar, and Jolyon Maugham, QC, Director of the Good Law Project, who supported Gina Miller in her Article 50 case against the Government, are bringing an action against David Davis to force him to release the papers.
If the Government follows form, it will refuse at every stage. If the court rules against it, it will appeal upwards to the Supreme Court. But this will focus attention on something it will certainly not want attention focused on; it could backfire as spectacularly as the attempt to ban Spycatcher. This is not an obscure and complex issue like the Withdrawal Bill (to which 300 amendments have been tabled, to the Government’s despair). This is something a child can understand: the Government knows what is going to happen to our money, and it isn’t telling us.
It is obvious that the information in the documents point to Brexit’s being an economic disaster. Now, it is true that the OECD has just predicted that it will be an economic disaster and the Government seems to have ridden out the storm; but while it is possible to dismiss the findings of the OECD (“another European think tank”), it is not possible to dismiss findings the Government has itself commissioned. Particularly if it has spent months refusing to publish them.
Published, they will definitely create the wrong atmosphere in the press and sour the general euphoria. They might even bring about the catastrophe of a demand for a second vote. Yet, the more tenaciously the Government hangs on to those findings, the worse things will look if eventually it has to give way. It must know this, but won’t know what to do. No half-way house is possible: it cannot publish excerpts. And when it deigns to tell us, as it has promised it will, which sectors of the economy the documents are about, this will only increase demand for the documents themselves.
It just has to pray that the court rules in its favour.
If the court does, one thing is certain: no-one will see those documents for 35 years.