Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Ducks In Moscow Fly Backwards In October, Comrade

So, GCHQ and its tireless quest to keep us all safe from the kiddy-fiddlers.

Let's ratchet up the rhetoric instantly by noting that if you'd been permitted to ask Leonid Brezhnev what the Soviet Union's spies and secret police did for a living, he'd likely have called forth a cavalcade of contemporaneous villains - double agents, capitalist stooges, counter-revolutionaries, saboteurs and so on, all of them bent upon the infliction of all manner of harm upon the people and the nation.

And importantly, he'd be at least partially correct. This was the Cold War after all, so we know that the USSR was certainly crawling with spooks and traitors.  Nonetheless, let's also note that for as long as the Soviet Union existed, its people were afraid to speak openly in front of their own children in their own homes, lest the entire family disappear forever overnight.

And so the British security services invoke regiments of modern monsters: domestic jihadists and net-nonces and glowering foreign terror networks, and inform us that we sleep soundly in our beds because rough men are prepared to do violence etc and so forth.  I notice that around 80% of our free press relates this to us as a matter of absolute fact, rather than assertion, so there's a way to go yet before we get that Pravdatastic national consensus.  A secret state is necessary to protect our hard-won democratic revolutionary  freedom, yadda yadda yadda.

And yet, I can recall no democratic stamp being slapped onto the legitimacy of our spooks.  They grew from a genuinely authoritarian war government and have metastasised in secrecy, undiscussed at election after election. Has a major political party ever pledged to shed light upon their works?  If so, it's passed me by. The full extent of their democratic bona fides encompass the mere facts that politicians like spies and the public aren't much arsed, ergo we shall have spies. If you disagree, well, there's the door.

And already I can hear complaints - how unreasonable and childish, to imagine that a vast secret state apparatus operating far beyond public oversight could be considered to be reminiscent of the KGB.  Do you want the Taliban to kidnap your wife and insert a nuclear warhead up her innocent, trusting bottom? I lose count of the variants and accessories, but the nuts and bolts are reliably mass-produced to the point of being indistinguishable.

So let's note for now that our current tolerance of snoops and spooks is a huge and remarkable historical outlier.  You wouldn't know this from the opinion pages alone, but for most of human history, secret policemen have been feared and reviled with just cause.  Even in the modern era, Britain's fellatial embrace of spymasters is something of an exception to the global rule, one that causes consternation in other democracies.

Let us consider, briefly, the idea that the public's - also unusual, in the grand scheme of things - ability to choose between two institutional factions who will not make any serious effort to oversee our secret services, somehow elevates our spooks to some wholly different and more desirable status of benign accountability than the Soviet model.

Because once we buy that, we might as well start buying inspirational newspapers to learn the latest on tractor production and technological advancement in the smelting of pig iron. Because it's the same sales job in a gaudier guise.


gilbert wham said...

Our spies never do anything bad. The BBC tells us so:

Anonymous said...

And none of this data will get blagged by ex-policeman trading as "Northern Investigations" who sell it to dodgy businessmen looking for extra leverage, or to owners of tatty newspapers trying to fill up the space between the adverts with cheap gossip!