The Secret Intelligence Service HQ, built by the river where the Prince Regent’s beloved Vauxhall pleasure gardens used to be, is known to those in the trade as “Ceausescu Towers”; a grim and forbidding sort of place.
Until 1994, SIS HQ was a naff looking tower block, built on top of a petrol station near Lambeth North tube station. It was meant to be completely secret and, of course, everyone who needed to knew where it was. Mentioning it in the press would lead to a charge under the Official Secrets Act, but every cabby knew where to go to get to the place that was not supposed to exist. There was something oddly reassuring about this; like the opening sequence of “Carry on Spying” (1964) in which a secret base is effortlessly penetrated by a whistling milkman casually walking through doors marked “top secret”. Replacing this monument to muddle with a large, publicly proclaimed, specially built Byzantine ziggurat on a prominent river bank site is to replace a joke with a threatening form of disavowal. The “secret” service is right there in front of you; so watch the wall my darling…
It is a peculiarly ugly building: like a cathedral to a religion with no soul, a mock art- deco power station sucking the life out of its surroundings: half 1930’s cinema, half mausoleum; a monument to the grandiose hollowness of the 1980s in yellow stone.
It exudes sterility. It can’t be missed; but there is a disinclination to look. No people can be seen inside. No one seems to come in or out. Its windows, made with three layers of toughened glass, are opaque. Its rear end, on Albert Embankment, is an edifice that Albert Speer would have appreciated, with no character, barricaded off from the roads around by a high wall topped with green spikes and restless cameras following anyone who passes by. The urge to cross the road or walk more briskly to get away from its force field is overwhelming.
There is – so far – no tradition in this country of people disappearing into the Intelligence service’s HQ and not coming out again – as in the old Czech joke, “The Minister of the Interior collects jokes made against him, and he also collects the people who make them” – because, as with manufacturing industry, the UK tends to outsource and offshore its dirtiest work; though brutal methods of interrogation, torture and extrajudicial killings had made it as close to home as the North of Ireland in the 1970s. However, it looks as though it was built in anticipation of a time in which the state would feel sufficiently under threat to bring these methods home to roost. So, the effect on the surrounding streets is a deadening one. People hurry by with eyes averted.
Large parts of the building are underground and there is rumoured to be a tunnel connecting it to Whitehall. It is now slightly closer to the new US embassy than it is to the Palace of Westminster, possibly in more ways than one.
The function of SIS from when it was initially set up in 1909 was to be able to carry out operations in the interests of the state which the government of the day could deny any knowledge of; carried out by an organisation which it was illegal to admit actually existed. The way this was done relied rather heavily on having “the right kind of chap” who could be trusted to do the right kind of thing, without explicit instruction from anyone whose political career might be put in jeopardy if found out. These would usually be current or former military personnel; though there was a continuous and fierce turf war with the military intelligence departments of the armed forces. Agents were also often moneyed individuals doing espionage on an amateur basis to provide themselves with an adventurous existence, while providing service for the society that had made them moneyed individuals and kept them in the manner to which they were accustomed. Patriotism and class interest merging here in an organic unity that Oakshott* would have been proud of. This kept recruitment within a very restricted class of people and came with a set of values and beliefs rooted in defence of Empire internationally – and not exactly neutral when it came to domestic politics either. Enemies without – movements for colonial freedom – were linked to “enemies within” – anyone who supported the movements for colonial freedom or favoured significant redistribution of wealth away from moneyed individuals who could afford to be amateur spies. Labour was inherently suspect – let alone anything to its left. The Cold War co-operation with and subordination to the United States that followed World War 2, and then the collapse of independent British imperial pretensions at Suez in 1956, copper bottomed this.
And so to today. The report in the Daily Telegraph on August 1st that the UK armed forces would now be carrying out cyber warfare on a permanent basis begs a number of questions both about how far the Intelligence Services have been doing this as a matter of course hitherto and – as this kind of warfare is partly about the manipulation of narrative on social media – the extent to which the world view they are defending is a politically partisan one.
Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader means that the largest opposition party – and therefore prospective government – is in the process of breaking with a prior consensus about international alliances and the inviolability of private sector economic dominance that the SIS exists to defend. The instant response to Corbyn’s election from an anonymous serving general that the army would “mutiny” in the event of him becoming Prime Minster, and even more disturbing reports recently of the Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan using the face of the Leader of the Opposition for target practice in a firing range are reminiscent of the febrile and shaky political crisis in the 1970s.
In the 1970s, the last time the constitutional and economic order in the UK was being shaken by a strategic reorientation; during the edgy readjustment between the collapse of Empire and trying to settle into the EEC, we had, among other things…
- elements of SIS – who may have been “rogue” or may simply have been operating with a nod and a wink on a long leash -were actively working against the elected Labour government of Harold Wilson (see Peter Wright Spycatcher for an inside account by one of the agents doing it)
- at the same time former army officers like David Stirling – a founding member of the SAS – were trying to set up a shadow alternative government in case of an “undemocratic event”. Stirling “created an organisation called Great Britain 75 and recruited members from the aristocratic clubs in Mayfair; mainly ex-military men (often former SAS members). The plan was simple. Should civil unrest result in the breakdown of normal Government operations, they would take over its running.” See Wikipedia. He also “created a secret organisation designed to undermine trade unionism from within. He recruited like-minded individuals from within the trade union movement, with the express intention that they should cause as much trouble during conferences as permissible. Funding for this “operation” came primarily from his friend Sir James Goldsmith.” Wikipedia. Small world.
It is worth considering the extent to which such forces would go in conditions in which there was no hegemonic consensus on the future of the country. The 1975 EEC referendum had a sufficiently decisive result to give the country an apparent way forward for the forseeable future and took us back to a more routine time of
- surveillance and infiltration of unions and the left in which pious evocations of British democracy were combined with blacklisting activists on behalf of employers,
- undercover policemen infiltrating completely harmless environmental organisations as agents provocateurs and going so far as to form relationships on false pretences with women in the movement, father children with them, then disappear on them when the job demanded it,
- lying about overseas threats to justify military interventions that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people (in the name of human rights) as with the Iraqi dodgy dossier in 2003.
So far, so routine. But today we are back in a time like the early seventies and the political debate is becoming delirious.
Reports in December 2018 that a government funded agency – the Integrity Initiative – run by exactly the nexus of good old boys who have always run SIS – had funded online attacks on Labour in general and Corbyn in particular (1) reveal that the line between the security of citizens and politically partisan intervention is being more blurred than usual. It is important not to be cynical about this – they would do that wouldn’t they – because they are not supposed to and should be held to account for it.
The revelation that someone somewhere had set up at least ten fake twitter profiles of supposed Corbyn supporters which were spewing out antisemitic bile until unmasked (2) begs the question of who would be likely to do that and what their interest is in creating this impression and association. Reports on troll farms indicate that one agent can operate up to ten separate identities at any one time. Some of these people might be politically motivated freelancers, others will be employees of think tanks, some will work for intelligence agencies (at home or abroad).
These are likely to be the tip of the iceburg. Reports in Al Jazeera on the mechanisation of trolling adds another dimension to how this works (3).
Analysis by outfits like Cambridge Analytica, to enable personally targeted posts during campaigns , make the whole field wide open to surreal manipulation. The most effective post for the leave campaign during the EU referendum was apparently one about animal rights and the cruelties of bull fighting – which might be fair comment if so many of the people behind it weren’t so keen on fox hunting.
The bottom line therefore, is never to assume in an online discussion that the “people” who are posting are actually people. When a thought out post is countered by a short negation from someone you don’t know, especially when it has no other content, and is immediately backed up by several likes and one word affirmations – you are probably being trolled by a bot. Whether coming from a human or a bot, if the comment is designed to generate more heat than light, the key thing is to try to cool it down, get to the facts and don’t get riled up. Part of the aim of all this is to drive us all a bit mad and make discourse more and more vituperative and unity based on truth impossible to achieve.