Chris Mullin MP reviews the monumental 1,000-page history of the secret service
The Defence of the Realm: The authorised history of MI5Christopher AndrewAllen Lane £30
Not long after joining the home affairs committee in 1992, I asked the then home secretary, Ken Clarke, if we might meet director of MI5, Stella Rimmington, at that time a shadowy figure of whom only one blurred picture existed. The answer was a firm "no".
Word reached me, however, that she was dining with certain newspaper editors so when the home secretary next appeared before us, I inquired why she was permitted to commune with journalists, but not the elected. At this point, he came out with his hands up and in due course we received an invitation to lunch with Mrs R.
That was the first encounter between backbench MPs and the head of the Security Service. It marked a small milestone along the road to accountability which had begun three years earlier when a reluctant Tory government, under pressure from Europe, placed the Security Service on a statutory footing, the first official admission that it existed. Light years have passed since then. In 1994, a Security and Intelligence Committee was established (reporting to the Prime Minister, not to Parliament), MI5 openly advertises job vacancies and now - a mere 100 years after it was founded - comes this 1,000 page official history of the service.
It is a monumental work. The author, Christopher Andrew, is a respected academic. He appears to have been given what he describes as "virtually unrestricted access" to the Security Service archives and permitted without interference to make his own judgements. Inevitably the manuscript has been carefully vetted, but Professor Andrews admits to only one significant deletion - interestingly, from the chapter on the so-called Wilson plot - which he found hard to justify and that, he says, arose "from the requirements of other government departments". One wonders which one.
Established in 1909 to deal with the Kaiser's spies, MI5 was narrowly saved from abolition after World War I by the rise of Soviet Russia followed by Nazi Germany. In the early years, however, it was a shoestring operation. In 1921, it had an annual budget of only £10,000 and as late as 1939, the budget was only £93,000. MI5 had a good war and was thereafter kept in business hunting Russian spies and monitoring activities of British fellow travellers. There were moments, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the IRA ceasefi re in the late 1990s, when it looked as though the service would have difficulty justifying its existence, but it managed successfully to diversify into organised crime and since 9/11, has never looked back.
Notwithstanding the period of paranoia and introspection in the Roger Hollis and Peter Wright era, the service in later years enjoyed considerable successes - against the Russians, the IRA and more recently against the Islamist terrorists. If Andrews is to be believed, the service repeatedly resisted improper advances from both Labour and Tory governments for intelligence on citizens and organisations who, while they may have been inconvenient to the established order, were by no means subversive. Many, indeed, turned out to be impeccable establishment figures - one thinks of Harriet Harman, Patricia Hewitt, Jack Straw - all of whom had files opened on them.
There are omissions: I can find no mention of the attempt in 1968 by Cecil King to overthrow the government of Harold Wilson and replace it with a government of businessmen headed by Lord Mountbatten - now that surely was subversion and ought to have been of interest to an agency concerned with threats to our democracy. No mention either of General Sir Walter Walker or Colonel David Stirling who in the mid-1970s busied themselves setting up private armies with a view to taking over in the event - which they confidently expected - of a breakdown of law and order. Or of Brigadier Ronnie Stonham who spent several years in Room 105 at Broadcasting House stamping upturned Christmas trees on BBC personnel whose careers were thought to be ideologically unsound. What was all that about and does it still go on? I suspect it might in some form or other.
Professor Andrew's account does not quite do justice to the level of incompetence, paranoia and isolation from reality that for significant periods rendered the service almost dysfunctional. Stella Rimmington describes in her memoirs how some old hands would disappear for long boozy lunches which they would then sleep off for the rest of the afternoon. A former director once remarked to me that there had been "a lot of drinking and laziness" when he joined and a former (Tory) home secretary whispered to me in the wake of the Spycatcher affair that "we havecleared out a lot of deadwood".
These, however, are quibbles. This is in most respects a magnificent piece of work - lucid, intriguing and painstakingly researched (though it could do with a better index and a few less acronyms). It represents a considerable advance in our knowledge of the secret state. The fact that such an enterprise - unthinkable 20 years ago - could be undertaken today is welcome evidence of the growing maturity of our democracy.
Chris Mullin, MP for Sunderland South, has published a volume of diaries, A View from the Foothills
A Very British Revolution: The Expenses Scandal and How to Save Our DemocracyMartin BellIcon Books £11.99
The man in the white suit clearly enjoys naming and shaming individual MPs, though his research is overly based on press reports rather than on his own investigation. His hits on MPs are generally spot on. But his failure to grasp the chronology of events and where decisions came from reenforces his variable grasp of the system while he was in Parliament.
After four years on the Committee on Standards and Privileges, he is as much to blame for the rotten expenses systems and its inadequate rules as any other MP of the last decade. Why did he not propose significant changes when he had the power to do so? Bell was as muted and as culpable as the rest of us.
He dissects unacceptable expenses claims with a clinical precision, but overlooks true transparency by not providing details of his own expenses as an MP, or his second job income when failing to turn up to 51 per cent of parliamentary votes. Surely those who speak out the most should open up their own books, warts and all?
Bell is a class act as a journalist and a consistent champion of higher standards in public life. This book gives some relevant answers on where to go next, but Bell's obvious glee at the plight of individual MPs will leave it gathering dust in the Members' Library in Parliament, which is a shame. Bell's lack of transparency on his own expenses will create the perfect excuse for his excellent proposals being ignored.
Reviewed by John Mann, MP for Bassetlaw