Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 17.12.14Spiegel Online has an interesting article today in English entitled “Britain’s Blind Faith in Intelligence Agencies“. I agree with the title, and conclusion of the piece, but it poses one major question for me: why do the British have this blind faith? This issue has been on my mind a lot this week, and I spent hours discussing it in Berlin yesterday, but without any conclusive answers. So here are some possible reasons. I am not entirely convinced by any of them, and the list is by no means complete, but this issue needs to be discussed. So here’s a start.

1) Britain never had a dictatorship
Other countries have been ruled by dictatorships of one sort or another, and Germany suffered twice within a century, and one of those times was within living memory for most people. This means the British population is less sensitive to abuse of state power when it comes to surveillance than others are.

2) Britain’s constitutional traditions
The UK has no written Constitution, and while it is a signatory of the ECHR, the population has no deep knowledge of what is and is not acceptable from the state as a result. This sets the UK in contrast to France and Germany, and even the USA (with its Bill of Rights). A related point is Britain’s common law tradition, and its emphasis on presumption of innocence and the need for proof of guilt – meaning surveillance can possibly provide the evidence necessary.

3) Britain won World War II
This relates to point 1) above, and the argument runs that Alan Turing and his counterparts helped the UK win the war thanks to interception of communications, and breaking the Germans’ codes. GCHQ, formed in 1946 in its current guise, built upon this success, and hence surveillance is good.

4) Spies are heroes
What better known British film character is there than James Bond? A good spy. This runs deep in the national psyche.

5) Partial and skewed journalism
Britain’s major newspapers are heavily partial, and seldom shy away from campaigning for causes. In addition the newspaper industry is in financial dire straits, meaning the role of powerful owners is more marked than ever. This means that papers on the right of British politics are seldom willing to dig into abuses of power when it comes to security issues.

6) Relationship with the United States
The relationship with the USA is seldom called into question, and is termed the ‘special relationship’ by the British political classes. Whether the USA quite sees it the same way is open to question, but the impact of the USA’s development of its surveillance apparatus (especially after 2001) has had an impact on the UK.

7) Nationalism
Defending the nation and the ‘national interest’ from perceived threat is a strong line pushed by politicians of all colours, started particularly strongly by Thatcher and continued since then. If surveillance protects the nation then it is hence justifiable.

8) Northern Ireland
The UK suffered for a long time from a terrorist threat in part of its own territory, and the main Act used to detain David Miranda dates from 2000, and was drafted to deal with Northern Irish terrorism. This makes the insurgent threat more real for the British population, also further underlined by the London bombings in 2005.

9) Party politics
Over the past couple of decades neither Labour nor the Conservatives has been particularly liberal on civil liberties issues, and the Liberal Democrats have been too weak and too small to shape this agenda, and now they are in coalition with the Tories it is close to impossible. The UK election system means there are no other voices in parliament that can challenge the prevailing consensus.

9) The state is sclerotic narrative
Economically and politically Britain suffered from upheaval in the 1970s and 1980s, from economic shocks to the miners’ strike and riots in the 1980s. The response from Thatcher (who forged a consensus that has since been seldom challenged) was that the state was sclerotic and needed to be cut back, but that order needed to be maintained through the force of law and order, leading to the boom in CCTV in the UK.

10) Trust of the police
The notion that the police are there to help, and the police are not brutal enforcers of law and order still runs deep in the national psyche, even if plenty of evidence calls this faith into question. But the UK default is that authorities are on the side of the people.

Further thoughts and comments most welcome!

On Twitter, @guan has this thought:
Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 17.36.16
While I am personally not knowledgeable about le Carré, I nevertheless would think that his writing, with its moral ambiguity, would – if anything – increase the critique of surveillance!


  1. Joe Thorpe


    I travel a lot, when I come back to UK via East Midlands or Birmingham I don’t not even have to show my passport. However I always have to flash it in Ireland, Spain, Italy, Poland, Mallorca, Ibiza all places I have been to this year. While travelling to the UK from either Dublin, Shannon or Cork airport I have not even come face to face with a passport/immigration officer more than 4 or 5 times during the last 25 years but always have to flash it when I land in Ireland as they don’t have a domestic arrivals door so if you feel you need to enter the UK without big brother watching you, come via Ireland

  2. Mark J

    I suspect these days Whitehall defers to the spooks more by accident than by design. Civil servants don’t give themselves enough time or space to think about international strategy and so old habits prevail among public and press. Blair tried to break this mould but on certain key issues went too far. Lack of analysis of global strategic interests shows up in Europe debates too.

  3. JorgeG

    @ Oliver H, what I meant in my ramble is that Middle England has not even been informed about the David Miranda case, and very little, if at all, about the widespread abuses of mass surveillance leaked by Snowden. Jon Worth itself wondered about why Middle England press was far more interested in the royal baby than in the David Miranda case.

    In my above ramble I forgot to mention THE key, perhaps slightly sinister, reason for “Britain’s Blind Faith in [antiterrorist police]” which is related to what was described in the MacPherson report as “Institutional Racism”

    “But the conclusion that there was a “collective failure” to provide an appropriate and professional service to the Lawrence family because of their colour, culture and ethnic origin is in our view inescapable.”

    What is the link between this and the topic raised by Jon, you may wonder?

    Well, very simple, Middle England and their unelected tabloid bureaucrats, know and expect that anti-terrorism actions by the police or other entities, e.g. ‘Intelligence Services’ (a bit of an oxymoron I think) are targeted at foreigners or non-white British, and indeed they are routinely so, e.g. stop and search is widely reported to predominantly target non-whites.

    Imagine for a minute that the two Brazilians that had the misfortune to come across the UK police, De Menezes in 2005, who was shot in the head, and David Miranda in 2013, who was a bit more fortunate in comparison, were white Britons. Does anyone think the tabloids wouldn’t have taken a huge interest int he matter?

    Likewise if suddenly anti-terrorist police targeted stop and search at white peroxide blondes from Essex (for whatever reason, e.g. they had intelligence that one of them was a high-ranked member of Al Qaeda), the unelected tabloid bureaucrats would immediately jump into action … Because they disproportionately target non-whites, and frequently non-British, the unelected tabloid bureaucrats leave them alone.

  4. Oliver H


    “With all due respect for the Spiegel the sentence is an oxymoron. The British cannot have faith in intelligence agencies for the simple reason that the vast majority of them know very little, if anything, about them. So it must be a bit like faith in the unknown.”

    Yes, so? This is not contradictory at all – quite the contrary. They know they exist. If they had anything BUT faith in them, they would keep a much closer eye on them.

  5. JorgeG

    “Britain’s Blind Faith in Intelligence Agencies – but why?”

    With all due respect for the Spiegel the sentence is an oxymoron. The British cannot have faith in intelligence agencies for the simple reason that the vast majority of them know very little, if anything, about them. So it must be a bit like faith in the unknown.

    The simple reality is that there is a widespread acceptance of the status quo and a sheepish submission to authority. Except for a tiny minority, very few people venture on anything mentally challenging, e.g. challenging the state’s authority. Widespread ignorance rules. So it is not about a blind trust on “Intelligence Agencies”, it is more about lack of interest in a mentally challenging issue and unquestioning submission to authority. Cricket, football and celebrity gossip far more interesting topics for the masses.

    Now to comment on a couple of your ‘factors’

    5) Partial and skewed journalism – As I mentioned in your previous article the dominant press in the UK (well described here ) has a clear and unmistakable agenda: Anglo-Saxon supremacism, something that has adopted many variations over the centuries, since Manifest Destiny to Tatcher’s “alliance of the (white) English speaking peoples” (a stated policy of the Tories and UKIP, indirectly of the other main parties),

    “The protection of freedom in the world today depends on the global alliance of the English-speaking peoples,”

    “Her point was that the political institutions and cultures of the English-speaking peoples were the ones most respectful of liberty (the only exception, perhaps, is Switzerland), and the ones also most protective of it. The United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and increasingly India, she said, along with a few other scattered former colonies of Great Britain — all with the common heritage stemming from the British republican/constitutional system that began developing with Magna Carta — were devoted to free markets and individual liberty. If these English-speaking peoples do not stand strong for the values of liberty, and are not willing to defend them, then nobody else will do so”

    Could anybody make this up? 🙂

    “6) Relationship with the United States” – Directly a consequence of the above

    “9) The state is sclerotic narrative” – The right-wing media, as described above, and right-wing political parties, i.e. most of them if not all, have pulled a really clever trick on the populace: they pontificate about a mythical small state, EXCEPT when it comes to law and order and the military where the size of the state grows ever larger to reach the furthest corner of every home in the shape of mass surveillance. The UK state spends billions on surveillance and databases but at the same time one suspects that surveillance is built into the DNA of the British culture. Anecdotal examples abound about disrespect for privacy in public areas:

    – That sinister black camera ( ) is almost like an icon of Britain, second only to the union jack, so ubiquitous it is on British roads. You won’t see that gross ‘I am spying on you’ on-your-face symbol in the roads of any civilised country, normally you see something like “radar controlled speed” icons, at least in the countries that I know of. In most civilised countries that would see seen as for what it is, a sinister sign of an authoritarian state.

    – “How is my driving?” messages on the back of vans and trucks with a telephone to encourage others to report on the poor chap that the company employs to drive the van

    – Have you noticed how in public toilets, there is no partitions to separate the urinals in the male toilet? I have yet to visit any other developed country where there are no such separations to protect people’s privacy when relieving yourself…. 🙂

    This leads to the unquestioning acceptance of

    – The largest network of CCTV cameras in the world

    – The governement tracking our ‘free’ movement inside the EU (or anywhere else for that matter). On this one, I would like to ask you Jon, as you travel a lot in Europe, have you ever, when travelling from the UK to another EU country have had your passport scanned when you arrive, say in Germany, Belgium or Denmark? Yet, when you return to the UK, it is sure as death will come that your passport will be scanned into Big Brother’s UK border police database… the fact that no one even notices – it is me a foreigner pointing this out – shows how the British have sheepishly accepted a totalitarian state in anything but name.

  6. Whilst I broadly agree I think this is rapidly changing and I would argue this should be of concern for socialists >

    Here is one example of what I see as fear generation around privacy >

  7. Oliver H

    Well, the other side regarding Germany is that for historical reasons, it has a very watchful and where needed very self confident constitutional court which has repeatedly told both government and intelligence services that they should stop smoking “national security” pot. Heck, it’s even triggered conflict with the EU regarding telecommunications data retention. Seeing these decisions of course gives the fact that there are other perspectives on these issues a much wider audience. In essence, a handful of people considering specific laws and actions as problematic can achieve quite a bit of leverage AND publicity by bringing the matter to the court. Especially when some of the government’s arguments are subsequently shredded by the judges…

  8. Nick Burch

    I take it you’ve read the recent BBC / Adam Curtis piece on the history and incompetance of the secret services?

    Apparently we have the Daily Mail and paranoia to blame, along with a lot of self serving and self perpetuating systems 🙁

  9. passerby

    I would say all countries have national myths. Part of adulthood is discovering those myths for what they are.

    Germans have been quite thorough in doing away with those myths. Over and above anything which could have been asked of them, to the point that it irritates some allies who would like to see them take up a more active role in our wars.

    The other extreme, I would say, is the British. The British cherish those national myths. Cognitive dissonance does away with any facts which contradict those myths. Civilized discussion of the matter is somewhere between hard and impossible.

  10. Miranda

    An excellent analysis, Jon.

  11. Some further thoughts from William French on Twitter here and here.

    @Dave – thanks for the comment, and this ties in a little with Jacob’s point, in that it relates to power relations within British society. Having said that though, all European countries suffer from that bright-elite-to-tell-the-people-what-to-do issue…

  12. Jacob Christensen

    Guan’s idea is a fascinating one but I would also say that le Carré is rather sceptical regarding the value and work of intelligence agencies. Perhaps we could blame Ian Fleming and a certain Mr. Bond instead?

    On a more serious note, I think that the UK political culture has a weird element where civil rights clashes with an extremely étatiste tradition.

  13. I think (5) is the key one; all my literate life, the media have jumped on whistleblowers as traitors and promoted spooks as essential. The discussion about the proper place for espionage that is necessary simply doesn’t take place in any meaningful way; the usual suspects line up to trade column inches and occasionally cross swords on Newsnight, but the buy-in of Party Politics (9) means this never gets traction as a Big Issue.

    There’s something else, an (11) which relates to (2) which is that Britain gives a very good impression of not caring that much about democracy itself that much and being rather comfortable with the notion that clever chaps of high birth and/or education should just get on with it. I’d argue that partly a reflection of (1) and maybe even (3) but is also because Britain’s implementation of democracy has been half-hearted at best; always salami slicing, always against the backdrop of having to win an argument that the recipients of greater democratic influence would likely cause some catastrophe / be unworthy of it.

    Indeed, like the scene in the Life of Brian where they are reminded of the common enemy, instead of the People’s Front of Judea, spooks, press, political and military elites can abandon their frequent turf wars and remind themselves that they are collectively engaged in a conspiracy against the laity.

    If you have a political elite which is bought in, then it doesn’t become an issue by dint of party controversy. If you have a media elite which is bought in, then it doesn’t become an issue by dint of outside pressure. If you have an administrative elite who are bought in, then it rarely becomes an issue by dint of administrative action. The suspicion and dislike of much of this that I’ve always grown up with never finds an outlet in normal society, and its no surprise that the sense that there is a constituency who care deeply about this comes about when we have a variety of means to go around the one-to-many communications systems and organisational structures that have hitherto acted as interlocutors for the political process.

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