Commentary Magazine

Britain: Under the Iron (High) Heel?

Is liberty in Britain—and especially freedom of speech and of the press—under threat from an authoritarian government and a domineering Prime Minister? This is an allegation made with increasing certitude by British politicians, writers, and journalists of a Left-liberal inclination, and listened to with increasing horror by liberal Anglophiles on this side of the Atlantic. From Mrs. Miniver’s England to “Margaret Thatcher’s Britain” is, it seems, a journey from the open air of freedom to, if not the prison cell, then at least the interrogation room. And though British policemen used to be thought wonderful, British thought policemen are not.

Harold Pinter on the subject sounds like a character from one of his own plays: “The power of the police to do whatever they like is extraordinary. . . . The people are bewildered, undermined, fearful, lost. . . . Phones are bugged. I know people under surveillance.”

Pinter’s fellow-dramatist, John Mortimer, the creator of Rumpole, is hardly less apocalyptic: “. . . censorship has emerged far more blatantly and can be seen as the determination of government to stifle unconventional opinions, criticism which it finds unwelcome, facts which it finds embarrassing or—and this can be seen most clearly in the plans for the future of the BBC and the independent television companies—to dismantle institutions which it feels unable to dominate.”

Lord (Roy) Jenkins, a leading member of the centrist Democrats (recently formed from a merger of the Liberals and the Social Democrats) and a former Home Secretary in a Labor government, is more moderate in his criticism: “Freedom to make profit is sacred, but freedom from censorship or for unorthodox views or behavior is vulnerable.” But Duncan Campbell, the famous investigative journalist, interprets Margaret Thatcher’s alleged hostility to press freedom (and himself) more darkly: “. . . security forces are being given greater license, and the deliberate suppression of investigative journalism plays a major role in facilitating state counterterrorism.”

Such views have found a ready acceptance among London’s Left intelligentsia, particularly journalists, who sometimes seem to take a professional pride in being repressed. The magazine Index on Censorship devoted a special issue to liberty under Thatcher—the first such issue to be devoted to the affairs of a democratic country. Critics of the government, borrowing from Soviet dissidents, founded a newsletter entitled Samizdat. (One is reminded of Kingsley Amis’s definition of the underground press—“newspapers sold outside Underground stations.”) In a similar spirit, modeled this time on Czech dissidents, the leftist weekly, the New Statesman, midwifed Charter 88, “to demand political, civil, and human rights in the United Kingdom” (emphasis added). It was signed by, among others, the novelist Martin Amis, the actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft, and the biographer Lady Antonia Fraser (all of whom are still at liberty and on television).

Soon the bad news crossed the Atlantic. Professor Ronald Dworkin of Oxford, himself an American and well-known in the United States as a legal philosopher, had written in Index on Censorship: “Liberty is ill in Britain. . . . The sad truth is that the very concept of liberty . . . is being challenged and corroded by the Thatcher government.” It was true, Dworkin conceded, that Mrs. Thatcher’s challenge to freedom “had nothing to do with totalitarian despotism.” Its character was altogether less impressive—“a more mundane but still corrupting insensitivity to liberty.”

Another American, James Atlas, returned from a flying visit to report in the Sunday New York Times Magazine that “to hear people talk, England in 1988 was Prague in 1977.” Not to be outdone, the New York Review of Books invited Peter Jenkins, the distinguished British political correspondent, to consider the question of Britain’s disappearing liberty, but he may have disappointed his hosts by the moderation of his criticism and the skepticism he applied to the prevailing alarmism. So the Columbia Journalism Review took no risks; it invited Duncan Campbell to do his turn. He duly obliged with: “. . . in the Britain of the future, if the government murders environmentalists and destroys their property, . . . or bugs and burgles the political opposition, . . . or sends poison-pen letters and hate mail to civil-rights activists, no one shall be permitted to know.” Finally, Mrs. Thatcher’s jackboots made an unfashionable appearance in Vanity Fair when Gail Sheehy, in her profile of the Prime Minister, wrote: “People I interviewed complained of their phones being bugged, their mail being opened, but declined to go on the record for fear they would lose their government funding.” In short, the British people groan under the iron (high) heel.



Now it is important to note that those of us who reject such charges are not saying that Mrs. Thatcher and her Ministers are passionate advocates of a Freedom of Information Act (they plainly are not), or that official secrecy in Britain is not excessive (it plainly is), or that tensions between the government and the broadcasting authorities are not often fierce (they plainly are). Yet all these criticisms could have been leveled with perfect accuracy against previous governments, both Labor and Conservative. A more reasonable critic, the former editor of the New Statesman, John Lloyd, has said of the Thatcher government: “Its sporadic but sharp intolerance of press revelation follows no clearly sinister path, but seems to proceed from . . . a lack of interest in liberalizing and opening out the mechanisms and decisions of government at least as marked as any of its predecessors.” The point at issue, however, is not whether Mrs. Thatcher’s government has a record roughly similar to that of its predecessors, but whether it has a much worse one which deserves such extreme descriptions as “corrupting” and “corrosive” of liberty.

There are four main counts in the indictment, the first of which involves Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher. In that book Wright, a disaffected former employee of MI5, the British counterintelligence service, describes his efforts to prove that its former head, Sir Roger Hollis, was a Soviet spy, and also his own participation in a conspiracy of MI5 agents to bring down the Labor government of Harold Wilson whom they suspected of being a Soviet agent of influence. Such a book would be so plainly open to a successful prosecution in Britain under the Official Secrets Act (which dates from 1911, somewhat before Margaret Thatcher came on the scene) that Wright in 1985 gave it to a publishing company in Australia where he now lives.

Over the next three years there was a rash of trials and injunctions as the British government sought both to prevent publication of Spycatcher in Australia and the printing of extracts from it in newspapers in Britain. These came to an end when the House of Lords, the highest British court, lifted all restraints on publication on the ground that—Spycatcher having already appeared in the United States and also having been passed for publication by the Australian High Court—there was no point in locking the stable door after the horse had manifestly bolted.



Thus the bare facts. What, however, do they signify for this argument?

The first point to grasp is that, as regards the original decision to suppress Spycatcher by legal action, no British government would have acted differently. British governments of every political color have taken the position that the intelligence agencies should remain secret, even to the somewhat ludicrous extent of not officially admitting the existence of the secret service (MI6). Indeed, earlier governments resorted to the Official Secrets Act to prevent or punish much lesser breaches than were committed by Spycatcher in allegedly revealing the inner workings of, and some of the most damaging episodes in, the most secret branches of British officialdom. For example, the Labor government of 1964-70, in which Lord Jenkins was a distinguished Minister, prosecuted a Tory candidate and a newspaper editor for revealing a military assessment of the Nigerian army!

Wright himself, living in Australia, was beyond the reach of prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. But there was a convenient precedent for acting against his book: the 1976 suit by the then-Labor government to prevent, on the civil grounds of confidentiality, publication of the diaries of a former Labor Cabinet Minister, Richard Cross-man. Armed with that example, the Thatcher government duly took its stand on the principle that employees of MI5 owed the Crown a lifelong duty of confidentiality from which no other consideration could absolve them. And this principle was firmly upheld by Lord Keith in the House of Lords’ final judgment:

The work of a member of MI5 and the information which he acquires in the course of that work must necessarily be secret and confidential and be kept secret and confidential by him. There is no room for discrimination between secrets of greater or lesser importance, nor any room for close examination of the precise manner in which revelation of any particular matter may prejudice the national interest. Any attempt to do so would lead to further damage. All this has been accepted from beginning to end by each of the judges in this country who has had occasion to consider the case. . . . [Emphasis added]1

But what of the point that Wright had revealed serious misbehavior by MI5? Would not protection of secrets in such a case amount to a cover-up of wrongdoing? If a high value is placed on protecting official secrets, then allegations of MI5 misbehavior can be investigated only by internal procedures which must themselves be secret. Yet successive British governments of all political stripes have preferred the risk that such investigations will cover up misbehavior to the opposite one of allowing the widespread publication of intelligence secrets on the gambler’s argument that some of them might halt or prevent a security scandal.2

Even as these questions were being debated, however, the case which had stimulated them became moot when Wright revealed in a television interview that he had grossly exaggerated MI5’s conspiracy against Harold Wilson. To quote the report in the Independent:

Mr. Wright then said that there had not been 30 conspirators in MI5 as stated in the book. He said: “I should think the maximum number was eight or nine.” Very often when the dispute was discussed at the end of the day, when MI5 “management” had gone home, there were only three people present. . . .

When pressed to say how many of the conspirators were really serious about the plot, he responded: “One, I should say. Really serious.” He conceded that the part of the book which discussed the meat of the conspiracy was “unreliable.”

Somehow or other, this report, although appearing almost five months before his own article came out in the New York Times, escaped James Atlas who wrote of Spycatcher that “it does contain some embarrassing revelations, among them an account of the campaign . . . to discredit Prime Minister Harold Wilson as a Soviet agent and drive him from office.”

To sum up: the attempt to suppress Spycatcher was standard law and practice in Britain. Mrs. Thatcher differed from previous governments only in the persistence with which she defended the principle they have all embraced.



Mrs. Thatcher also differs in having carried into law a reform of the Official Secrets Act which several recent British governments have considered but at which they have balked. (It comes into force later this year.) This reform represents the second of the four main charges in the indictment against Mrs. Thatcher. Her critics maintain that the new Official Secrets Act will, as one of them has put it, “essentially do away with the ‘harm’ or public-interest defense, making the disclosure of government information a crime—no matter what kind or whether disclosing it would pose a danger.”

This turns the facts on their heads. To begin with, the 1911 Official Secrets Act imposed no test of harm in prosecutions for publishing classified information. All that the authorities had to establish was that official information—any official information whatever—had been published. As against this, the new law contains three major changes.

First, large areas of government information have been removed from the protection of official-secrets legislation altogether. It will no longer cover most government business, let alone all.

Second, the government will now have to prove that the unauthorized disclosure of information would damage the public interest. Thus the “test of harm,” far from being removed from official-secrecy law, is in truth introduced into it here for the first time. Only in the narrow and well-defined exceptions of disclosure by members of the intelligence services of information relating to their work, or of disclosure relating to special investigations carried out under a statutory warrant signed by the Home Secretary (i.e., telephone tapping), will the government not need to prove damage to the public interest. But since the government never had to prove damage before, that does not constitute a change for the worse.

Third, the government will now have to prove such harm to the satisfaction of a jury. Ministers will not simply be able to certify that harm had been done, as previous proposals for reform have suggested.

In other words, by any normal standard, the new law represents a liberalization rather than a tightening of official secrecy. The only ground for maintaining otherwise is Peter Jenkins’s argument that the narrower and more reasonable the law, the more likely it is to result in successful prosecutions. But this is paradoxically to charge Mrs. Thatcher with being too liberal, which is not exactly the conclusion to which the logic of her critics normally leads.



It is broadcasting, however, where the logic of Mrs. Thatcher’s critics goes most askew. Again, relations between governments and television were scenes of pitched battle long before Mrs. Thatcher arrived in Downing Street. Harold Wilson refused to be interviewed by the BBC for a long period, and both Labor and Tory governments in the 1970’s applied behind-the-scenes pressure on the BBC not to transmit particular programs, generally programs on Northern Ireland. Where Mrs. Thatcher has departed from her predecessors is in her willingness to take public issue with the broadcasters on these matters.

This, indeed, is what Lord Bonham Carter, a former vice chairman of the BBC, singles out for criticism. In an article in Index on Censorship, he discusses the controversy which began when Mrs. Thatcher’s Home Secretary released to the press a letter to the BBC chairman seeking to cancel a program in which an advocate of IRA terrorism and an Ulster Loyalist extremist were to be interviewed. Lord Bonham Carter does not object too strongly to the Home Secretary’s letter as such. “It is common practice for Ministers—and indeed members of the opposition,” he tells us, “to ring up the director general, or the chairman of the board of governors, to protest about programs which they fear may be objectionable or contrary to the interests of the country or their party.” But on this occasion, by releasing his letter to the press, the Home Secretary (so says Lord Bonham Carter) challenged the independence of the BBC. It is a curious notion, particularly coming from an advocate of openness, that private pressure is preferable to public criticism, and a still more curious one that the independence of the BBC is more subverted by honest debate than by the quiet masonry of establishment contacts.

Be that as it may, neither type of pressure has deterred the BBC from broadcasting interviews with terrorists and, earlier this year, in a real departure from established practice in Britain (and one that has supplied the material for the third of the major counts in the indictment against Mrs. Thatcher), the Home Secretary used his powers to prohibit such interviews. But while British practice can supply no precedent, there is a precedent of sorts from the neighboring Republic of Ireland where interviews with IRA terrorists have been banned since Conor Cruise O’Brien, who was then the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, imposed the prohibition in the mid-70’s.

I should at this point declare an intellectual interest. I have for the past decade been calling for the banning of television interviews with terrorists. A terrorist is an advocate of murder, and as I see it, advocacy of murder is, or should be, beyond the boundaries of acceptable public discussion. O’Brien goes further, arguing persuasively that such interviews constitute an actual incitement to murder: that the terrorist knows he would not receive flattering attention if he were not killing people; that therefore he must continue killing people in order to continue being treated as important; and that others who wish to receive similar flattery are themselves induced to embark upon a career of murder. Strong arguments would be needed on the other side to offset such palpable and serious dangers. What are they?

The justification commonly advanced is that “we need to know what these people think.” But we invariably do know what they think long before they appear on television to tell us. Is anyone unaware of the aims and beliefs of the PLO, or of the IRA, or of the Red Brigades? Moreover, what they say on television is not necessarily what they think (which is much more accurately conveyed by what they do). It is sugared propaganda. Finally, even if we needed to know what the terrorist thought and could rely on his honesty in telling us, a straightforward report and analysis by the journalist himself would be a more efficient and reliable method of conveying such information. And it would not have the side-effect of conferring respectability upon murderers.

None of this is meant to suggest that a ban on terrorist interviews is not a restriction of free speech and journalistic inquiry. It obviously is. But it is a restraint that is legitimized by more important considerations. And to sacrifice these considerations to an absolutist view of free speech, as Mrs. Thatcher’s critics do on this issue, is to exhibit what O’Brien has described as “unilateral liberalism . . . the kind of liberalism which is sensitive exclusively to threats to liberty seen as emanating from the democratic state itself, and is curiously phlegmatic about threats to liberty from the enemies of that state.”

In short, in the single case where Mrs. Thatcher has imposed or extended a form of censorship, she has acted with considerable justification and from motives that have nothing to do with restricting unpopular opinions as commonly understood.



Liberty of a different kind is at issue in the still sketchy proposals to reform the broadcasting system (which brings us to the fourth main count in the indictment). These proposals are designed to widen the freedom of the consumer to choose from a greater number and variety of television networks (ground-based, cable, satellite, etc.) while keeping “porno-tv” at bay. In place of the existing Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), which “awards” franchises to commercial television companies on arbitrary judgments of quality, there is to be an Independent Television Corporation (ITC), which will auction franchises to the highest bidders (with quality safeguards). And to ensure that unregulated TV does not beam into decent British homes the terrifying spectacle of Italian housewives taking their clothes off, a Broadcasting Standards Council (BSC) has been established.

The proposals are certainly open to criticism. The BSC, for instance, could develop either as a reasonable ombudsman for viewers currently ignored by the broadcasters, or into a slightly absurd Grundyesque body straight from one of those old Ealing comedies, with fatuous vicars, earnest civil servants, and puritanical lady aldermen deprecating vulgar language and censuring the untoward appearance of a backside on prime time. Even so, this new system of regulation is, as it happens, lighter and less intrusive—in a word, more liberal—than the existing IBA, which enjoys both powers of economic regulation and a legal responsibility, backed up by powers of prior restraint, to ensure that programs do not offend standards of taste and decency. The new ITC’s oversight will be confined to broad guidelines covering diversity and quality, and the BSC will have neither influence over the future disposition of television franchises nor power to ban particular programs.

But it is not so much these particular proposals as Mrs. Thatcher’s plans for deregulation and wider choice in television which have attracted the sharpest criticism, generally on the ground that greater choice will mean fewer people watching the established “duopoly” of BBC and IBA. Lord Bonham Carter sees this as “an attempt to erode the authority of these two bodies which have so long been guardians of the independence of broadcasters.” Brian Wenham, a former BBC mandarin, opposes greater choice because, with four television channels already operating, “the broadcasting market is already well-deployed, if not yet wholly saturated.” And John Mortimer equates greater choice with a vision of “thirty-seven third-rate channels peddling thirty-seven similar varieties of rubbish”—a destructive reform inspired by a desire “to dismantle” and “break up” the BBC because it provides serious controversy and embarrasses the government.

Mortimer’s criticism shows his hand. He objects to greater diversity of programming and opinion because it would dilute the influence of a semi-monopoly whose political values and artistic standards he finds congenial. And it is, of course, true that the more channels there are, the less influential any one channel is likely to be. But would a distinguished civil-rights lawyer like John Mortimer really support a policy to close down all newspapers except the Guardian and the Independent on the ground that the average quality of the press would then rise? And if he did, would he feel entitled to call himself a liberal and denounce those in favor of a multiplicity of newspapers as authoritarians bent on undermining his two favorite newspapers by depriving them of their rightful readers? And if he did that too, would he expect to be taken seriously as a critic of other people’s despotic tendencies?

Once again, ironically, if there is a liberal in this particular argument, it is Mrs. Thatcher with her deregulatory willingness to trust the viewers to choose wisely.3



It is, thus, simply false to suggest that the state of British liberty has grown worse under Mrs. Thatcher compared to previous governments, or that she is hostile to free speech. Why then do so many writers, academics, journalists, artists, television directors, and portable all-purpose intellectuals denounce her in such strident terms? What makes grown men and women declare that they are living in the darkness of an authoritarian regime that is steadily snuffing out what remains of traditional liberties? Why do people whose experience of life’s hardships is confined to a state-subsidized university education and a trainee producership at the BBC compare their plight with that of Soviet and Czech dissidents who have been imprisoned, beaten, subjected to psychiatric torture, worked almost to death in labor camps, dismissed from their professional posts, forced to take demeaning jobs for the express purpose of being humiliated, exiled to remote towns far from their family and friends, deprived of medical care when they were desperately ill, and in general treated worse than even the lowest criminals are treated in a civilized society?

It will not suffice for the signatories of Charter 88 or the editors of Samizdat to reply, as they do, that they make no claim of enduring oppression on the scale suffered by Vaclav Havel or Andrei Sakharov. For that is precisely the claim they made when they gave their organizations those names.

One possible explanation is that these people do not really believe what they say—a hypothesis which gained plausibility when the Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a sentence of death on Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie himself had been no slouch in the anti-Thatcher agitation. He was a signatory to Charter 88. And he took a generally dark view of what Britain and the West mean in the world, telling readers of the Nation in 1986: “In my British incarnation, I have America’s bombs for neighbors and could find myself in the absurd position of dying for Ronald Reagan.” In the event, of course, the threat came from another source. When it did, there was a rallying of the Left intelligentsia to demand that the British government should protect Rushdie, issue a strong protest to the Iranian government, and defend the continued publication of The Satanic Verses against Muslim agitation within Britain.

Thus, Harold Pinter marched to Downing Street at the head of a delegation of writers who called on the government to take action to end the “intolerable and barbaric” threat from the Ayatollah. That appeal, with its Palmerstonian hint of defending the liberties of British citizens against the jabbering threats of mad mullahs abroad, was echoed elsewhere. Hugo Young, a liberal journalist whose biography of Mrs. Thatcher had attacked her “informal attitude which narrowed the limits of liberty,” declared in response to the threats against Rushdie from followers of the Ayatollah in Britain that if they did not like the tolerant climate in the country, then they should go back to Teheran. (This shocked the New York Times correspondent, who observed that Young was “sounding like somebody more at home in Rupert Murdoch’s ultraconservative tabloid the Sun than in the liberal Guardian.”) Similarly, writing in the liberal Financial Times, Edward Mortimer voiced his outrage that the actions of a “faraway foreign despot” might affect “our own freedom to read and write as we see fit.”

Almost overnight, Britain—even under “Mrs. Torture,” as she appears in The Satanic Verses—had ceased to be a nation entering the darkness of authoritarianism and had been restored, at least temporarily, to its former status as the home of liberty and tolerance.

But if the Left intellectuals do not really believe their own anti-Thatcher propaganda, there can be no doubt that their hatred and fear of her are entirely genuine. Last year the London Sunday Telegraph interviewed a number of intellectuals for their opinion of her and were rewarded with some of the most snobbish and personally bitchy remarks ever visited upon a public figure. They ranged from the director Jonathan Miller’s “her odious suburban gentility and sentimental saccharine patriotism” to Lady Warnock’s dislike of her “patronizing voice” her looks (“not vulgar, just low”), and her general embodiment of “the worst of the lower middle class.” The Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge, was particularly incensed by a television program which showed the Prime Minister buying clothes: “There was something quite obscene to see her picking out another blouse with a tie at the neck.”

What lies behind these sentiments, surely, is an impotent rage at the lasting defeat Mrs. Thatcher has inflicted on socialism. In their less partisan moments, leaders in the other parties will accept that many of the achievements of “Thatcherism” are permanently entrenched, and that free markets and an individualist social philosophy must be part of any prospective government’s thinking. But nobody likes being defeated, and the discrediting of a deeply-held belief is felt more intensely than most setbacks. The patriots of socialism, who make up such a large part of the London intelligentsia, need a “stab in the back” legend with which to explain their rout. What better excuse than that the game was rigged, the press bought, the television networks intimidated, intelligence scandals suppressed, official secrecy blanketed on the land, and the voters led like lambs to the polling booths? But it all remains an excuse, just as the charges against Mrs. Thatcher on which it is based remain a combination of misrepresentations, distortions, and paranoid fantasies.




1 Here I differ from Peter Jenkins who, in the New York Review of Books, argues that Lord Keith in fact imposed a “test of harm” with these words: “[A] government is not in a position to win the assistance of the court in restraining the publication of information imparted in confidence by it or its predecessors unless it can show that publication would be harmful to the public interest.” That judgment, however, immediately precedes the sentences quoted in the text in which Lord Keith withdraws any apparent concession in regard to the security service, arguing that revelations by its members or former members are harmful to the public interest by their very nature.

2 New legislation before Parliament, which for the first time puts the security service on a statutory footing (i.e., admits its existence and lays down the ground rules for its operation), establishes among other safeguards an independent staff counselor to whom service members can take their complaints and who in turn has access to the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister.

3 Two other items are generally added to the charge sheet: Clause 28, which prohibits local governments from spending public money to promote homosexuality, and the proposed removal of the right to silence of the accused in criminal prosecutions. Since neither is directly connected to the central controversy, namely, the tension between official secrecy and the freedom of the media, this is not the place to examine them. But suffice it to say that the former, properly considered, has nothing to do with free speech, but only with the disposition of public funds, and the latter, properly considered, is liberal both in character and effect.

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