The recent revelations by the whistleblower Edward Snowden were fascinating. But they – and all the reactions to them – had one enormous assumption at their heart.
That the spies know what they are doing.
It is a belief that has been central to much of the journalism about spying and spies over the past fifty years. That the anonymous figures in the intelligence world have a dark omniscience. That they know what’s going on in ways that we don’t.
It doesn’t matter whether you hate the spies and believe they are corroding democracy, or if you think they are the noble guardians of the state. In both cases the assumption is that the secret agents know more than we do.
But the strange fact is that often when you look into the history of spies what you discover is something very different.
It is not the story of men and women who have a better and deeper understanding of the world than we do. In fact in many cases it is the story of weirdos who have created a completely mad version of the world that they then impose on the rest of us.
I want to tell some stories about MI5 – and the very strange people who worked there. They are often funny, sometimes rather sad – but always very odd.
The stories also show how elites in Britain have used the aura of secret knowledge as a way of maintaining their power. But as their power waned the “secrets” became weirder and weirder.
They were helped in this by another group who also felt their power was waning – journalists. And together the journalists and spies concocted a strange, dark world of treachery and deceit which bore very little relationship to what was really going on. And still doesn’t.