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Tony Blair and Katharine Gun: the hollow centre

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the co-founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness.

On 23 February, I received an email from Eli Pariser at www.MoveOn.org called “Help Katharine Gun”. It asked me to write to Tony Blair and demand that he stop the legal action against this “whistleblower”, a translator at Britain’s electronic intelligence agency GCHQ who in early 2003 had publicised an American email request to spy on UN Security Council diplomats pivotal to US / UK pressure to win support for war in Iraq.

Two days later she was free. American supporters of MoveOn.org may be puzzled at how quickly the British authorities obliged!

This is a very interesting and important moment which allows us to think about the intersections and contrasts between United States and British public life. The two states combined to invade Iraq and their intelligence forces collaborated with each other. There was great public opposition in both countries which reached far into their political elites.

But I have just been in New York and experienced a taste of the big changes being fought out across America. Britain has a different feel. Here there is a sense that people no longer know what kind of country it is, to an extent that there is not really a fight over what direction it should take. Such a fight demands as its starting-point a linked belief in self, country, and the larger world. In Britain, all the links in the chain seem to be missing.

During the cold war, the British were able to hold onto a belief in a world role through the American alliance against Moscow. Now, this surrogate for Empire attitudes has evaporated. The point has been made often. It remains true, and works itself out again and again. Britain is Groundhog Day made real.

Not least in people and personalities. Katharine Gun, I feel, represents in a pure form both the strength of personal character and disbelief in any national institutions or traditions that Tony Blair personifies politically.

Blair is famous for his moral absolutism. He laid aside all arguments about legality, democracy, accuracy, or even inquiry about the real nature of Saddam’s weaponry. He bullied or arm-twisted institutions – his party, his parliament and the United Nations – into agreement. It was morally necessary to pre-empt. He knew he was right.

Gun’s explanation for what she did is similar. She saw evidence of wrongful action in pursuit of a wrong cause. She had to release this so that she, if she could, would help pre-emptively to prevent Britain and America’s war.

That’s pre-emption for you. It demands a wager, and how you take a risk is often a matter of character.

Gun is 29 years old. She was working at GCHQ’s headquarters in Cheltenham, about 150 miles west of London. Her role was to translate intercepts from Mandarin Chinese which she knew fluently after an upbringing in Taiwan where her British parents worked. On 31 January 2003, she saw an email from Frank Koza, a US National Security Agency official, spelling out the help needed to bug delegates to the UN from the “swing countries” – like Chile, Pakistan, Angola, and Guinea – on the Security Council.

This was a pretty routine operation, in the self-defined ‘national interest’ of the two allies. Clare Short, Britain’s minister for overseas development who resigned from Blair’s cabinet after the war, declared on BBC radio on the morning of 26 February that “everyone” reads the transcripts of private United Nations conversations - and that she had seen those of the UN’s secretary-general Kofi Annan himself, acquired from bugging operations by British security services.

To call this “routine” is not to support it. I would especially not say that diplomats’ homes should be bugged so that their votes can be levered out of them for personal reasons. I am simply expressing a lack of surprise.

But Gun was shocked. The telegram she saw from the US called for illegal action that could pressure delegates who are not enemies, to vote for, and perhaps give international legitimacy to, a war that Gun opposed. She leaked the incriminating telegram.

At a press conference on 25 February, after the UK government had decided not to continue with the legal action against Gun, she was asked whether others should do the same in her position. She answered: “I know it is very difficult and people don’t want to jeopardise their careers or their lives, but if there are things out there that should really come out, hey, why not?”

This presents an entirely individual weighing of the options, without any care taken either to identify with or to refuse the patriotism of nation and national interest. In Katharine Gun, Tony Blair has indeed met his match.

I opposed the war. I did so less for reasons of simple principle as Gun did – as I shared the longing of Iraqis to see the end of Saddam – but for reasons of strategy. I could not support US policy even though in other circumstances I’d have gladly backed the use of force to free the Iraqi people.

But I would not expect anyone who shared this political analysis to work for GCHQ. The extraordinary thing, it seems to me, is that the British intelligence establishment was unable to explain British interests to their new recruit and to define how her loyalty to these interests might be secured.

The centre is hollow.

It is not easy to explain what this emptiness feels like to those who are not British. But by coincidence, the day after all charges against Katharine Gun were dropped on the grounds that there was not sufficient evidence to secure a conviction (for something she agreed she did!) the UK’s first “citizenship ceremonies” were performed.

Hitherto, foreigners who were granted citizenship got the necessary documents through the post. Now, in order that we should all be proud of who we are, a ceremony will be performed. It has two parts.

First, the new citizens swear that “…on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her Heirs and Successors according to law”.

Second, having thus embraced feudalism, they pledge (but do not swear) that “I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen.”

Or, to be more accurate, a British subject.

Once upon a time (as they say in fairy stories and feudal times), subjecthood drew forth intense and unquestioning obedience to authority and loyalty to Crown, country and flag. Now it lacks almost any purchase on the soul and spirit of the new generation and therefore brings forth people like Katharine Gun.

When someone swears allegiance to a constitution or basic law, the values they pledge to, especially if written in clear prose, compel respect.

How can anyone expect young people to ‘be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty’? This is not the language of modernity, citizenship and democracy. It cannot sustain public belief however intense the regret of private nostalgia.

Should this concern us? Well, yes. For a larger lethargy also ensues. When “Americans concerned about Katharine Gun” ask, “Should this woman go to prison for the ‘crime’ of telling the truth?” and sign a statement saying “no”, I suspect that they are projecting onto her the spirit of heroic citizenship which would have motivated anyone who acted similarly in America. The leading signatories included Daniel Ellsberg (publicist of the Pentagon Papers exposing the real history of the US’s Vietnam war) , Barbara Ehrenreich, Linda Foley, Jesse Jackson, Ron Kovic, Sean Penn, Bonnie Raitt, Martin Sheen, and Gloria Steinem.

As striking as this gallery of figures was the lack of a similar movement in Britain. The Observer, a newspaper which is part of the Guardian group, benefited from getting the leak and scooping the story, gave little coverage either to Gun’s plight or to the legal campaigning group Liberty which was supporting her. openDemocracy.net did not cover the story. In short, a kind of lethargy, fatalism, even shame, has overhung this extraordinary affair.

It will get worse. The same minister, David Blunkett, who is the impresario of the citizenship ceremonies, is in charge of domestic security. To save the country from the threat of terrorism, he announced last week that he would recruit another 1,000 agents to MI5, the domestic security service.

Another 1,000 Guns, another number of embarrassing mistakes waiting to happen. Everything we know about intelligence suggests that it needs intelligence: focus, quality, the exercise of good judgment, depth of understanding and integrity.

Instead we are offered large numbers of inadequately trained swearers of true allegiance put to work to defend and protect adventures of doubtful legality that divide public opinion. They will make a further mess of things.

To put it another way, Britain is running on empty and its leaders are responding by trying to accelerate. Blair insists on an even more special, personal relationship between Washington and London. As loyalty to a broken system declines, the Home Secretary concocts a modern version of vassalage. As the security service proves itself unable to teach a translator basic rules, a thousand new agents are to be conjured from a sceptical public.

In these impoverished circumstances, the plain integrity and youthful courage of Katharine Gun shines out. The embrace of her by MoveOn.org is welcome. Her American supporters may have been naïve to see in her the sturdy patriotism of a citizen true to her native values. But what they wanted to see is what the British too should have wished for.

[A footnote, 27 February 2004: Clare Short’s revelation that she had seen transcripts of Kofi Annan’s phone conversations was expanded in the evening of 26 February in an interview on Newsnight, the BBC’s premier news analysis programme.

She told Jeremy Paxman that she had been meaning to inform “Kofi” but - she added with an ironic smile - she had not had the chance to see him recently (Short resigned from the British government on 12 May 2003). She had deliberately decided to reveal the bugging because she wanted it stopped. She shrugged off the fact that she had breached the Official Secrets Act and insisted that she was confident her revelation in no way threatened or diminished Britain’s national security.

The grinding of teeth by what is left of Britain’s political elite was almost audible. At his monthly press conference earlier in the day, the prime minister was white with the effort of self-control. I was struck by another twist to the unravelling of national self-belief.

If Clare Short had seen transcripts of conversations with President Jacques Chirac of France or Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany - or, indeed, President George Bush - would she have said so? Would she have then told a TV interviewer that she had been waiting for the chance to see Jacques or George to tell him personally? I think not.

“Kofi” is, for her, more than an ally in the traditional diplomatic sense (which also means a competitor). He is a colleague. Another layer of loyalty to a global institution is presumed in Short’s spilling of the beans. Remember, she is a politician. She feels that her government’s sway over her loyalty has weakened not just for herself but also for her public and, it seems, she also senses that a new loyalty is gathering strength to the UN and world government.


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