Sir Christopher and the Secret Keepers

by Stephen Tall on November 12, 2005

Sir Christopher Meyer, the UK’s former ambassador to Washington, is in trouble. His former civil service colleagues, Lords Butler and Renwick, have accused him of a “breach of trust”, and of flouting a well-established “self-denying ordinance”. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has gone far, far further, dissing Sir Christopher’s behaviour as “preposterous and very demeaning… completely unacceptable”. What could have prompted such condemnation? Has Sir Christopher been plotting against Her Majesty’s Government? Has he betrayed his country?

No. The offence which has prompted this highfalutin umbrage from what might once have been regarded as ‘The Establishment’ is the serialisation of Sir Christopher’s chattily indiscreet memoirs, DC Confidential.

If an autobiography is to be at all interesting – and certainly if it is going to justify the publisher’s advance – it will have to cause upset. And it is not hard to work out why those who are named and shamed by Sir Christopher might feel hard done by. Mr Straw is described as “tongue-tied” when meeting US officials, as “someone more to be liked than admired”, who took “a long time to find his feet” in the Foreign Office. The chippy John Prescott may not be thrilled to see immortalised in print his references to the “Balklands” and “Kovosa”. And Mr Blair could probably have foregone the headlines suggesting he was “seduced … by the proximity and glamour of American power” in this, his latest worst week as Prime Minister.

Sir Christopher’s memoirs have two schools of critics.

The first, and most understandable, is represented by Mr Straw, who – doubtless smarting from the ex-ambassador’s disdainful put-downs – has thrown an ‘It’s so unfair!’ teenage strop. Naturally, the Foreign Secretary has had to dress this up to avoid looking pitifully thin-skinned, and so has invoked Sir Christopher’s chairmanship of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC): “He is in the newspapers saying controversial things. If people want to complain to the newspapers about what he has said, who do they complain to?” As Mr Straw will be fully aware, the PCC has the power to adjudicate only if a complaint has been filed by someone directly involved. So, if Mr Straw truly wishes to discover what will happen “if people want to complain”, the answer is within his personal gift.

The second, and more significant, school is represented by Sir Christopher’s peers, those such as Sir Michael Jay, head of the UK’s diplomatic corps, who stoically urges eternal anonymity on his colleagues: “we cannot serve ministers effectively unless they trust and confide in us, which they will only do if we respect that confidence, not just when we’re doing our jobs, but afterwards, too.” This is – and I mean this phrase to be damningly pejorative – a very British argument.

The civil service, according to Sir Michael’s injunction, is the ‘secret keeper’ of government ministers, irrespective of party. The questions asked, the advice dispensed, and the decisions taken: all must remain clasped to the bosom of the government’s devoted retainers until their dying breath. They should see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil. Well – and I say this with all due respect to Sir Michael – bollocks to that.

For a start, it is clear that politicians no longer “trust and confide” in their civil servants: they are too well-schooled in Yes, Minister to risk that. One of the incidents, dripping in bathos, which Sir Christopher recalls is being told by Mr Blair’s chief of staff that the Prime Minister would prefer to have his communications chief, Alistair Campbell, accompany him to supper with President Bush, in place of the ambassador. Sir Christopher’s robust response would have earned Mr Campbell’s approval, at least for its explicit style: “If this happens, you will cut me off at the fucking knees for the rest of my fucking time in Washington. Is that what you want?” In the end, both Mr Campbell and Sir Christopher were able to step up to the plate, and bring their smarts to the dinner table.

Nor is clear to me that the amount of trust which politicians are willing to invest in their advisors is in any way related to the propensity of those advisors later to write about the experience. That Mr Campbell kept a diary during his Downing Street years was well known within Westminster. Yet this did not stop him remaining Mr Blair’s closest political confidante.

But Sir Michael’s remarks are indicative of a more dangerous assumption: that the role of the civil service is to counsel ministers in private, and to keep schtum about it for ever. Now, of course, there are occasions when delicate negotiations require secrecy: most obviously, when the British government denied it was talking to the IRA at a time when, to reveal this fact, would have jeopardised a successful outcome. However, these are the exceptions, not the rule; no matter that our political culture inverts this principle.

Though the Freedom of Information Act (2000) has brought out much into the open that was formerly hidden, its success is overly reliant on the benign patronage of the unelected position of Information Commissioner – whose rulings can, in many circumstances, be over-ruled by ministers. Yet without openness and transparency, there can be no true accountability; and without true accountability there can be no real responsibility.

All secrets are about power: the knowledge one person has which another does not gives him the edge. That is why they are precious, why they are hoarded by those who wish to retain power. To share a secret is to diminish the power of its keepers, to break the sacred conspiracy of silence of the Magic Circle.

Sir Christopher’s memoirs are not exceptional, not scandalous, not traitorous. They simply allow us a glimpse inside those ego-filled rooms where decisions are made in our names. We now know a little bit more about those decisions than we did, and a little bit more about those who took them. As a result, we are a little bit more powerful than we were, and they are a little bit less powerful than they would like. And that is why Sir Christopher is in trouble.