The secret state: Whitehall and the Cold War
[ bookreviews ]
Just as anyone who lived through Edward Heath's three-day week can be identified by their tendency to stash candles in kitchen drawers ("in case the lights go out"), so anyone who grew up in the Cold War can be identified by their tendency to worry about blast and radiation protection at odd moments. Your reviewer was recently enchanted to rediscover his copy of HMSO booklet Protect and Survive (ISBN 0 11 340728 9) and to relive the joys of spot-the-balls (P&S recommends that you construct a 'lean-to' shelter from your household doors, but also that you keep doors shut to prevent fire spreading). This inspired a rereading of Peter Laurie's legendary Beneath the City Streets, with its discussions of enviable government boltholes. Ah, yes: those were indeed the days. It was, then, with a curiously cheery air that I settled down (pot of tea within reach) to spend yet more time with those grim playmates of my childhood: Mr Bomb and Miss Fall-Out.
The formidable Professor Hennessy has that rare ability, being able to spirit lively narrative from dry official documents, and he has become a professional demystifier - the Adam Hart-Davies, in no demeaning sense, of British bureaucracy (there is, come to think of it, a physical resemblance, too). In The Secret State, he turns his attention to the threat of nuclear war, from the point of view of a government intending to fight and survive one. It's every bit as excellent as Hennessy fans will expect (nay, will demand) so I'll restrict myself here to fault-finding.
For instance, of the plans to evacuate the prime minister, we learn that references were made by Whitehall mandarins to 'arrangements already made for his speedy removal from London in an emergency.' Hennessy, noting that 'no file on this has yet emerged,' asks: 'what could these [arrangements] be? An RAF helicopter waiting on Horseguards Parade? Road? Or even rail?' -- and drops the subject. A moment's thought suggests that any of these is an unsuitable method of escaping an urban target area during a four-minute warning: leaving our old fried A Secret Tunnel (and a still-secret one, at that) as the most viable explanation. But Hennessy, despite an eerie visit to the government bunker codenamed TURNSTILE, will not be drawn.
There's a fascinating subtext here that Hennessy has left undeveloped. On every page, the government's elaborate plans for survival of the State contrast silently with pitiful civilian nakedness: Britain was prepared to simply let her population fry. (The expression is apt. As a think-tank psychologist noted, discussing morale: 'A megaton delivery on Birmingham would also render "ineffective" 50% of the population within a radius of about 20 miles [...] where people would see, hear, and smell what had happened.' [emphasis added]). Laurie, in a dark moment, speculated that as mechanisation made more and more workers redundant, some states would secretly, perhaps even consciously, welcome the culling of a populace that had become a "dangerous and useless burden". This horrifying notion, half-grasped by anyone who has wondered about the point of preserving the government but not the governed, is the event horizon of the unthinkable, which Hennessy - while inadvertently clarifying that the "hostage populations" of a Counter-City Strike War model informed British thinking the start - cannot allow himself to approach.
But on page 183, he comes close, hilariously harrying an MoD official over "a question which tends to lurk in people's minds [...] what if a Prime Minister went bananas[?]". This was the basic question faced by everyone on the planet: How do I know that you are sane? It is from such "infinite regress" suspicions that Hennessy unwittingly derives his best moments. Consider the 'Magnificent Five' KGB spies, discredited by Stalin because of their 'failure' to prove a "massive non-existent British conspiracy against the USSR" - a conspiracy that Stalin 'knew' existed. Or Sir Percy Cradock, of the UK's Joint Intelligence Committee, who believed that the slow collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-90 was a deliberate Communist hoax (Hennessy, while noting that Cradock waited till the abortive Soviet coup of 1991 to crack the champers, does not mention this astounding delusion). But then, even to talk about nuclear war is to be on nodding terms with insanity (not for nothin g was the 'stalemate' theory of Mutually Assured Destruction so named), and a refusal to deal with the upside-down logic of the subject might be a sign of Hennessy's healthy mind.
The book's cover is redolent of such mad, bad, dreams: a deserted London, thick with snow that could be fall-out (if one is willing to accept that, as in Orwell's 1984, a devastating nuclear war has somehow left the capital's centre undamaged). Then again, it could be a bad rebus (COLD war - geddit?). And the title, which suggests Ken Loach-esque chicanery rather than the contemplation of megadeath, is ill-fitting: perhaps, taking his cue from Hamlet, Hennessy might have found The Undiscovered Country more appropriate. In any case, this is an excellent read, and Hennessy will have his work cut out to beat it. And he will.