Review: Official Secrets – and contemporary parallels

Go to see ‘Official Secrets’.  It will remind you of the hard choices Liberals have to make in swimming against the tide of the received wisdom of the public debate.  And it will remind you that we stuck out our necks, against the received wisdom of almost the entire media, both the main parties, and much expert opinion, in challenging the case for the Iraq war.

The film is about Katharine Gun, a GCHQ employee with doubts about the drift towards the invasion of Iraq, who leaks (to the Observer) a memo from the US National Security Agency requesting material on representatives of states on the UN Security Council that could be covertly used to pressure them into supporting the US motion to authorise the use of force against Saddam Hussein.  It follows the subsequent investigation, her arrest, the involvement of Liberty in her defence, and after a lengthy delay the government abandonment of her prosecution on the first day of the trial.  There is much detail on the pursuit of reliable counter-evidence to contest the government’s case, the interaction between journalists and lawyers in London and Washington, and the uncovering of information on how advice to our government on the legal case for intervention had been altered under pressure from the US Administration and No.10.  

It’s well constructed; it links the personal tensions and agonies with the wider political context.  Several well-known living people are portrayed – some more sympathetically than others.  Good triumphs in the end, after much skulduggery.

It’s easy to forget how risky we felt it to be at that time for us to contest the dominant narrative of weapons of mass destruction and a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qu’aida.  The film shows even the Observer editor and many of its senior staff resisting the plausibility of covert efforts to fix UN authorization and evidence being twisted.  I remember going with Ming Campbell  to a briefing, on ‘Privy Council terms’, from two very senior intelligence officials, and having afterwards to assess how far we had been persuaded by their presentation.  Charles Kennedy had to resist strong pressure from Blair’s government, and weigh up the costs of being attacked by most of the press against the case for refusing to accept the government’s rationale for war.   We stuck our necks out, without complete confidence that we knew what was happening; but our instincts proved right.

Helen and I had gone to the cinema to escape from our exhaustion at the endless debate on Brexit, and the difficulties Remainers have in making any impression on the unfounded assertions that the Brexit side make.  I had sat through a five-hour debate in the Lords on Saturday before winding up for the Liberal Democrats, listening to Conservatives arguing that ‘it’s time to get Brexit done’, that the Johnson deal will not ‘significantly’ damage the UK economy, and that we cannot go against the settled ‘will of the people’ as expressed over three years ago.  Helen, at least, had enjoyed singing with the Yorkshire for Europe choir on the People’s Vote march.  But when we switched on the TV we heard again the stale repeated arguments, devoid of evidence, that leaving the EU as fast as possible will settle our future place in the world and lay the foundations of future prosperity.  

The public mood in much of England, at least, reflects weariness at unresolved arguments over Brexit, and scepticism about what both sides are saying.  The Mail on Sunday is accusing Remainers of ‘colluding with foreign powers’, briefed by ‘senior sources in No.10’.  The Prime Minister offers the public the illusion that leaving will resolve the underlying issues – most of which remain to be decided, let alone negotiated. Even with the support of last Saturday’s massive demonstration, we are in a minority, swimming against the tide of disillusioned opinion.  But we’re right, and we have to keep going.

* William Wallace has fought five parliamentary elections in Manchester and West Yorkshire. He is a former president of the Yorkshire regional Liberal Democrats.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • David J Woodhead 22nd Oct '19 - 4:56pm

    Among the favourable references was to Nigel Jones, then MP for Cheltenham, who helped Katherine’s husband with his asylum claim.

  • Humphrey Hawksley 23rd Oct '19 - 8:06am

    Thank you. Yes, the parallels are chilling. Hans Blix and his team of experts advocated caution and more scrutiny: intelligence was sexed up on the word of a single informant
    Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, codenamed Curveball, who falsely claimed to be a chemical weapons engineer; Bush and Blair pushed deadlines to ‘just get it done’; a critical mass of voters in the US believed Saddam Hussein was responsible for Nine Eleven. Today, expert advice is ignored, deadlines pushed, and the EU is blamed for all our travails. Once rid of it, we are told, a panoply of beautiful things will waft down from the heavens just like it did in Iraq.

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