Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

About this security business, I am an insider

IT IS NOT generally known, I think, that I am by way of being something of an expert on security myself, in a small way of business. In 1956-57 I found myself security officer of a large fighter station. Professor David Marquand was extremely surprised by this information. Though not a close friend, he is, oddly enough, one of the few people to whom I have confided it. He told me his faith in British democracy was restored.

The existing security officer, a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF Regiment called Don Holmes, a Yorkshireman, was posted elsewhere. As the Regiment's representatives at the station were responsible for its physical security, seeing to it that ill-disposed persons did not climb in or, presumably, climb out either, it made a certain amount of sense that their senior officer should be responsible also for the broad, rolling acres of the subject. The station concerned was RAF Duxford, then home of 64 and 65 Squadrons, now a museum.

Aeroplanes held little allure for me. I confined myself to going quietly about my tasks as the station's education officer. Why anyone thought I should make a good or even a moderately competent security officer, in addition to my other duties, eluded me then, as it does now. Anyway, there it was. My predecessor plonked on my desk a pile of "manuals", loose- leaf printed books, and quickly departed.

My principal - virtually my sole - task was to complete forms in respect of those who were about to attend courses of one sort or another. Courses played the same part in the Royal Air Force of the 1950s as they were to do in the multinational companies of the 1980s. Everyone, was on, was about to go on or had just come off a course. What I was engaged in was, I suppose, a kind of positive vetting. The form invariably included a question along the lines: "Does the applicant read any weekly journals? If so, kindly specify."

I resolved to advise any readers of Tribune or the New Statesman, then the most subversive journals readily available, to keep quiet about their habit or, failing that, to confess to a weakness for Cage Birds or Practical Mechanics. To my disappointment, no such subterfuge proved necessary. When I asked "You don't read any weeklies, do you?" - a question clearly expecting the answer No - the reply was always in the negative and clearly truthful. In any case, I doubt whether the great mass of applicants knew what "weeklies" meant. Most of the airmen and of the officers too were not great readers, of the weeklies or anything else. I still think the question a disgrace.

My next involvement with security occurred in 1967. Harold Wilson accused Chapman Pincher of the Daily Express of breaching two D-notices in a story about clandestine cable-vetting by the government. This was one of those great Westminster-Fleet Street rows which enliven politics from time to time. I took the view that, to make a judgement, the public ought to know the contents of the notices in question. D-notices are prohibitions addressed to the newspapers, in varying degrees of generality, against mentioning certain defence and related matters. They are issued by a joint civil service-newspaper committee. My then editor at the Spectator, Nigel Lawson, agreed with me, and the two notices were duly published in my column.

There was then a kind of subsidiary row. No one seemed to be quite sure whether we had committed a breach of the Official Secrets Act or not. But respectable opinion was as one in denouncing our irresponsibility - a view shared by Lord Radcliffe, who inquired both into the main and into our subsidiary question, and before whom Lord Lawson and I appeared. I remain uncontrite and consider, without I hope giving undue offence to modesty, that I performed a small public service.

Wilson thought the D-Notice affair was an unnecessary mistake. Lord Radcliffe not only found against Lord Lawson and myself but, on the main question, against the Labour government also. It is rare for any administration, Labour or Conservative, to come well out of any controversy involving "security". I enclose the word in inverted commas because the dispute is usually not about security at all. It is either about sex (which is not the case with Mr David Shayler) or about pique, whether from the politicians or, as it is here, from the security services.

Margaret Thatcher pursued Peter Wright's Spycatcher through the courts and was finally defeated when Lord Browne-Wilkinson, supported by other judges, held that it was really rather silly to ban a book in the United Kingdom when it was freely available throughout the rest of the world. In fact it was on sale in this country well before the Law Lords gave their final decision. I was walking in Upper Street, Islington, and turned into Mr Patel's shop to buy a newspaper, matches, a lighter or whatever it was. There on his shelves, snug beside Catherine Cookson and Judith Krantz, was Peter Wright. I have just taken him down from my shelves and looked at the inscribed date: 31 August 1988.

Then there was the case of Mr Clive Ponting. This was not merely a personal contest between him and Mr Michael Heseltine but a political battle between the forces of progress and the Conservative government. On the day he was acquitted the atmosphere at Westminster was as if the government had lost a war rather than a battle. The jury refused to convict because they declined to accept Mr Justice McCowen's ruling that, for the purposes of the Official Secrets Act, the interests of the government were the same as the interests of the state or, at any rate, that the interests of the state were what the government happened to say they were. A jury arrived at a similar decision in the Pottle-Randall case. And it may well be that the jury will refuse to convict Mr Shayler, assuming he is ever extradited.

I have no idea whether his allegation of a plot by MI6 to murder Colonel Gaddafi which then went wrong is correct. I remember Sir Percy Cradock, later to be Lady Thatcher's chief intelligence advisor at No 10, assuring me in 1978 that the security services did not go around bumping people off. I can fix the year because Sir Percy's remarks were made in connection with Graham Greene's The Human Factor, which had recently been published and where such a murder occurred. Sir Percy was exercised, he said, not only because the allegation was false but also because Greene, as a former MI6 man himself, should have known better than to make it.

Perhaps the truth, or part of it, lies in the carefully phrased answer of the Home Office minister Lord Williams of Mostyn on the Today programme last week. There had, he informed us, been no "official " attempt to assassinate the good Colonel, the object, incidentally, of unrequited sexual desire on the part of the late Francis Bacon. We all know the lines:

"You do realise of course, Carruthers, that if this mission fails HMG will deny all knowledge of it, and you may have to pay the price?"

"I understand, Sir. "

I find it inexplicable that first-class lawyers such as John Morris and Gareth Williams - and, before them, Elwyn Jones - should swallow the spooks' line so obediently and lend their authority to what my late father would have called tommy-rot, including the old story that lives are at stake. It is not only at the National Eisteddfod that eminent Welshmen can make fools of themselves.