Richard Ingrams’s Week: Ian Fleming's creations are preferable to reality

Click to follow

I don't know who persuaded the head of MI6 to go public, but whoever it was made a terrible mistake.

You could say a similar mistake was made by the producers of the James Bond films when they changed 007's chief M into Dame Judi Dench. Dame Judi is, as we know, a national treasure, much loved and cherished for her performances at the Old Vic and elsewhere. But she hardly seems the sort of person who is going to put the fear of God into Smersh or al-Qa'ida.

Much the same is true of Sir John Sawers, the real-life M, who could be seen live on TV this week giving his evidence to Sir John Chilcot's Iraq inquiry. Once the private secretary to Tony Blair, Sir John Sawers, umm-ing and ah-ing his way along, seemed a singularly unimpressive figure, the sort you wouldn't even pass the time of day with at the office Christmas party. Equally uninspiring was another of nature's stooges, Sir John Scarlett, formerly head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, who also gave evidence to the inquiry and who seemed to find it a strain putting his words in the right order.

Of course, it may be the case that the heads of MI6 have always been like that, and it was only us poor suckers, fed on Ian Fleming's fantasies, who imagined them as quietly spoken supermen nursing war wounds and speaking 16 languages.

But if they weren't at all like that, at least they had the good sense to remain in the shadows, leaving us with our comforting illusions.

The evidence is there in print

It may be due to the popularity of the internet but people don't seem to be reading books as much as they used to. The other day, for example, the Daily Mail headlined the "exclusive" news that our faulty intelligence about Saddam's WMD had been provided by an Iraqi cab driver. But I read that story originally in a fascinating book called Curveball which I mentioned in this column in February last year.

I hesitate to accuse my colleague Howard Jacobson of ignorance because he is an exceptionally well-read man, more so than me. But all I would say in defence of his critique of my recent comments about the American neocons is that I read it all in books. As long ago as 1996, three of the most influential neocons - Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser – wrote a report, A Clean Break, for the incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling him to "focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right".

A few years later, those same men, now in the American government, were advising George Bush to adopt exactly the same policy. And it was not me but an Israeli journalist, Akiva Eldar who at the time warned the neocons that they "are walking a fine line between their loyalty to American governments and Israeli interests".

These facts and many in the same vein can be found in two scholarly, well-argued books – The Israel Lobby by Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, and The Transparent Cabal by Stephen Sniegoski. I recommend them to Howard Jacobson and anyone else who may be interested in this important issue.

A politician unafraid to speak honestly

Asked by a rival paper to choose my book of the year I nominated Chris Mullin's diary A View from the Foothills, which I have just finished reading.

At a time when MPs are getting such a bad press it is reassuring to find at least one of them who is a decent human being genuinely concerned with the welfare of his fellow human beings and not just someone on the make – which is what everybody, after yet more revelations about expenses, nowadays assumes all MPs to be.

A junior minister, first under John Prescott then with Clare Short and lastly at the Foreign Office in the days of Jack Straw, Mullin never loses sight of how limited his powers are, even, for example, when it comes to trying to control the spread of Cupressus leylandii.

Interesting, too, to be reminded of the powerful spell that Tony Blair exercised over MPs even one as worldly wise as Chris Mullin. As the dogged defender of the Birmingham Six, who posed with them on the steps of the law courts after their eventual acquittal, Mullin knew better than anyone the way in which judges are prepared to ignore the vital evidence in order to uphold the status quo. Yet when Lord Hutton produced his shameful whitewash of Blair in 2004, Mullin shared the general feelings of relief, reporting that "suddenly a great cloud lifted" with Blair looking "happier than he has done for months".

Never mind. I can forgive Mullin anything, if only for this description of Christmas: "We opened our presents by the tree... I did my best to look cheerful but I find it a deeply depressing experience watching children who have everything piling up new possessions. Such a relief when it was over."