What a bunch of hypocrites. No, not politicians, the rest of us. Most people in this country, asked whether they believed that this sort of thing goes on, would probably have looked a bit surprised, shrugged and said yes. Told that it does happen, however, we are outraged.
We are hypocrites, too, because the email leaked by Katharine Gun a year ago, just before the Iraq war, confirmed that British-American intelligence regarded spying on allies at the United Nations as normal. There was remarkably little fuss about it until it was suddenly alleged that Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary- General, was the target of British spies.
It is true that such behaviour is not exactly polite. But it provoked a response among the press and public quite out of proportion to the offence. And for the first time it turned the Prime Minister's monthly news conference into a real interrogation. Why is there such a sense of outrage? Much of the answer lies in Tony Blair's righteousness. This trait, which always grated with some people but which was for so long more of an asset than a liability, now counts against him.
Politicians are hypocrites too, of course. There was a striking dissonance when Blair opened his news conference on Thursday with his saintly Africa commission, blessed by Saint Bob Geldof - only to be faced by 15 questions in a row on why he was being so horrid to Saint Kofi.
That was an impossible question for a "pretty straight sort of guy" to answer, so he did not. Fifteen times, which puts him in the Michael Howard league of evasiveness.
I would argue that the Prime Minister is not especially hypocritical, whether measured by the norm for human beings or the special tariff applied to politicians. Indeed, he is easily outdone in this department by Saint Clare of the Bleeding Heart of Short, Trappist division. Of course, she was so outraged when she first came across a transcript of Annan's private thoughts that she resigned immediately and exposed this wrong-doing ... when she remembered it in the middle of an answer about something else on the Today programme a year later.
But Blair is hoist by his own protestations of moral superiority. However good an actor he is, he does not do humble well. Or worldly-wise. A prime minister with a more pessimistic view of human nature, such as Harold Macmillan or Harold Wilson, might have been able to defuse the outrage over spies, er, spying, by suggesting that such things were a regrettable fact of life. For Blair, the high idealism of wanting to end child poverty in this country within a generation and to abolish poverty altogether in Africa, laudable though both objectives are, sits awkwardly with the realpolitik of international diplomacy.
This gap between preacher and politician undermines confidence in Blair in both roles. For yet another week, therefore, he relives the nightmare he once described, of a race he ran at school: "I tracked the boy in front all the way round; then, as I came to the last bend, I thought, right, I'm going to put on my spurt and overtake him. I just found my legs wouldn't carry me at all."
He simply cannot overtake the anger of so much of the press and the public about the war. All the genuine achievements of the past seven years set out in his speech to the Scottish Labour conference went hardly noticed.
And the headmasterish mannerisms he has acquired during the past two years of growing adversity add another counter-productive layer of distance between him and the voters.
Clare Short gave us a masterclass in how not to be a teacher last week, in her televised stint in a south London classroom, but Blair is just as bad in his own way. When Jon Snow asked why he would not disclose the full versions of the Attorney General's advice on the legality of the war, the answer was: "Because governments never do". This is the prime ministerial equivalent of "because I say so", and it prompted Snow to ask the inevitable class-room supplementary: "Why?" To which Blair could only reply: "Because the Attorney General's advice is private to government."
He had presumably forgotten the argument that is usually trotted out in these circumstances, which is that government lawyers might feel constrained about giving advice if they felt it would be made public. But it is nonsense anyway: the real danger, as in the present case, is that the government might be embarrassed.
Blair comforted himself by dismissing all the awkward questions: "Everything that is happening in this debate is a cover for people wanting to have a debate about the rightness and wrongness of the conflict."
There is a lot of truth in that, but it is not the whole truth. There may be many people who believe that the Iraq war was on balance justified who also believe that it is wrong to spy on the UN. At the very least, it is unnecessary and a waste of money. We want our spies to devote their efforts to protecting us from terrorists. There are simply too many steps, and too many of them contentious, in the argument that leads from spying on the delegations of friendly countries at the UN via greater international support for a new order in Iraq to a reduced threat of terrorist attack. Besides, the spying "surge" was singularly unsuccessful, in that all six countries targeted, and Annan himself, were not persuaded to support military action. You only needed intelligence in the other sense of the word to know that spying was never going to make the difference between winning and losing the vote on the Security Council.
Equally, it is possible for supporters of the war to argue in favour of freedom of information and to say that they are confident of the case for war and have nothing to fear from publishing the Attorney General's detailed arguments, and the opinions commissioned by him from outside barristers.
So we may be hypocrites for being quite so outraged by the bugging of Annan. And, yes, many people do want to use it to re-run the arguments for and against the Iraq war. But it was not wrong for Katharine Gun to reveal what she did - which is why no jury would have convicted her. And it was not wrong for Clare Short to step in with her own revelation, however belated. Spying on UN allies was a foolish thing to do, and it is impossible for a leader such as Blair, so versed in the rhetoric of personal sanctimony, to defend it.Reuse content