The Government may know your secrets, but who told them?

If there are files about him to be seen, says David Aaronovitch, he want to know whats in them
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The Independent Online
ONE sunny day in the mid-Sixties, when my parents were out, the telephone engineer came to call. Those were less suspicious times, and I let him in quite happily. When he had finished the old green handset had been replaced by a smart new ivory coloured one. Which was odd, because - as far as anyone knew - there had been no complaint about our old phone nor any request for a new one.

It was common knowledge in my family that the phone was tapped. A friend who was a local GP, and like my Mum and Dad a member of the local branch of the Communist Party, had been told as much by a terminally ill Post Office employee. I used to wonder at the prospect of these grim-faced men in nylon shirts, listening in to the maddening yards of quotidian nonsense that passed between my siblings and their various friends.

The Nylons were, of course, wasting their time. From the second world war onwards, British communists - unlike the Trotskyist splinter groups that we so loathed - were pretty much committed to parliamentary democracy. Most of the party's energies were devoted to sustaining itself through fund-raising bazaars, jumble sales and membership drives. Every now and then we would offer useful support to workers who were having a hard time, or run concerts for political prisoners, but nothing that even remotely threatened the British state.

And even if any of our number fancied themselves as latter day members of a British Rote Kapelle spy network infiltrating the security system and passing on important military secrets to Russia, they would have found card-carrying membership of the CP something of a handicap. No, by any rational judgement there was little case for squandering resources on us.

But twenty years ago that was exactly what the security services were doing. Timothy Garton Ash, in his book The File, tells his readers that security officers estimated to him that - in the Seventies - nearly a third of MI5's budget was devoted to dealing with domestic "subversion". "They cast their net pretty wide," Garton Ash writes. "Not just over every single member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, they also had files on leading members of CND and the National Council of Civil Liberties."

I was triply suspect, then. In the late Seventies, I was a Communist, a student activist, a CND member and a thorough pain in the arse. I went on demos, wrote leaflets, organised sit-ins and "solidarised" (I'm afraid) with anybody who I thought might conceivably deserve it. I was also, by my lights, a committed democrat and passionately opposed to violence. So when, last Tuesday, the Home Secretary was tackled by the Home Affairs Select Committee and asked about the files held on the "subversives" of yesterday, I was interested in what he had to say. Not least because of my own private conversation a few months earlier with a man I shall call "Mr X". Now, Mr X is as high up as you can get in this government, and not play Flamenco guitar. And he too - like many of his colleagues - has a background in the "subversion" of yesteryear. So I asked him when he and his colleagues would let me see my little file.

"Never," he replied. I told him that I thought this was a shame. Surely, with this government committed to Freedom of Information, I argued, it was high time that ... You can fill in the rest. Mr X heard me out and then put me straight.

A few years before, he said, he had been shown (under exceptional circumstances) a part of his file. It dealt with his family's connection with the CP in the dreary overspill where they then lived, and some of it had been compiled by an informer. "The CP was not big in that area," said Mr X, "and I soon realised that this chap could only be one of two or three people, some of them friends of the family."

An informer? I had thought about bugging and shadowing, but never about informers. Had I also been "informed" upon, I asked him. "Probably," he replied. But who by? Members of student branches who reported back to London, certainly. But who else? Friends? Colleagues at the National Union of Students? Lovers, even?

Scanning backwards over all those shared train-rides, parties and near orgies I wondered which ones still existed in some dusty folder, containing lines like "DA then rolled another cannabis joint and told informer, Miss Z, that communism did not - in his opinion - preclude sexual promiscuity."

All of a sudden I felt the need to see my files more urgently than ever, and told Mr X so. "But you see," Mr X said, "these informers, no matter how you feel about them, were recruited on the basis that they were doing a job for their country. As far as they were concerned they were patriots, not sneaks. And the condition of their employment was that no-one would ever be told about them. Would we be justified in breaking that agreement now? And if we did, would anyone have grounds to trust us now, when we assure them that their informing on the IRA, or Column 88, or organised crime, will never, ever come to light? I think the answer to both questions is no. It would, I think, be better to destroy the files."

I am too easily swayed by a good argument, and found myself inclining towards Mr X. And anyway, what were the real reasons for my wanting to see that file? Wasn't it actually vanity, like that desperate urge to read someone else's diary and see what they say about you? Or the desire to attend your own funeral? What would I lose if my file were to be (as it may already have been) shredded by a New Spook?

It took the Conservative MP and old Cold Warrior, Dr Julian Lewis, to make me realise that I was wrong. He recently accused Jack Straw and Peter Mandelson et al, of wanting these files destroyed because they wished to suppress embarrassing information about their leftist pasts, not out of concern for past informants and future security.

This was a reminder, of course, that history does not go away. My file will show, if opened, that I was never a Soviet stooge, nor a manipulative anti-democrat. But if destroyed, people like Lewis can claim whatever they like about my past, simply because there was once a file. At some future time this could come to matter a great deal; the possible embarrassment of a few old informers cannot outweigh my right to know what they said about me.