Count Alexandre de Marenches, and the French secret service which he headed for eleven years, are both great fun. The Count is 67, 6’1”, 15 stone, half American, trilingual and of ancient Burgundian lineage. This delightful and revealing book was written with Christine Ockrent, loved by every Frenchman as France’s most intelligent television journalist. She has certainly fallen for the Count, describing him as having the stature of Porthos, the nobility of Athos, the courtesy of Aramis and the courage of d’Artagnan – all four Musketeers in one.
However I see Marenches more as Conan Doyle’s gasconading Brigadier Gerard. There is a tricky question about spies – what, if anything, have they achieved? Marenches answers by recalling Entebbe when the Israeli secret service in 1976 rescued a plane-load of hostages from Uganda, and claims to have done not just one Entebbe, but forty. You don’t remember them? Well, says Marenches, that just proves how successful they were!
De Gaulle granted full independence to the French Empire. Less well-known is that the French are still in charge. The Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Empire got his golden crown and carriage from France, although even in his days of glory he treasured nothing so much as his French NCO’s pay-book. People talked of cannibalism, but Marenches had the fridge examined and found that Bokassa’s trouble was more with hitting the bottle. Anyway, Marenches had to fire him. Where the SAS would have gunned everyone down, Marenches’ merry men landed carrying plenty of cash, told the Emperor’s guards to line up for their back pay, and took over without firing a shot.
Alexandre de Marenches likes geopolitics and he likes kings. So he spent much of his time talking geopolitics with the kings of Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Spain, the Shah of Persia, even with Otto Habsburg, once Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary and now Euro-MP for Bavaria. Geopolitics is a powerful science used by Frenchmen to chat up girls more often than kings: with it the Count derives most of his information using only the globe in his office. ‘Just glance at the map’ is the phrase ever on his lips.
The Count was appointed by Pompidou to clean up the French secret service which, like ours, is full of clowns, crooks and communists, but unlike ours, entertains the public. An ingenious chap who was later to make tens of millions selling the French government his avions-renifleurs – sniffer planes which could supposedly find oil – he was then selling the secret service ‘secrets’ he’d read in the paper. Marenches stopped that, but then his British colleague, Sir John R, remarked ‘in the impassive way that well-bred Englishmen have’ that something nasty was on the way – and l’affaire Delouette exploded. This was a delightful long-running boulevard comedy about secret service heroin smuggling, property dealing, the litany of previous scandals – Marcovic, Ben Barka – all to a background of colonels (apparently the only rank in the secret service) popping up like Punch and Judy to bop each other.
Like many middle-aged men (including myself) the Count has the quite deluded belief that he has a Message for the world. His is about ‘the Evil Empire’, ‘flabby democracies’, and ‘that great statesman, Margaret Thatcher’ … go to any saloon-bar for it. In fact he ran a mildly useful ‘Sanders of the River’ service in Africa and chatted up the better type of king. The Queen gave him the KBE and quite rightly. What have British spies ever contributed to the gaiety of the nation but grey tales of alcoholism, Moscow and homosexualism?
Nigel West is really Rupert Allason, a plump young Conservative MP who used to be a Special Constable and once arrested two men on a Bermuda beach for cannabis. Yearly he produces an amazingly detailed book about one or other of our many secret services. Where Alexandre de Marcnches refers discreetly to Colonel G, Colonel de T, etc, West names names, and more names, many of them aristocratic: de Salis, de Mowbray, Machlachlan Silverwood-Cope, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, Guy deMoncy Burgess. Indeed Marenches laments that while the British secret service recruits from the élite the French service is universally despised. But I fear that the aristos in MI6 are no better, if also no worse, when it comes to alcoholism, homosexualism and working for Moscow.
MI6 started Post-War off with a bang, putting bombs in ships used by Jews heading for Palestine. Next, they tried to liberate Albania from communism. To take over that ferocious country where every baby is born holding a gun, MI6 sent over parties of ten people – less than our police heroes would use for a dawn raid on a single council flat inhabited by paraplegics. This was not ‘madcap’, says West, but all the same no one returned. Nothing daunted, the Ukraine, three times the size of Britain, came next. Where Hitler had failed with 100 divisions, Ml6 hardly sent 100 men… ‘betrayed by Philby’. How do you betray suicide?
MI6 were deep in the Suez fiasco and supplied the maps for our troops. These omitted a vital bridge, but contained the non-existent town of Talata. A hut was designated No 3 and our latter-day T E Lawrences didn’t know that talata is the Arabic for 3. Then after the British defeat they paid an Egyptian officer £160,000 to kill President Nasser. Red faces when Nasser denounced the plot in a speech and gave the officer a medal. More of a triumph was the blackmailing of Archbishop Makarios with some material supposed to show him as a homosexual – though I am unsure what advantage Britain gained. But ashen faces again when Commander Crabb dived under Khrushchev’s ship in Portsmouth harbour and was later found minus head. The late Commander was a legend among divers, says West, though ageing, a heavy smoker and drinker, and a poor swimmer.
Philby, who died in Moscow this year, was near the top of MI6. Admittedly he was a known ex-communist, a boozer with an almost opaque stammer, three illegitimate children and a nutty Muslim convert father who had been locked up in the War. In 1951 they found he was also KGB. They didn’t prosecute because of legal scruples – this in a country about to hang a half-wit, Derek Bentley, for the shooting of a policeman by someone else – and instead gave Philby a £4,000 golden handshake – £100,000 in today’s values. Most of the other important spies, Blunt, Burgess, Maclean etc were well treated too and usually allowed to go free.
We feel that we shouldn’t mock at MI6’s fooleries because they are, after all, super-patriots, and risk their lives for their country daily. Well, how many Ml6 chaps have died for their country since 1945? West tells us: one. Our spies occupy office-block after office-block at addresses like Mount Row, Westminster Bridge Road, Grosvenor Street, Vauxhall Bridge Road – the plushiest in Europe – and in forty-three years this legion of superheroes suffers one death. It’s obvious that being run down by a tea-trolley is the only danger they face. West does reveal that Ml6, though nominally for overseas spying, also operates in the UK – and the danger from CND, miners’ pickets and other Enemies Within is not great.
Philby & Co betrayed all the secrets of the secret service which, it is hinted, could have restored the British Empire or destroyed Moscow. Well, why don’t they tell us, forty years after, what these mighty secrets were? Philby betrayed no secrets because he, and the whole silly prep-school gang of MI5, M16, GCHQ etc. know no secrets. In the war they broke a few German codes which was of some limited use, and they have lived on that ever since, getting £2,000m a year out of us for fantasising in Mayfair offices. They haven’t broken a code in twenty years and never will. Maybe Philby told Moscow that a handful of Ukrainians were being sent by MI6 to overthrow communism. If the KGB believed this – which I doubt – it might have shortened their lives by a few weeks. Certainly Philby did his worst, but his worst was less than the Kings Cross fire or the Herald of Free Enterprise- and no one’s in jail for those either.