I just came across an extremely interesting point in a post on the Your Freedom and Ours blog. The subject was one of Agatha Christie’s wartime thrillers. The heroes, Tommy and Tuppence, are shocked by stories brought back from Dunkirk of the chaos and incompetence of the British military.
Could it really be incompetence, he muses, or are there traitors among the highest echelons of the military command, the intelligence service and those who take political decisions. Without any hesitation Tuppence replies that it has to be treason.
The bloggers makes the following very pertinent observation:
Of course, they were obsessed with fifth columnists. The alternative was to accept the fact that Britain, its security services, its military, its police, its politics were led by people who were incompetent, self-satisfied idiots.
Of course, as Corelli Barnett demonstrated convincingly in his superb 1972 book The Collapse of British Power, the British ruling class in the first half of the 20th century truly was dominated to an extraordinary extent by smug, self-righteous, deluded and incompetent mediocrities. British industry was inefficient and backward, the education system ignored technical subjects in favour of moral platitudes, British politicians were short-sighted and lived in a fantasy world of British power and righteousness. British foreign policy was muddled and contradictory, domestic policy was based on illusion.
It’s hardly surprising that nobody in Britain at that time wanted to face such unpleasant facts. At the same time it must have been blindingly obvious by 1940 that the nation had drifted aimlessly into a war for which it was hopelessly unprepared and could not possibly afford to fight.
In fact as early as the 1920s it must have occurred to many people that the First World War had achieved little or nothing at enormous cost and had been little more than an exercise in futility, resulting in economic near-ruin. The idea that spies, traitors and fifth columnists were responsible for the country’s woes and its foreign policy disasters wold have been very appealing.
Actually this could explain the immense popularity of spy fiction in Britain from the 20s right through to the 70s. It was much less upsetting to imagine that the country's most dangerous enemies were in Berlin, Moscow or Peking rather than accept that Britain's most deadly enemies were to be found in Whitehall. It could of course explain much of the popularity of spy fiction in general, but spy fiction had already by the ends of the 1920s become particularly popular in Britain, and Britain was arguably even worse governed than other western nations.
I had always assumed that the popularity of spy fiction in Britain was the result of an unwillingness to face the reality of Britain’s inexorable decline from great power status. I still think this was a major reason for the success of authors like Ian Fleming in the 50s - as long as James Bond was saving the world it was possible to believe that Britain still counted for something and to ignore the reality that Britain had become a relatively insignificant US satellite.
It is however certainly possible that this new theory - foreign spies as a scapegoat for governmental incompetence - explains the phenomenon in an even more satisfactory manner.