Derek Pasquill was a Foreign and Commonwealth Office man to his core. He was born to a diplomat father and service wife, weaned in its embassies, trained in its boarding schools and polished by its fine minds until he was ready to represent liberal Britain to a hostile world. The FCO was the only institution he really knew, and he took its benevolence for granted. His mother was German and his parents did not want to spend their days at drinks parties with cliquey expats who would not treat the overwhelming majority of their compatriots as their social equals, let alone foreigners. They toured his father’s postings instead. When he was on holiday from his English boarding schools, they took him to the Roman ruins at Baalbek in Lebanon and the palaces of Ctesiphon, Iraq. Pasquill had an isolated but privileged childhood and he looks back on it with gratitude. His whole life had been leading him towards a career in the diplomatic service. It was his natural home.
Today, the FCO views him as the most devastating whistleblower in its recent history. Between August 2005 and January 2006, he leaked 40 bundles of documents. So many papers poured out in brown envelopes and email attachments that his contact, my then colleague on the Observer Martin Bright (now the political editor of the Jewish Chronicle), begged him to slow down.
“Traitors,” “moles,” “double-agents”: we think we know how the story of an establishment renegade runs from the betrayals of the Cold War. Yet although the characters are the same — the Whitehall mandarins who cannot believe that one of their own would betray them, the public schoolboy who learns to despise his class — the story’s moral could not be more different.
The FCO was not and is not standing up to the totalitarian ideas of the Islamist extreme Right, as it stood up to the totalitarianism of the socialist extreme Left in the second half of the 20th century. On the contrary, the establishment has appeased political Islamism abroad and interfered in the domestic affairs of its own country by mounting a covert operation to aid and abet it at home.
Pasquill betrayed the institutions of liberal democracy by standing up for liberal democracy. He defended it from its enemies, who were not only in far-away countries but closeted in the Cabinet Room of 10 Downing Street and the offices of Whitehall. As striking a difference between Pasquill and the establishment renegades of the 20th century (indeed, from every other whistleblower I have known) is that he wanted to be caught. He wanted the police to take him to the cells and arraign him at the Old Bailey for breaking the Official Secrets Act. He did not regard jail as a punishment he hoped to avoid, but sought out the risk of imprisonment the better to highlight the scandal. When the police came to his Pimlico home, he admitted everything. In truth, they did not have a hard job finding him. By the end, he was sending documents from his work email to his home computer and the dullest copper in England could have collared him.
“The Observer and the New Statesman were printing my revelations,” he told me, “but they were not having an effect. I thought that being caught would be useful because the FCO would have to prosecute. That was part of my strategy, to get publicity in open court; to make people realise how bad it had got. What is so maddening about our attitude to radical Islam is that it is a classic example of group-think. Cognitive dissonance is stopping serious engagement. Leaking documents was my attempt to break the dissonance, my form of engagement.”
I am sure you can understand why he so frightens the FCO. The normal threats an employer can make against an employee — the loss of home, salary, position and, in Pasquill’s case, liberty — could not intimidate him. He was a man with the inner freedom the Stoics so valued. He had trained himself to be indifferent to the threats and blandishments of official society. Even though governments around the world read his revelations with varying degrees of horror, the FCO dropped the prosecution. Legally, its case was watertight. Pasquill had admitted leaking official secrets with pride. But Whitehall knew all too well that he would use the dock as a platform to appeal to the jury and the wider public.
Now Pasquill is bringing what to my unqualified eyes looks like a hopeless claim of unfair dismissal. On the face of it, a civil servant who passed a filing cabinet full of official secrets to the press cannot seriously claim that the state exceeded its powers by firing him. Yet if you look at his revelations, his claim makes more sense.
As his affidavit to the employment tribunal dryly remarks, “The documents that I disclosed showed that the FCO and other UK government departments were continuing to work with and assist organisations that promote extreme Islamist politics. My concern was that this policy would have the effect of legitimising and supporting groups with extreme Islamist politics and that such an effect was entirely contradictory to FCO and UK government policy of attempting to prevent the radicalisation of young British Muslims. Furthermore, I believe that the FCO and other government departments pursue a policy of portraying these organisations as mainstream and moderate.”
Who is the traitor and who the patriot in these circumstances: the dissident civil servant or the two-faced government? Who, to be blunt, is more deserving of summary dismissal?
Journalists covet whistleblowers for the mercenary reason that they fill our pages and make our names. Only after we have wrung them dry do we want to know why they risked their careers to reveal their employers’ crimes and follies. I thought that Pasquill could supply a lucid answer. He is an ascetic intellectual: a thin, quiet man, who thinks carefully before speaking and upholds the English intelligentsia’s customary disdain for smart clothes and dental hygiene. Yet my attempts to prod him into giving me a pat explanation got nowhere. He had studied the Holocaust, he told me, and learned the importance of documenting state crimes from Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews. The scene in Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, when Hilberg holds up a timetable listing the trains that took Jews to extermination camps, stayed with him and taught him that you must get official papers on the public record at any cost. Yet when I asked him if it was the transfer of Tsarist and Nazi anti-Semitism from Europe to the clerical fascists of the Muslim world that moved him to take on the FCO, he looked blank. The thought never occurred to him.
He is too much of an intellectual to allow me to think that a neat, coherent motive explains his actions. Instead, he says without elaboration that he found the behaviour of Jack Straw and the wider liberal establishment he had served so loyally “shocking”.
The FCO seconded him to its “Engaging with the Islamic World” unit. From the moment he arrived, everything felt wrong. He was standing in for Mockbul Ali, an allegedly non-political civil servant. Yet, with official approval, Ali had taken time off to help Labour fight the 2005 general election campaign. Specifically, he was trying to persuade Muslim leaders to support Labour, when many of them were in no mood to do so after the second Iraq war. There has always been a Tammany Hall streak in Labour. Many an aspiring politician has found that buying off ethnic block votes by dropping a few principles is a small price to pay for his advancement in inner-city politics. A refusal to condemn the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death threat against Salman Rushdie, for instance, saved several cowards’ seats.
Pasquill found something more than ordinary compromises, however. Ali was hardly a loner. The entire FCO hierarchy from Jack Straw, then the Foreign Secretary, downwards was supporting a policy of encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.
The usual gap between rhetoric and reality had become a dizzying gulf. On the one hand, Labour pretended that it was upholding the 1997 mission statement Robin Cook gave the FCO “to spread the values of human rights, civil liberties and democracy which we demand for ourselves”. On the other, it was bending over backwards to appease movements which believed in the subjugation of women, the racist conspiracy theories of the Okhrana and the SS, the murder of homosexuals and apostates, the denial of democracy and the dismissal of human rights as an imperialist imposition on the godly.
Before moving into the unit, Pasquill decided to research the Muslim Brotherhood in the British Library. A small step, perhaps, but as he investigated its totalitarian ambitions it proved to be a decisive one, not because of what he found but because of how he found it. When he left the FCO for the library’s reading rooms, he left the received wisdom of his hierarchy behind and returned to work ready to think for himself.
As he went through the files Ali had left in his desk, he realised that the FCO under a left-of-centre government was classifying an organisation founded by the admirers of European fascism and sustained by the adherents of a brutish theocracy as “moderate”. The result was a policy at once sinister and naïve. The decayed autocracies of the Middle East were producing an Islamist rather than a liberal opposition, the FCO argued, which Britain must “engage” with at any price. The FCO did not ask how Arab liberals and democrats would feel if Britain embraced men who would happily kill them. Nor did it sigh and say with regret that religious reaction was a deplorable reality Britain had to learn to live with. Instead, it actively sought to promote and fund extremism. As an official argued, “Given that Islamist groups are often less corrupt than the generality of the societies in which they operate, consideration might be given to channelling aid resources through them, so long as sufficient transparency is achievable.” In its enthusiasm for appeasement, the FCO did not know or want to know that theocracy is inherently corrupt. By soaking society in piety, it can present its demands for money as the demands of God. As the examples of Saudi Arabia and Iran show, the more Islamist a country is, the more corrupt it becomes.
As his superiors betrayed the liberal Muslims of the Middle East, Mockbul Ali worked to marginalise their counterparts in Britain. Although the domestic affairs of our country are not any of the FCO’s business, it sponsored a road show, which purported to be representative of British Muslim voices but was in reality a Muslim Brotherhood front. Ali followed up by lobbying the Home Office to allow extremists into Britain. Eric Taylor, of the India-Pakistan
Relations Desk, was one of the few officials to protest. He pointed out that a gruesome Bangladeshi politician Ali was recommending had provoked riots on his last visit and, according to a report from a Bangladeshi human rights organisation, Drishtipat, had compared Bangladeshi Hindus to excrement, while appearing to defend attacks on the country’s persecuted Ahmadiyya Muslim community, regarded as apostates by the Islamists.
The more Pasquill read, the more driven he became. He roamed the FCO’s corridors picking up Ali’s files, first taking them to Soho to copy and post, then just emailing them home and printing them out. I won’t say that his leaks had no effect. The story went round the world. In Britain, Hazel Blears, Ruth Kelly and Jacqui Smith — all women, significantly, who were appalled by the official endorsement of misogyny — read Bright’s reports and tried to save what was left of the honour of the British Left by fighting back. But I cannot pretend that their stand was anything other than an isolated example. Pasquill’s revelations had no impact on a wider liberal society. It did not want to see how hypocritical it had become or to survey the damage it had wrought. The achievement of political Islam in Britain has been to suborn the liberal Left and cut off the most promising escape route for dissidents in the process. An abused woman, a young man fighting religious authoritarianism, an Iranian exile seeking to gain support for the campaign against the Archbishop of Canterbury’s and Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of Sharia law or a British Bangladeshi trying to bring the Islamist criminals who massacred civilians in the war of independence to justice, would once have looked left for succour. If they do so now, they will find that progressives take their cue from the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami, rather than the best of the liberal Left’s traditions, and dismiss Muslims who fight for values they profess to hold as being at best irrelevances and at worst stool-pigeons for imperialism.
Do not make the mistake of believing that such attitudes are confined to the FCO. Only recently, the supposedly left-wing Institute for Public Policy Research was trumpeting “non-violent” Islamism as “the best organised and most popular opposition to existing authoritarian regimes in the Middle East”. What “non-violent” Islamists would do to Arab liberals when they achieved power was not a question that detained the British leftists of the IPPR for a second.
As his illusions about the benign nature of the FCO crumbled, Pasquill tried a thought experiment. He asked himself, “Is the Foreign Office a Muslim Brotherhood front organisation?” Obviously, it was not, he replied, although looked at in a certain light, it might as well have been. The light metaphor stayed with him until “one day I was looking at the ivy growing in my garden and it struck me that it was phototropic — growing in the direction of the sun. I realised that the FCO is Islamotropic: it grows towards Islamic extremism, always searching for reasons to excuse it.” At the age of 50, Derek Pasquill is now on the dole with no pension, no savings and no prospects. The FCO responded to his revelations by promoting Mockbul Ali. Like ivy on a wall, the liberal establishment still creeps towards the reactionary forces that despise it, entwining itself with its enemies and leaving its friends to wilt in the dark.