x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Staying out in the cold

On Sunday evening, more than 20 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Cold War finally ended. Well, it did for British television viewers, at least, when millions tuned in for the last episode in the final series of the long-running spy soap Spooks.

On Sunday evening, more than 20 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Cold War finally ended.

Well, it did for British television viewers, at least, when millions tuned in for the last episode in the final series of the long-running spy soap Spooks.

Throughout its 10-year run, this drama about MI5, Britain's domestic security service, has done its best to keep pace with contemporary events, featuring threats from various strains of extremism, both homegrown and imported.

The last series, however, was dominated by Cold War chickens coming home to roost. Indeed, all along there has been a sense of wistful backward-glancing to the days when one's enemies had snow on their shoes and were unlikely to be armed with anything more offensive than a compact 18mm Makarov pistol or, in extremis, a ricin-tipped umbrella.

In the post-9/11 world - and, for Britain, that of the post-7/7 bombings - perhaps the once bleak years of the '50s and '60s have, by contrast, become the comforting good old days.

That, certainly, would explain the current surprise success of the cinema remake of the British '70s television series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, itself an adaptation of John le Carré's relentlessly grey Cold War novel.

Back then, at least, one did know who one's enemies were - pretty much anyone who had gone to Cambridge, apparently, if the activities of Messrs Blunt, Burgess, Maclean, Philby and "Fifth Man" John Cairncross were anything to go by.

Some speculate Spooks was an MI5 operation all along, conceived as recruiting propaganda at a time when vast numbers of additional field officers and language experts were needed to monitor and infiltrate extremist groups around the world and hanging around Cambridge common-rooms was no longer productive.

If not actually scripted behind the austere walls of Thames House, the programme has been adroitly exploited by the real-life spooks. Tapping "Spooks" into Google while the programme was running brought a paid-for MI5 recruiting advert to the top of the page.

And a visit to the MI5 website - itself an act of transparency that would have driven George Smiley straight back into retirement - reveals that the programme's obsession with the former Eastern Bloc may not be as out of date as we'd like to think.

There, in the recruitment section, are upcoming vacancies for foreign-language analysts, fluent in Russian and Mandarin. For £24,750 a year (or Dh12,100 a month), successful applicants will "spend your time listening to phone calls made by the targets of our investigations to help investigate threats to national security, including terrorism and espionage".

Bit of a heads-up for the Russians and Chinese, chaps?

And another aspect of the Cold War seems to be as hot as ever. Only last year, MI5 sent a document to hundreds of British financial institutions, warning that Chinese intelligence agencies were getting into the business of using "long-term relationships" to blackmail businessmen into giving away secrets.

Perhaps they are taking tips on operating the classic honeypot trap from our old foes the Russians who may still be tempting members of the British establishment into sleeping with the enemy. Almost 50 years after the Profumo scandal, British newspapers are full of the affair between Mike Hancock, a 65-year-old Liberal Democrat MP and member of the House of Commons Defence Committee, and Ekaterina Zatuliveter, his 26-year-old "research assistant", a suspected Russian spy.

She is beautiful. He, it must be said, is not. Honeypots work because of the ability of such men to delude themselves - a tendency summed up this week by one British newspaper with the headline "Tinker, tailor, ageing Lib Dem councillor with hobbit face, spy".

The Cold War, it seems, may not be quite as over as we thought. This briefing will self-destruct in five seconds.