the untrue history of the Conservative Party
Charlie Stross has done a short story that is set in an NHS facility. This done, I feel he needs to take his unique view of Britain’s national institutions to its logical, strategic target. The whole project of much of his work deals with the civil service; he’s had a go at the military, at industry, and now at the NHS. Clearly, the next step is the Conservative Party.
“No. Perhaps you should try Who’s What.”
“It’s a Laundry Intranet project – run out of Section MH. It’s an internal wiki, intended to gather our collective knowledge of the political establishment – something we’ve perhaps neglected since the Healey plan of ’76. Basically we’re trying to collate key facts – who’s associated with who, who voted for what, what kind of pan-dimensional squidthing ate and replaced whose brain.”
“You mean like TheyWorkForYou, but with ineffable alien gods from somewhere we inadequately describe as hell?”
“Actually, the formal name is WhoWorksForThem. And we’re beginning to worry about Tom Steinberg. But that’s the idea. Haven’t you ever wondered what went wrong with Peter Hain? Where they found Tony Blair? How Mandelson got like that? If William Hague is alive? Why did they have to get rid of Charles Kennedy, and why they sent him to the old Benbecula rocket range? What species George Osborne actually is? We have a remarkable amount of implicit expertise here – we’re trying to crowdsource it into structured data.”
“You mentioned the Healey Plan. What..”
“Technically you don’t need to know. But that wasn’t long after the creation of the Police National Computer under Roy Jenkins, who as you know had a Bletchley Park background. There was concern that certain field agents had…overreached. There were violations of the Civil Service Code.”
“Peter Wright and all that?”
“That was one way of looking at it. Sir Peter chose to be helpful, and the Australians backed us all the way.”
“You may have wondered what happened to the LEO Computers intellectual property, to the first patents on packet switching and public key encryption. After the discovery of improprieties at MH, Denis Healey launched the first effort to create a distributed database of the service’s political information, based in a cover entity at the National Girobank processing centre in Bootle. The software development team were in the Inland Revenue offices decentralised to Shipley. Data entry was in Longbenton, Newcastle…”
I stared at the government tea in my Vi Reference mug. It looked like childhood – not that it was a reminder of innocence, normality, or love. No, it reminded me of school in the 1980s – it was grey. I expected Angleton to tell me that, unfortunately, there would only be enough textbooks for one between three rather than one between two. Thankfully I realised talking would be better than thinking about that…I always make that mistake.
“Wilson thought there were spies in his office. He thought coup plotters would burst through the garden windows. He was probably in the early stages of Alzheimers, they say..”
“He was more right than you might think. A highly susceptible personality – charming, slightly alienated, ambitious, not deeply principled or introspective. Healey, Callaghan, Sir Frank Cooper – they were very different men. Not enough imagination to end like the PM, but certainly the intelligence to grasp the situation once properly briefed. Weinstock, Scanlon, Barbara Castle…it was her data centre, after all.”
“So Healey wanted some kind of encrypted USENET for spooks in 1976? To trace…”
“A lot of work was done at ICL, Plessey, Ferranti, GEC-Marconi in Edinburgh and Basildon, DERA Malvern, BT Martlesham Heath, Racal, and elsewhere. You’d be surprised at the scale of the project – and some of the people involved. Mr. Ibrahim was a post-doc, newly arrived at BT MHRC. There’s a notable gap in Mr Berners-Lee’s career – make of that what you will. The cabinet was not informed except for the GEN-261 committee. Go-live was set for the 29th July, 1980.
We descoped a number of requirements and committed substantial extra resources in late ’78 in order to bring forward an initial operating capability. As you know, the rest is history – did you know they actually burned magnetic tape drives in the car park at Martlesham? Must have been a heavy night in the Douglas Bader…”
“I read somewhere that the Queen sent her first e-mail in 1976..”
“You’re not wrong – specifically, Her Majesty sent it from the Royal Signals’ HQ in Blandford Forum. Sir Frank had a deep commitment to the constitutional niceties. No doubt you understand the importance of out-of-band connectivity.
Anyway, look at this photo.”
“You mean…he’s one of the undead?”
“Not the rest of them, you idiot!”
Update: Ken MacLeod contributes a much better ending – “Not him – the rest of them, you idiot!”
Viggers as the only human being in the 1922 Committee. I mean, who would believe that thing with the duck house? Clearly a cover story to exfil him before the tentacles closed in…
(Update: Amendment to make clear who’s speaking.)