WE HAVE NEVER underrated the gravity of the German system of espionage. German spying is permanently and elaborately organised in every European country. More especially in Great Britain no pains have been spared by the German staff. The sure knowledge that in our midst we have a disciplined army of spies ready at a signal for prepared and concerted action puts the British Government and the British people in a very difficult position. We have on the one hand to keep our sense of fair play and proportion, to avoid panic and persecution; and on the other to guard with the utmost rigour and care against the possibility and our hospitality being abused by recent enemies.
We will deal first with the necessity for coolness and fairness. The events of last Saturday midnight clearly show that the public is in danger of losing its head. The smashing and looting of shops whose proprietors bear a German or Austrian name is a disgraceful and unmanly act. Upon the truth of this it is hardly necessary to dwell. The German newspapers will not omit to draw any such moral as the incident provides.
Clearly if this sort of thing continues, if it is at once not sternly checked and punished, we lose all right to censure the manners and attitude of the German public in Berlin towards ourselves. Lynch law has never yet been tolerated in England, and we trust it never will. Every decent man must condemn without hesitation the destroyers of property in South London on Saturday night. At the same time let us honestly admit that these lawbreakers were only expressing in a violent and practical way the more civilised indignation of many who have lately talked with too little wisdom and restraint about the alien at home.
We agree that the peril from spies is urgent, that it must be met, that the Government has shown itself much too confident and easy in the matter. But surely we should keep ourselves from an unreasoning and excessive distrust of everyone who carries a superfluous consonant at the end of his name, who wears a Homburg hat, or is a dealer in Viennese pastry.
The best way to meet the peril with which we are confronted is directly opposed to the way we have lately been taking. There should be very little popular excitement or suspicion, and there should be strict, persistent and public action of the Government. This, unfortunately, has not always been the case. The people in the street have seemed to be doing too much and the Government has seemed to be doing too little.
We do not believe that every foreign waiter carries a time fuse in his napkin; and we have no desire to harry into premature internment all the foreign barbers in London. The Germans in Alsace made their French cooks taste the food they prepared before they ventured to eat it. Are we going to allow ourselves to get into this condition of fevered suspicion? There is a real need at this time on the part of the more credulous and excitable of our people to pull themselves sharply together.
We cannot afford, because there is war, to lose touch with courtesy and common sense. We certainly cannot with impunity abandon that English sense of humour in which our enemy, to his disadvantage, is so deficient. This preliminary warning is addressed only to those who, but for small differences of education and opportunity, would have been with the looters on Saturday last.
We turn now to the main necessity. It is a necessity for vigilance on the part of the Government for reasonable alertness and care on the part of every citizen. There is a clear sense in which the Government itself was to blame for the outrages of the past week. It was generally suspected that the Government had not done all that it might in this matter of espionage. Partly this was due to the secrecy with which the Government was forced to move; but it was also due to a quite unnecessary appearance of weakness in its visible operations. This weakness had been seized upon by several English newspapers, which have done good and legitimate work in insisting upon the gravity of the problem with which the Government has top deal.
The Government’s apparent dislike of strong measures, together with the endeavour of the Press to bring the seriousness of the problem home to the public and to the authorities, has created in the public a sense of secret and indefinite menace. When the English public takes the law into its own hands it is a sure sign of distrust in the law as administered by its rulers. If the public had more confidence in Mr McKenna (the Home Secretary) it would have less suspicion of innocent bakers and grocers.
The public even now has too little evidence that the Government is acting competently. It only knows that unnaturalised aliens must register, that wireless operators must have a licence, that every now and then there is a sudden raid which is not always well calculated, that the police sporadically arrest batches of suspected persons.
When last the silence of the Home Office was interrupted, we were presented with a very confident and clerkly document which ran flatly against common sense and such small knowledge of the facts as the public is able to command. We simply do not believe that the German secret service has been broken up and that it cannot be re-established. Mr McKenna’s statement must be read on the mere evidence of the document with which he presents us, as simply the expression of his own personal opinion; and, on the evidence he brings, we venture to think that he has exaggerated the individual stupidity of the German agents with whom he is dealing, and that he has underrated the collective efficiency of an important branch of the German Army.
The absurd distinction made between naturalised and unnaturalised aliens alone shows how the problem has been misread. We are not dealing with a sudden, extemporised invasion of alien enemies, but with an organised colony planted and instructed in time of peace — a colony which will hardly have neglected the obvious precaution of becoming technically British.
In the matter of wireless apparatus the evidence is again most unsatisfactory. At first the Home Office hardly seemed to be aware that the question was important. Even now it is not acting as though it were in command of really expert advice. It raids the innocent Secretary of the Royal Society who has an apparatus for timing his clocks from the Eiffel Tower; and it shows a great, but very tardy keenness in breaking down any bit of wireless apparatus. But surely the Home Office is aware that a small wireless station can be fitted up in a few hours by means of apparatus in reach of anyone who cares to visit a small shop? We are told that the wireless operations of German agents can at once be detected because their messages can be tapped. This is common scientific knowledge. What we should really like to learn from the Home Office is whether the necessary stations for tapping these messages have been set up, and whether experiments have been made in tracking down the transmitting apparatus. These details are typical.
Mr McKenna’s document shows a large and general confidence in the work of his department. We are assured that everything is formally right. Every German spy is ticketed. The whole system is safely interned in the pigeon-holes of Scotland Yard. But this large and general confidence is not borne out in a single sentence of Mr McKenna’s report. It supposes that every German spy has revealed himself in the act, has drawn suspicion on himself, has in some way or other invited the police to notice that he is a German spy – in a word, that the German Government has systematically employed men of the most incredible imprudence.
The cardinal error of the conduct and policy of the Home Office is its apparent failure to distinguish between spies who in time of peace are in continual communication with their Government and spies, planted for war purposes only, who will reveal their presence at a critical moment.
The first class of spies is more easily detected than the second; and it is only the first class with which Mr McKenna’s report is directly concerned. The second class are now the more immediately dangerous, and the Home Office hardly seems to believe in their existence. The French Government has learned by bitter experience that they are not a myth and that they cannot be safely ignored.
Mr McKenna has only to ask for the widest and most general powers to deal with our secret enemies and they will be granted. If the ordinary machinery of police prosecution and supervision is not adequate, let Mr McKenna boldly ask for the authority he requires, or let him hand over the whole matter to the Admiralty and the War Office.
Happily there are signs that the late report of the Home Office no longer expresses its point of view—that its blind optimism is no real indication of the way in which the Government looks at this grave question. The activity of the police this week has been quite unprecedented; and we must hope, till further knowledge, that this activity has been wisely controlled. Mere fright and fussiness would be even worse than the former inertia.
As to the public, this is another matter on which it is essential that common sense should rule. London will very possibly be visited before long by the Taubes—possibly, too, by the Zeppelins. There is, however not the least excuse for becoming unnerved at the prospect, for insuring heavily against aerial bombs, for preparing elaborately against an aerial state of siege. Anything that might be even distantly described as public alarm at the idea of half-a-dozen small bombs dropped upon the vast bulk of London would be an unpardonable slur upon the sanity and courage of our people. The Admiralty has rightly taken reasonable precautions to make the enterprise as difficult and dangerous as possible to the enemy. But when we hear rumours of insurance offices busy calculating premiums against aerial risk we begin to wonder whether the fear of Zeppelins, like the fear of spies, is not being overdone in some quarters.
Shakespeare, in a magnificent prologue, describes England, when widowed of her army, as “peopled with grandsires, babies and old women”. That is not literally true of England to-day. Let us beware lest someone may chance to fling that quotation at us figuratively and in derision.