Is the golden age of the British secret services over? They gave us James Bond, the stern father figure who was also stylish and romantic; Bletchley Park, predecessor of today's GCHQ, where the unscrambling of the Nazis' Enigma code won the war; and MI5, the only bit of domestic law and order that our rulers really trusted. They were the last pillars of the old order for a streak of the establishment that had never quite reconciled itself to the loss of empire.
It is all a very British affair. The CIA has no comparable status in the pantheon of true-blue Americans: they see it as bureaucratic, whingeing and incompetent. Germans make a joke of the BND intelligence service: "If you want the Russians to hear something quick and take it seriously, tell it in strictest confidence to a German colleague" is one bitchy piece of spycraft. Only in Britain have spies been so revered, so secret and so well protected.
Now, it turns out they are incompetent, sullied by politics and, to judge from the case of Katharine Gun (the GCHQ employee against whom charges of breaching the Official Secrets Act were recently dropped), incapable even of keeping secrets.
In my university days, the brightest and best looked forward to buff-coloured envelopes in their final year: "From time to time, opportunities arise in government service overseas of a specialised and confidential nature . . ." The prose suggested an invitation to a priesthood, privileged to know secrets and lies that could not be entrusted to mere mortals. Those who accepted the invitation would be summoned to an address in Carlton Gardens with blacked-out windows to meet a Major Halliday (always a different man, always the same name). The atmosphere was like a religious conversion, with a catechism to learn and a seal of secrecy as unforgiving as the confessional.
In the Thatcher years, no budget was too generous, no building too grand, for the cardinals of the intelligence service. If the SAS was the shining, bulging muscles of the resurgent British state, the spies were the humming, all-knowing, all-seeing brains. Even the end of the cold war - the death of the devil in theological terms - brought no setback. Instead of one big enemy, there were many smaller ones: organised crime, terrorism, failed states. The Blair government swallowed the whole package of the intelligence cult - addictive, hallucinogenic, the antithesis of democracy - in one gulp. It's terribly secret, you see. We can't tell you, but if you knew what we knew, you'd understand.
Now the faith is crumbling. The Hutton inquiry showed that the sacred grail of intelligence was tarnished by political interference. The spies' nuanced, careful realm, where there is a world of difference between a "may" and a "might", where reports are checked and cross-checked, graded and sifted, with all the care of a Curia functionary checking credentials for sainthood, has given way to base and worldly considerations.
Worse, the suspicion grows that the spies were incompetent, and didn't have a clue what was happening in Iraq. The long culture war between spies and diplomats that has been going on since the 1940s has come to the surface. Diplomats believe spies are overpaid, overrated and under-supervised. Spies believe diplomats are foppish, cocktail-swigging and timid. The advantage now lies with the diplomats.
The Gun case has destroyed the final myth of the British secret state. Once, those who blabbed were punished. The state took its revenge against Cathy Massiter, Sarah Tisdall, David Shayler and Richard Tomlinson. Not only were they imprisoned; some, such as Tomlinson, also faced spending the rest of their lives in harassed, poverty-stricken exile. But the state dropped the charges against Gun. For the first time, the curtain of secrecy looks truly flimsy. A secret message from Britain's most important ally is leaked and nothing happens. It is as if a Jesuit had got away with leaking the inner workings of the Vatican on the grounds that he no longer believed in papal infallibility. What a fall from grace!