Book Festival: Gavin Esler | Mark Huband | Abdel Bari Atwan | Gill Hornby | Deborah Moggach
Edinburgh International Book Festival review: Susan Mansfield reports on events featuring Gavin Esler, Mark Huband, Abdel Bari Atwan, Gill Hornby and Deborah Moggach
THE CRISIS of trust in institutions has been a recurring theme in this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, surfacing in a variety of events. Five discussions organised by BBC journalist Gavin Esler on the subject of The Suspicious Century have attracted packed houses, indicative of the interest in the topic.
Yesterday’s event was the last in the series, looking at the issue of trust in the security services. Are the intelligence agencies legitimately protecting us from terrorist attacks, or simply gathering the information needed to justify government policies? How concerned should we be about the extent to which we are all under surveillance, particularly when we go online?
Both of Esler’s guests, Financial Times security correspondent Mark Huband and Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan agree that a mortal blow was dealt to public trust by the Blair/Bush invasion of Iraq. Intelligence, which almost by its nature is a business of suggestion and uncertainty, was seized upon as fact by the Blair Government and used to justify an invasion. The subsequent disproving of the claims that weapons of mass destruction could be deployed within 45 minutes has meant that we are much more likely to question today’s intelligence about Syria, Egypt or Iraq. Not to mention the fact that American drones targeted at supposed security threats in Pakistan and Yemen are actually killing many innocent people.
Bari Atwan proved a colourful and outspoken addition to the conversation, asking several pertinent questions. Why, since he interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1996, did it take Western intelligence forces so long to find him? Why was the West so keen to intervene in Iraq, but not Syria, despite many thousands being killed? Might it be that its key export is not oil but pistachio nuts? Huband said that his chief concern about the intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war is that there seemed little attempt to understand Saddam Hussein’s intentions. “Spying is about understanding intentions and getting inside people’s heads as much as it is about knowing whether they â€¨have a gun under the bed or a bomb in the cupboard,”â€¨he said.
I wonder if MI6 might have something to learn from the mothers at the school gates in Gill Hornby’s novel, The Hive, who seem to have no trouble compiling significant insider intelligence about one another? Or the divorcees in Deborah Moggach’s new novel Heartbreak Hotel? These two writers provided a very congenial start to Monday morning at the Book Festival, showing that insight into human hearts and minds comes in many shapes and forms.
Originally published in The Scotsman