From John Le Carré's Smiley's People:

Suddenly Lacon’s own face took on an appalled expression and his tone dropped to one of near despair.
“You should hear them, George, our new masters! You should hear the way they talk about the Circus! I’m their dog’s-body, damn it; I know, get it every day! Gibes. Suspicion. Mistrust at every turn, even from Ministers who should know better. As if the Circus were some rogue animal outside their comprehension. As if British Intelligence were a sort of wholly owned subsidiary of the Conservative Party. Not their ally at all but some autonomous viper in their socialist nest. The thirties all over again. Do you know, they’re even reviving all that talk about a British Freedom of Information Act on the American pattern? From within the Cabinet? Of open hearings, revelations, all for the public sport? You’d be shocked, George. Pained. Think of the effect such a thing would have on morale alone.

What does "The thirties all over again" mean? What events of the thirties did Lacon refer to? I'm not familiar with British history. Would someone please briefly explain that?

  • 1
    There is a book that explains the uncertainty of the UK or Britain in the thirties: nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/thirties-britain/…. I could cut and paste the text. Please see the introduction on that page.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 23 at 21:47
  • @Lambie There's a line from the link you provided: "The thirties in Britain have had a bad press. From W H Auden’s ‘low dishonest decade’ the era has been characterised by high unemployment, extremist politics and the menacing shadow of war." So I assume here it probably means left-wing movements thrived in the 1930s. Still waiting for more suggestions but thank you for your comment anyway. Commented Apr 23 at 23:43

1 Answer 1


The key event of the Thirties in Britain was the election of the Labour party government. The Labour party was viewed with great distrust by the established leaders of Britain. They suspected - in some cases with justification - that it sympathized with workers parties, even communist parties, around the world. In turn many Labour politicians viewed established British institutions with distrust, suspecting them - in some cases with justification - of being part of the ruling classes looking to keep workers "in their place".

So there was a period of deep distrust at that time between the established intelligence services (and other institutions) and the newly elected government, with the politicians suspecting intelligence of being fundamentally Conservative, and also wanting to reform them. Intelligence suspected that some government members might be too friendly with subversive elements in allied countries, or governments of "unfriendly" countries.

Smiley's People was written during another period of Labour government, under a Prime Minister arousing similar fears - to the point that there are claims of plots to stage a military coup against him. It's easy to imagine an equally fraught relationship between elected politicians and established intelligence leaders.

  • I agree in part except the first Labour government: Ramsay MacDonald became the first ever Labour Prime Minister in January 1924,
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 29 at 17:19
  • True, but it was a brief period of government followed by much longer terms 1929-1935. Commented Apr 29 at 17:49

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