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Case Studies

Security in history: CP and VIPs

Mark Rowe continues an occasional series on aspects of security management from the past.

Some of the most acclaimed biographers of our time such as Charles Moore (Margaret Thatcher) and Robert Caro (his still unfinished epic multi-volume, The Years of Lyndon Johnson) have gathered some of their telling insights from speaking to those that were in the political leaders’ most intimate circles – not only fellow politicians, but staff; including bodyguards. That reflects how those securing a political or indeed any VIP, like those providing other, even mundane, services to the leader, are well placed to observe and to give a biographer their vivid reflections. For Mrs Thatcher, that includes how in her last residence, the Ritz Hotel in London, she might wander the corridor – to the astonishment of staff who might come across her.

That shows how the most senior politicians require personal protection after they have left office; indeed, to the end of their life. In his memoir Some Kind of Blue, one of Mrs Thatcher’s former ministers Kenneth Clarke, wrote that as Home Secretary he ‘was responsible for the provision of police protection to all present and past politicians believed to be at personal risk from IRA terrorism,” which, as an aside, Mrs Thatcher certainly was, as she had survived the IRA bomb planted at the Grand Hotel on Brighton’s front (pictured), seeking to kill her during the 1984 Conservative Party conference/

Clarke wrote, in keeping with the down to earth tone of his memoir, that there were too many politicians being protected, ‘and I had the difficult task of trying to persuade a number of eminent former ministers that their protection should come to an end. Ministers, in my experience, divide into two categories on police protection. Some are delighted to have it and like to keep an armed driver who can act as a valet and carrier of golf clubs. Others find the constant presence a considerable nuisance and cannot wait to get rid of it.”

Clarke named a former Tory PM, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, as someone who ‘could not be persuaded by me or anyone else to have police protection’ and who lived alone on the Scottish Borders. Clarke, in keeping with his no-nonsense personality, added that he found ‘the whole experience of protection an irritant. I abandoned my police protection on the day that I left the Home Office and I never had police driving me or camped out in my garden ever again’, which I can testify to having seen him alone at various county cricket grounds in the Midlands in the mid-2000s, when Clarke, a Nottinghamshire MP, was out of office.

While giving the impression that protection was given when unnecessary, and identified how close protection can be abused, Clarke did not challenge the need for it. Any number of examples – this month Shinzo Abe, the former Japanese prime minister; in the year 1100, the suspicious death of King William II from an arrow fired on a hunt in the New Forest – show that a leader can die suddenly, violently. Other cases of assassinations – of Indian PM Indira Gandhi, and of the Roman Emperor Commodus – by their own bodyguards, shows something that is well known in security management but seldom confronted; that having security around can in fact introduce risk, if it’s not vetted in the first place nor monitored. A security officer can be bribed or coerced into turning a blind eye, or by themselves do wrong.

The political leaders – whatever their background or label – even if they are not distrustful by nature, will know of the dangers. Indeed, arguably those leaders have reached the top by trusting no-one. Not having close protection can be fatal also, however, as with the shooting of Robert Kennedy in a Californian hotel in 1968.

What then, is a dictator, who imagines enemies are everywhere, to do – having bodyguards is necessary, and indeed even expected as a visible sign of power; but can they be trusted? Hence they have to be carefully picked and watched also. As was Alex Halberstadt’s father’s father Vassily, one of Halberstadt’s family that he tells the story of in his remarkable memoir (and a ‘reckoning’), Young Heroes of the Soviet Union (published by Jonathan Cape, 2020).

Vassily served in the secret police, the NKVD, and was called to Moscow:

“From the first day,” Vassily admitted, “I was in awe of Stalin. He comported himself modestly, he listened, he valued honesty and directness.” Vassily’s brief was to walk ten meters ahead or behind the supreme leader and sometimes to ride in the passenger seat of the generalissimo’s [Stalin’s wartime] Packard [an American make of car]. He was to speak only when it was required. He told me about nights he spent at Stalin’s country residence, the dacha at Kuntsevo, where Stalin bedded down on the sofa. Vassily would patrol the lanes and the quiet houses while Stalin slept. In later years, he stood with his back to a wall and observed nightly bacchanals where Politburo [ministerial] members, whose presence was mandatory, danced and obliterated themselves with drink for the edification of their sober leader. At dawn, Vassily walked these barely coherent officials to their limousines …. At Kremlin banquets, too, Vassily stood in the wings and watched. When over-zealous guests rose and tried to approach Stalin to toast his health, Vassily intercepted and guided them back to their seats. “Stalin pretended not to notice,” he remembered, grinning, “but I could tell he enjoyed the show of force.”

Halberstadt in his book through the few stories on his mother’s and father’s side of his family tells the recent history of Russia, and indeed wider eastern Europe, in war, Communism and after. During Stalinism, physical fear was never far away – not if you were sensible. That comes across in the book as leaving a mark on people for the rest of their lives – and by implication marking future generations, including Halberstadt’s, not least because the old did not lightly recall such a frightening past. Halberstadt went on:

There was a note of trepidation in his [grandfather’s] voice whenever he mentioned Stalin’s physical proximity, as though the Georgian were standing in the room beside us. I asked whether Stalin ever spoke to him directly. “Maybe half a dozen times,” Vassily replied.

Vassily recalled breaking out in a sweat and beginning to tremble when Stalin addressed him; although it turned out Stalin only wanted to know ‘whether I was receiving my salary’.


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