Sir Archibald Stephenson sat in his townhouse’s study, looking out its window at the Thames River. The temperature wasn’t much above freezing that day, but it was warm and cozy inside, the wood paneling and the leather of the furniture and the volumes lining his shelves an appealing contrast with the tableau outside.
Awaiting the arrival of the day’s appointment he remembered his first real meeting with Lord Birkhead almost a half century before. In retrospect, the man had been astonishingly prescient about the completeness with which the Empire unraveled and faded; and about the Americanization of the world.
But that was as far as he’d seen. He didn’t seem to have an inkling of the problems that Stephenson was starting to confront now, which his successors would confront all the more thoroughly after he retired and passed on.
“Oh yes,” he’d said of those things. “Bernal and Haldane and all that. Marxist, materialist rot, pure and simple.”
Archibald had deferred to the older man’s wisdom then, but he found the dismissal far less persuasive now.
Geoffrey’s appearance at the chamber’s door interrupted his reverie. “Mr. Browning, sir,” he said, announcing Stephenson’s guest.
“Thank you Geoffrey, that will do.”
Geoffrey backed out of the room, closing the doors as he exited, leaving them alone.
“You have a lovely home, sir,” Browning said.
“Thank you,” Archibald said, and motioned toward a nearby chair. “Be seated and make yourself comfortable.”
Browning nodded and complied, removing the red scarf he was wearing around his neck.
“We can speak freely here, Mr. Browning,” he told him over tea and cucumber sandwiches. “This room is probably more secure than any of our offices at headquarters.”
“Yes sir,” Browning said. He didn’t say anything more after that, deferentially waiting for Stephenson to tell him what he had brought him to his home to hear.
“Tell me your thoughts on the significance of the events of the last three years,” Stephenson said. “The big picture.”
The question clearly threw Browning.
“I – would be much more interested in hearing your thoughts, sir,” he said, trying to refuse gracefully.
“Indulge me,” Stephenson insisted.
Browning launched into a laundry list of geopolitical headaches. It wasn’t clear what the end game would be in Korea, or Cuba for that matter. The Horn of Africa was in chaos, and the rest of the continent wasn’t far behind, even South Africa not necessarily above the fray.
There were Islamic fundamentalists on the move across North Africa, war scares with Iraq, dark mutterings about Iran (especially with Central Asia seemingly up for grabs). The skirmishing and the proxy fighting continued across the Line of Control between the Indians and Pakistans in Kashmir. East Asia was on an arms buying spree, while a big question mark hung over China, and an even bigger one hung over Russia, which was far from being the only source of headaches in Europe. The Balkans were exploding and the Carpathians and the Caucasus were perhaps set to do the same, while neo-Nazis made noises in East Germany echoed by their ideological brethren all over the continent –
Stephenson put a halt to it with a raised hand, reminded that interpreting the meaning of things was not a strength of Browning’s, and told him his own thoughts instead.
“What happened in Eastern Europe was not a revolution, but a counterrevolution, and we should all be relieved by the fact,” Stephenson explained. “The age of revolutions seems to have run its course, the gulag and the guillotine behind us, along with the nightmares to which the fool’s dream of a commoner’s paradise inevitably lead us. Still, don’t assume for a second that this means the world will necessarily be a more orderly place, at least not without considerable efforts.”
Stephenson was old enough to remember the liquidation of the Empire. To remember, too, the attempts to try and remain an independent and significant power in the world: the formation of the British Commonwealth; the Suez adventure; the overambitious technical programs, like the Blue Streak and the Black Arrow, and the TSR-2, names long forgotten by everyone but the antiquarians of aerospace.
What an awful mess it all was. And what a poor position it left them in, too. Despite all their efforts, and some real achievements, they ended up latecomers to the nuclear age, and the space age too, and they only continued to fall behind other powers. It had been years since they’d sailed around a full-deck aircraft carrier or built their very own, all-British jet fighter. The heirs to the victors of the Battle of Britain instead flew in fighters constructed in collaboration with Germans and Italians, and after beating Hitler, thrashing the “Argies” was regarded by the more pugnacious of the Queen’s subjects as reason to crow.
“That’s why we have all those novels on the paperback racks about the SAS instead of a British answer to Tom Clancy,” Christopher MacDougal had said to him bitterly. “Even in fiction, we can’t compete with the big boys anymore.”
“Well, there’s only one of those now,” Stephenson had thought. “And that particular big boy might not last very much longer, if his finances are anything to judge by.”
And at the same time, it was conceivable that new heavyweights would step in to fill their places, which brought them back to the issue at hand.
“There’s a private enterprise, mostly but not exclusively American, that’s preparing to do some interesting work inside of the former Soviet Union,” Stephenson explained. “I think you know the one that I mean.”
“We need to know what they find out, and without approaching them directly.” He looked Browning in the eye then, not wanting him to mistake his intentions. “I want one of our own people inside it, on the team, without the Americans being aware of it – or at least, unable to look the other way. Someone on whose discretion we can rely.”
“No doubt you’re wondering as to the reason for, shall we say, the indirect approach?”
“The thought has crossed my mind . . . sir.”
“It’s quite simple, actually. The Americans aren’t too trusting of us at the moment, and I have to admit that up to a point they’re right not to be. Assume for a moment that the predictions are right about Europe and America going their separate ways now. Where will our loyalties lie?”
“With our permanent interests, of course,” Browning replied, repeating a favorite catechism of the older man.
Stephenson smiled slightly. “Those permanent interests may well have us throwing in our lot with the continentals, in an age of German industrial supremacy and a European Economic Community extending all the way to the Pacific.” It seemed to him one of history’s bigger ironies that the Germans might get from the American victory in the Cold War what they had failed to win by force of arms in two world wars – the transformation of the old Russian Empire into a German colony, supplying them with raw materials, energy and cheap labor. “The Americans have to assume at least the possibility, and this being the case, they will be uncertain as to how far their cooperation with us can safely go.”
The Americans had frequently withheld cooperation for much less than that – worries that the British intelligence community had been compromised at the level of a single traitor, rather than the much more serious concern that their policies might be inordinately influenced by Berlin. Stephenson thought of Mrs. Thatcher’s exit the year before, and what it portended for the country’s relationship with Europe.
Might the end of the once-sound pound lay in the not-too-distant future? With the drop in energy prices diminishing their earnings of foreign currency, with the government running out of assets to sell off, sterling faced some tough times ahead, and all the shiny towers on Canary Wharf couldn’t distract anyone from that. He looked out the window at the river again. “Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song,” he recited, to Mr. Browning’s puzzlement. Perhaps he thought he was actually talking to the river.
Never mind. Despite – and at times, because of – his occasional obtuseness, George had his uses, and would continue to have them. Stephenson dismissed him to go and be useful in those ways as he remembered something his departed friend and mentor Birkhead had told him.
“The people taking power now would like to turn it all over to the technical people who know everything about engines and nothing about human beings, except perhaps what they read in a science book written by some socialist intellectual. It will only get worse in a world dominated by Yanks and Bolshies, where for all practical purposes they set the standard. Someone must stand for something more than that, and we are the logical candidates to represent such a principle.”
Browning was a reminder of that. A certain amount of technical ability, yes, but absolutely no vision, which in the end did not surprise Sir Stephenson. A wise naval officer whose acquaintance Stephenson once made had said that it took three generations to make a gentleman, and Browning, whose father had attended a “white tile college,” was barely two out of the East End.
After finishing his tea Stephenson took a nip of something stronger and thought of MacDougal again, journeying now off the southern coast of France. Stephenson didn’t think he was likely to realize his archaeological ambitions there. The man was too given to following irrational fancies for such pursuits to be anything but a rich man’s indulgences (not that he would ever say that to his face). But the weather there was certainly more pleasing than that of England at this time of year, especially to a septuagenarian feeling his age in his joints.