One of the pleasant hazards of being director of GCHQ accompanies a visit to any supermarket in the Cheltenham area. Given the size of the workforce and the size of the town, the chances of running into a present or retired colleague are very high. One particular summer evening I had called into Waitrose on the way back from the Doughnut and noticed one of our mathematicians, who appeared to be counting the cans of soup on display. We chatted as if this were an entirely normal thing to do (in fact it turned out that he was preparing a challenge for a weekend treasure hunt), but he then talked about the chief cryptanalyst who had recruited him many years ago and his pre-war employment at the John Lewis Partnership.

I subsequently discovered that the complex science of how food is displayed on the shelves of Waitrose and other supermarkets began with another GCHQ and Bletchley employee and that a former John Lewis partner was at the heart of the most sensitive and longest-running counterintelligence operation of the Cold War, which exposed the treachery of numerous British and American spies and only came to an end in the 1980s.

As I considered the connections between John Lewis, Bletchley Park and GCHQ, I began to see that this was about far more than the stories of a few exceptional individuals. John Lewis influenced the management approach that was a key part of some of the great technological advances at Bletchley and later GCHQ, and also contributed a significant number of women partners as data handlers. In return, GCHQ staff contributed to the research and retail systems that gave John Lewis and Waitrose a leading edge. Both possessed a cultural outlook that aspired to be meritocratic, non-hierarchical, innovative and progressive. In short, they shared common values to a surprising degree. Understanding how this happened tells us something about the successes and challenges of both enterprises, whether in the secret world or on the high street.

John Spedan Lewis’s story has been told often and well. In 1909, at the age of twenty-four, a riding accident confined him to bed for two years, during which he reflected on his life and wealth. His realisation that his father, the founder of the family retail business, his brother and he himself each earned more annually than all their employees put together drove him to investigate profit-sharing and mutual business models. Out of this eventually came the John Lewis Partnership, co-owned by all the “partners” or employees. Despite his father’s reluctance, Spedan pursued this vision, not simply out of an attachment to social justice but for what he regarded as sound business sense. He also saw the mutual model as politically essential, the only progressive alternative to the rising tide of popular communism.

Spedan’s view of leadership matched this mutual approach. He saw the senior leaders of the company as akin to Gladstone’s cabinet, in which ministers had a high degree of autonomy and could express differences candidly, but would ultimately take collective responsibility. Spedan’s was the decisive “casting vote”, yet he tried to avoid dictating policy.

He did, however, pursue a number of personal passions. One was the belief that hiring brilliant people without a fixed idea of exactly what they would do was a sound strategy for a dynamic and innovative business, an approach that was also tried at Bletchley; another was the conviction that research into emerging technologies would put the company ahead. These came together in his third passion: chess. And it was chess that introduced him to one of the great figures of GC&CS, GCHQ and 20th-century intelligence: Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander, known as Hugh Alexander.

Alexander was born in Cork in 1909 and to the end of his life regarded himself as Irish, despite moving to the UK in his teens after his father’s death. This identity as an outsider perhaps helps to explain his fierce independence and healthy scepticism towards authority. A brilliant mathematician, his devotion to chess prevented him from making the grade as an academic, but GH Hardy, one of the most famous mathematical celebrities of the last century, recognised his talent as a rare “creative” mathematician. Instead, after graduating from Cambridge, Alexander became a schoolteacher at Winchester for six years, which allowed him time to develop his career in chess, and he eventually became an international master in 1950. This was a lifelong hobby – he published many books on the game and in his later years at GCHQ was also the chess columnist for The Sunday Times.

Spedan Lewis’s amateur interest in chess brought him into contact with Alexander in the mid-1930s, beginning a friendship and a long correspondence that lasted until Lewis’s death thirty years later. By 1938 Lewis had persuaded Alexander to join his retail business as head of research. He also had plans for a chess centre on top of the company’s Oxford Street store, hiring the women’s world champion Vera Menchik to run it, and he hoped to build a stable of great players.

The corporate “research” job offered to Alexander came with a salary that was double his teacher’s pay, and he constantly felt overpaid, regularly displaying what would now be called “impostor syndrome”. Spedan addressed his friend’s qualms of conscience, arguing that it was precisely because Alexander was not from the business world that he was valuable. He talked of his friend’s
”clearness of mind, moral courage and sense of values” and “a natural ability that is almost of the order of genius”. In the brief period before the outbreak of war, he deployed Alexander in a range of roles, including head of personnel, no small job in a business with 10,000 staff.

Excerpted with permission from Counter-Intelligence: What the Secret World Can Teach Us About Problem-solving and Creativity, Robert Hannigan, HarperCollins.