Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: Masters of spying game

Sean Connery ' seen here in Thunderball ' grew up in Edinburgh. Picture: AP

Sean Connery ' seen here in Thunderball ' grew up in Edinburgh. Picture: AP

Have your say

IF SCOTLAND votes for independence, there will have to be a decision on whether to have a Scottish Intelligence Service, abbreviated here to SCIS to distinguish it from the current Secret Intelligence Service SIS, also known as MI6.

The decision will be governed by the nature of independence. The SNP has softened its nationalist agenda on the issues of monarchy, currency and defence. One option for a newly independent Scottish government would be for the Foreign Office in London to run at least part of Edinburgh’s international diplomacy. In such a case, an independent intelligence capability would not be necessary – so long as MI6, MI5 and GCHQ reported diligently to Holyrood. One can only conjecture whether that would be a realistic or desirable scenario. And a servant with two masters can be a tricky entity.

Given independence in any meaningful sense of the word, an SCIS will be essential. Independence is about the transference of power from one political entity to another, and information is power.

Earlier this year, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the Commons foreign affairs select committee meeting in Edinburgh that plans were afoot for independent security and intelligence arrangements, but with close links being maintained with the secret agencies of the rest of the UK (rUK). Conservative members of the committee poured scorn on the idea, on the grounds of expense and likely rUK lack of co-operation.

Sir David Omand testified before the committee as an expert witness: “It would take years to build up the capability. I have some doubts as to whether it would be feasible to do it to the requisite standard.” He spoke with the authority of a UK civil servant who had served as head of GCHQ and as intelligence security co-ordinator at the Cabinet Office. Of Orcadian extraction and educated at Glasgow High School, he also spoke as one attached to his native Scotland.

Sir David is right to maintain that new capabilities cannot be put together quickly, indeed they should not. At the same time, there is a need not to panic when considering the desirability of an SCIS.

The Scots have traditionally shown talent across a broad spectrum of the areas of secret intelligence and crime detection. Sir Alfred Ewing and Alastair Denniston were distinguished predecessors of Sir David at GCHQ’s precursors, Room 40 and GC&CS. Sir Kenneth Strong, who headed military intelligence in the Second World War and joint estimates in the Cold War, came from Montrose.

Turning to literature, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took his inspiration from Edinburgh folk; John Buchan was peerless in his realm; Ian Rankin excels in the same tradition. Sir Compton Mackenzie ran MI6’s Greek operation in the First World War and, at about the time he declared for Scottish independence, wrote a satire about his former agency. Like the journalist Duncan Campbell, who revealed the existence of GCHQ in the 1970s, he spearheaded a Scottish critique of London’s spying arrangements.

Ian Fleming was of Scottish descent, like the MI6 director Sir Stewart Menzies and others in the UK spying profession. His James Bond was educated at Fettes, and 007’s most famous enactor, Sean Connery, still speaks with a Scottish accent. Glasgow’s Alan Pinkerton formed the world’s most successful detective agency. His closest rival was Conan Doyle’s friend William J Burns. On the less reputable side we have Dundee-based Jessie Jordan, who in 1937-38 spied for the German secret service. Scotland has even contributed to the study of treason, a prerequisite for counter-intelligence: Dame Rebecca West, author of The Meaning of Treason (1949), was a pupil at George Watson’s Ladies College, Edinburgh. Not many, if any, small countries can match this array of talent. What is the explanation? The historian in me suggests it is a product of the spirit of inquiry associated with the Scottish Enlightenment, the forensic tradition in Scottish medicine, and the opportunities offered by the British Empire. There may also be a psychological reason, the growth of “split” identities arising from a dual sense of nationality, Scottish and British.

Scotland may well still have talent – a roster of Scottish intelligence officers serving in British agencies is for obvious reasons not to hand.

However, such talent rubs both ways. There is a problem here that Sir David Omand, Brito-Scot that he is, was too delicate to mention. Separation of the SCIS from MI6 and other RUK agencies would be a major challenge because of the presence of Scots in the latter agencies. Just think of the divided loyalties of Scots, and those of Scots descent, who would continue to serve in London and Cheltenham, where GCHQ is based. Could the rUK security establishment trust them? Equally, if Scotland imports experienced expatriates to serve up here, would they reliably serve the Scottish interest? Looking at it from the Scottish perspective, an impenetrable SCIS would be difficult to achieve because of the constant danger of Brito-Scots sleepers. More strength, then, to Sir David’s caution that it would be a slow start.

If only as a warning against complacency, here are some strategic considerations. The CIA will already have penetrated both the likely government of an independent Scotland and its likely opposition. That’s its job, it’s always done it, and being a friendly white country is no protection. As the history of decolonisation shows, this can have alarming consequences, and counterintelligence vigilance is required. At the same time, the CIA is a potential partner and counterweight to rUK intelligence. Scotland could develop niche intelligence skills, and has geographic and military assets that could serve as bargaining chips, and would not necessarily lose out in the triangulation. Ethics and principles would, of course, enter the picture in the cases of some of those assets such as nuclear bases.

Intelligence co-operation is an essential tool but is multi-faceted – liaison can be with one partner over cyber-war technology, with another over the protection of oil installations. The Auld Alliance might make a reappearance. France had the Rainbow Warrior scandal (which nation has a clean slate?), but also has a major satellite surveillance capability, and can boast of intelligence successes, for example predicting the Cuban missile crisis and 9/11.

“Scotland in Europe” was once an SNP slogan, and it seems possible that an independent Scotland would join in the clamour for a European intelligence service (EIS). Instead of finding the billions for going it alone, it makes sense to pool resources. An EIS is a desirable goal in its own right, as it would challenge the Anglo-American informational strangleholds that led to the Iraq war. The problem is, large EU member states want to guard the alleged privileges of going solo.

Drawing on the experience of other countries, this is what an SCIS might ideally look like: The Scottish government’s executive would task it. A small bipartisan parliamentary committee would oversee its activities. An openly published charter would guarantee the liberties of Scottish citizens, and protect the rights of whistleblowers. It would set forth duties such as intelligence gathering to protect national security including by a range of secret means where necessary. It would prohibit covert operations in peacetime. The Scottish judiciary would supply a mechanism for authorising surveillance in defined circumstances and it would be illegal to step outside those bounds. To guard against military dictatorship, the director of the SCIS would always be a civilian.

• Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones is emeritus professor of American history at Edinburgh University and author of In Spies We Trust: The Story of Western Intelligence.

Back to the top of the page