Euan McColm: Rage over Holyrood spies misguided

The Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) - the Government's spy centre. Picture: PA
The Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) - the Government's spy centre. Picture: PA
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IF SPOOKS in Holyrood make you jump then you’ve lost the plot, writes Euan McColm

Espionage ain’t what it used to be. There was a time when spies – or spooks, as it’s much more fun to call them – would kill to protect top secret information. These days, they hand it over to tribunals in London so that we can all read it.

Obviously, my perception of what spying entails is formed from the observation of a number of James Bond and Harry Palmer movies but, none the less, I feel desperately short-changed by this turn of events.

It was during a hearing of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal in London that information emerged which has thrust the activities of GCHQ into the headlines. Thanks to papers lodged with this usually secretive court, we know that intelligence agency staff have changed their rules of engagement so that they are free to spy on members of the Scottish Parliament.

Since last month, GCHQ staff have believed it their right to tap MSPs phones or hack their emails.

In fact, there was never any rule to prevent such things happening. Instead, intelligence officers informally decided to apply the decades-old Wilson doctrine – named after former prime minister Harold Wilson, who pledged in 1966 that the phones of MPs and peers would not be tapped – to members of the devolved assemblies.

But things have changed now. The doctrine has been dropped and MSPs (and members of the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies) are fair game.

It would be cheap and easy to snidely remark that any spy who devoted his or her time to monitoring the activities of the average MSP would be wasting their time and our money. Though it would also, more than likely, be true.

But whether what spies might hear is interesting or not is neither here nor there, now. What we have on our hands is a full blown spooks scandal of the sort that will have conspiracy theorists positively hyperventilating with rage (“I told you the bloody referendum was fixed, Margaret, didn’t I?”)

When news that it was open season for spying on MSPs broke, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron asking for “urgent clarification”. Sturgeon accepted spying on MSPs could take place but only in truly exceptional cases involving national security. In most cases, the confidentiality of communications between politicians and constituents was of the utmost importance.

It’s worth chewing that over for a moment. If the First Minister accepts that spying may be acceptable in some circumstances then her letter to the PM is more posturing than anything else.

Scottish Labour’s acting leader Iain Gray was also cross about this development, saying it was outrageous for communications between elected members and those they represent to be monitored.

Well, yes, I suppose it is. Or it would be if that was what was happening. But who seriously thinks that spies are the slightest bit interested in MSPs’ constituency work? Does Sturgeon think that spies are devoting time to monitoring emails between MSPs and constituents about parking disputes? No, of course she doesn’t.

But urgent clarification has been demanded and, I suppose, it will come (in the blandest, most noncommittal terms). Until then, the speculation will storm.

Before last year’s independence referendum, there was much talk from Yes campaigners about the potential for secret services to be involved. The late Margo MacDonald asked the head of MI5 for assurances that there would be no agency involvement in the debate, and raised concerns that spies might infiltrate the Yes campaign.

I doubt the revelation that spies might at some point look at the activities of some MSP or other will lead to the exposure of dastardly plots. Instead, this seems an interesting enough development which highlights the strange hypocrisy abroad when it comes to the activities of our secret services.

It is not, I think we can all agree, unreasonable to assume it is broadly accepted that we require some kind of secret services in the interest of national security. Experience tells us that there are those who would wish to harm this country and its citizens and, with that in mind, who wouldn’t want the reassurance of knowing that someone was, at the very least, trying to keep on top of potential plots?

But although we value the comfort of knowing that, out there, in the shadows, are men and women working – often in dangerous conditions, more often in tedious ones – to maintain our safety, a great many of us seem to believe that the security services are entirely malign.

Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks revelation of tens of thousands of confidential documents led to a furious debate about the activities of governments and self-righteous proclamations about the public’s “right to know”. The fact remains that much of that leaked information compromised ongoing operations and the agents who were carrying them out. You know, on our behalves.

Now, conspiracy theorists will enjoy suggesting that spies have a dark interest in undermining the work of MSPs. Undoubtedly, the notion that the result of the independence referendum was compromised will gain further traction. And there will be more debate about the public’s right to know.

But if we accept that any nation requires a secret service to protect national security then the price we pay is allowing it to carry out its work in secret.

I am happy to live in a country where an MSP might be spied on because I prefer to live in a country where intelligence officers risk all to protect us from terror plots.

We cannot have secret services and then demand they publicly account to us for their every activity. That simply wouldn’t make sense.

It may be that MSPs have already found themselves under surveillance, though I sincerely doubt that’s the case (because I’m sensible or a gullible stooge, depending on your position on this one).

But if one or more members of the Scottish Parliament has been spied upon, then to complain about it and demand it stops would be to miss the point of having spies in the first place.