The head of MI6, Alex Younger, says the UK will always respond to incidents like the Salisbury nerve agent attack in accordance with ‘our values’ – and if Britain and other liberal democracies live up to that claim, they will win out against despotic regimes in the end.
The head of MI6 yesterday told an audience at St Andrews University that it would be wrong to attempt to censor the fake news spewed out from countries like Russia.
Alex Younger warned any undermining free speech – fuelled by concerns over attempts to corrupt Western democracy – risked a descent down a “slippery slope”.
In a rare admission of error, Younger said it had been a mistake to believe that the Russian president’s pardon of former spy Sergei Skripal – the target of the Salisbury nerve agent attack – “had meaning”. “That is not an assumption we will make again,” he added.
But he stressed the UK response to such attacks would always be “in our own way, according to our laws, and our values”.
Diplomacy, which includes espionage, is essentially the art of winning the hearts and minds of people around the world. The most important people are usually whoever is in charge of a particular country, but, at a fundamental level, they depend on a degree public support to remain in power.
And it is not naive to say that the majority of ordinary people in the world are decent human beings. When Rebecca Lowe decided to cycle the 6,000 miles from the UK to Iran, she was told she was an “idiot” who would end up “decapitated in a ditch”. She admitted she was nervous on entering the Middle East, but when a truck driver stopped it was “just to hand me a satsuma”. “Throughout the Middle East, it was the same ... Every person and community was different, but certain traits linked them all: kindness, curiosity and tolerance,” she later wrote.
And so when Vladimir Putin high-fived the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman – two world leaders whose agents are wanted, respectively, for the Salisbury attack and the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi embassy in Istanbul – those same kind and tolerant people were watching.
Ordinary Saudis and Russians will, quite rightly, reason that men of such power are not to be crossed, and they may talk themselves into believing claims about “Western propaganda”.
But if the liberal democracies of the world stick to their values – and in some cases do a better job of living up to them – then the values of kindness and tolerance will win out in the end.