• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Dodgy dossier on Scotland's security lacks intelligence

James Bond was half-Scottish.

Should you be overcome by a desire to see an independent Scotland join the glamour league of international espionage and intelligence, this surely counts for something. That world specialises in fiction, after all.

It is a world in which the United Kingdom has a long but, let's face it, somewhat undistinguished history. You needn't go all the way back to Burgess, Philby, Maclean and Cambridge University's advanced treason tripos. The tale of Iraq's imaginary weapons of mass destruction remains the kind of blot a spook's escutcheon can do without.

In more recent times, equally, the revelations of Edward Snowden have tended to give the impression that GCHQ spends less time protecting us than trampling over the last vestiges of privacy in the UK. The price of security turns out to be mass surveillance and carte blanche for the American friends.

That kind of thing might give some a patriotic glow. It tends to make others among us think that a small country could order matters just a little better. As we reported yesterday, the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) does not agree. In a briefing paper it argues a Scottish intelligence agency would be neither feasible nor necessary. Either we're too wee to afford the luxury, or too wee to attract proper enemies.

As think tanks go, RUSI doesn't exactly disguise its light as a bushel. Everything is in its long, unambiguous name. It is a clearing house for ideas on war, peace, espionage, terrorism and other fun stuff. This "professional forum" is as well-connected in Whitehall as any. Despite or because of that fact, RUSI is also well-respected. It does not pay the same compliment to the security agency plans sketched out in the Scottish Government's White Paper, Scotland's Future.

The RUSI people believe, first, that the £206 million annual budget mentioned is "entirely meaningless". They question why the cost of establishing the agency has not been identified and doubt that a Scottish secret service could be up and running within 18 months. "Meanwhile, the UK would have a closer intelligence relationship with New Zealand, thanks to the Five Eyes [security pact], than with Scotland."

The institute asserts it would take time to establish trust with agencies overseas and with Westminster governments. The latter process, it is claimed, "would be highly political and not a straightforward process. A Scottish government should not assume co-operation." In other words, a newly independent country would have to earn its membership.

Or as RUSI would have it: "The UK draws on intelligence provided by international partners across the world; these relationships are the result of historical legacies, long-standing co-operation and established trust. The most crucial examples are the relationship with the US; the Five-Eyes Agreement which further incorporates Australia, Canada and New Zealand; and the Club of Berne, which facilitates intelligence sharing between European agency heads."

According to the institute, the UK would not be able to share with Scotland intelligence received from international partners without "breaching established principles of intelligence handling". Furthermore, those "doubts" over an independent Scotland's membership of Nato and the EU would prevent the country from sharing the UK's "priorities".

Then the heart of the matter: the Scottish Government's "failure to acknowledge the fact that an independent Scotland's potentially anti-nuclear policy would likely cause major ructions between the Holyrood and Westminster governments, not least because of the relocation of the UK's Trident weapons system from Faslane". In short, "a Scottish Government with different international priorities would not be supported by the UK's intelligence machinery".

By its lights, that last point is fair enough. Ridding itself of Trident would indeed be the biggest statement of "different international priorities" Scotland could make. It counts as a statement of intent, but it also raises a question. If we have no wish to remain in the nuclear club, why would we be eager to sign up for the rest? Given what we now know about GCHQ and America's National Security Agency, RUSI's warnings ring hollow.

The institute concedes we are short of obvious enemies. It admits the terrorism threat facing Scotland is not great. It concludes its briefing by arguing that Police Scotland could probably take care of our intelligence needs. But the chance to pick holes in the White Paper is not to be missed.

For that to work, you have to overlook RUSI's own omissions. One is called New Zealand. If a £206m Scottish intelligence budget is "entirely meaningless", how do that country's two agencies - the Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Security Bureau - get by with budgets jointly totalling around NZ$110m New Zealand (less than £58m). RUSI meanwhile says we would need 720 personnel to staff an agency. The New Zealanders manage both with fewer than 500.

They are hardly out of the loop. The Five Eyes arrangement is central to the US-led Western intelligence effort. From it flow Nine Eyes, Fourteen Eyes and - I'm not making this up - Forty One Eyes. In other words, there are tiers of co-operation taking in dozens of countries. In the case of Nine Eyes, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Norway share intelligence with the Five. Is RUSI resorting to the tedious claim that Scotland cannot aspire to Norway's status?

But stick with New Zealand's example. That country of 4.5 million people decided in 1984 to declare its sea, land and airspace a nuclear-free zone. No vessel that was nuclear-armed or powered would be allowed to dock. Three decades later, despite some choice threats down the years from the US, the policy holds. It has been maintained by left and right in New Zealand politics. Yet the government of the UK shares precious intelligence with this rogue state?

The question of trust between Edinburgh and Westminster after independence is interesting. It's safe to say, after all, that the relationship would begin with rUK spooks knowing all there is to know about this country. We would have no secrets. As such, Scotland would be more easily trusted than certain states given to spying on their allies. For the same reasons, RUSI's fear that this country could provide "an attractive environment for hostile intelligence agencies" would be meaningless. Will GCHQ stop listening in on September 19?

Neighbourly co-operation of the sort practised all across western Europe would do the trick. Trident is no obstacle: New Zealand, like most countries nominated as Eyes or welcomed into Nato, has no truck with nukes. So we couldn't be trusted? The now conventional point holds, meanwhile: a functioning Scottish agency would be greatly in Westminster's interests. As with currency, Westminster knows it.

RUSI's substantive point is that it costs plenty to set up in the spying game, especially at the high-tech end. No doubt. But would we really want our own GCHQ abusing our rights and privacy just to earn the "trust" of people who care nothing for these things? As with Nato, it doesn't sound like a club of which you'd want to be a member.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

223631