LONDON – From an unremarkable property in a disheveled neighborhood not far from Glasgow city center, some spooks of MI5 operate, searching for ripples in Britain’s northern approaches.
Their permanent presence in Scotland, if not their actual residence, isn’t a secret known only to an anointed handful. After all, why wouldn’t there be some surveillance operations based in Scotland’s busiest city and one of the United Kingdom’s most turbulent? They have been there for 10 years or so, but whether they remain following a yes vote in September’s referendum is at the heart of one of the most vexed and intriguing issues surrounding the independence debate.
There are several nuances in Scotland’s political, social and economic landscape that will always separate it from London and the southeast of England. Occasionally these have required special scrutiny from Britain’s intelligence forces, such as the fallout and aftermath of the terror attack on Glasgow airport in 2007.
Scotland’s politics in the last 50 years have adopted a permanently reddish hue and the city can justly lay claim to being in the vanguard of early 20th-century radicalism. Less than a century ago, tanks appeared in Glasgow’s George Square as the British establishment became twitchy at the prospect of a general strike and the danger of Russia exporting its revolution.
A statue of La Pasionaria, the republican leader in the Spanish Civil War honoring Scottish radical volunteers who fell in the conflict, stands not far from the MI5 building.
What, though, will be the status of MI5 spies and operatives in an independent Scotland? Will they have to become “illegals” operating under a flag of convenience from a future U.K. embassy in Scotland? Or will they, in the fond imaginations of the Scottish National Party (SNP), be welcome here as a crucial part of an independent Scotland’s future intelligence arrangements?
An assortment of U.K. ministers has said that an independent Scotland will be cut off from the U.K.’s intelligence-gathering operation, leaving us naked and vulnerable in an era of geopolitical uncertainty and strife. The home affairs minister, Theresa May, has repeatedly slapped down SNP claims that, post-independence, Scotland will remain part of the U.K.’s intelligence network simply because of the mutual interest in maintaining the security of the British coastline. Not so, says May. “If Scotland is separate it becomes a separate state. So it is not the same as sharing intelligence across the U.K.,” she said.
If an independent Scotland does have to develop its own intelligence network, it will lead to an intriguing question in the independence debate: Who will pose the biggest threat to the physical and economic security of the state?
The two nations whose activities must concern it most are likely to be England and the United States. One of the characteristics of an independent Scotland most trumpeted by nationalists is that it will be eternally left wing in governance and outlook. What if an independent Scotland were to shift more radically to the left and London, perhaps in a U.K. Independence Party (Ukip) -influenced coalition, moved inexorably to the extreme right? Therein lie the seeds of mutual distrust and suspicion. In such circumstances, though, Scotland would enjoy a spying advantage.
There are dozens of Scots in the British intelligence community and in the diplomatic corps, some of whom will harbor nationalist sentiments. They could become tartan double agents “sleeping” within England’s agencies but supplying secrets to the motherland when their conscience dictates.
The Americans, meanwhile, have for years been alarmed at the behavior of this disputatious and cussed little land. They were outraged in 2009 when Kenny MacAskill, Scotland’s justice minister, released Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber.
As the rise of the SNP has gathered pace, so the unease of the Americans has grown. Here, before their very eyes, is the emergence of their worst nightmare: a European Cuba right in the middle of the NATO zone. This is a country that doesn’t want their nukes, whose two main political parties make the U.S. Democrats look like Ukip and whose leader seems to have a troubling fascination with China. You can be sure that American spies are highly active in Scotland and will remain so following an independence vote. Perhaps Alex Salmond should soon deploy the services of a cigar tester.
May’s warnings may be dismissed as the same sort of phoney rhetoric in which her colleague Finance Minister George Osborne has been indulging over currency union. Perhaps not.
Will an independent Scotland deploy double agents at the heart of the English establishment, expert in knowing how to dress for dinner and able to differentiate between a grouse and a partridge at 100 meters? Will they be able to guard against replying: “Aye, no’ bad” to the seemingly innocent query: “How’s it gaun?” designed to out a Jock sleeper?
If a future expansionist England ruled by a reactionary coalition of Ukip and traditional Tories decides it wants to take back Scotland, will we have to beware pasty-faced and chinless men in pinstripes furtively reading the Financial Times in a station and who want their kedgeree done with freshly flaked cod and a poached egg on top?
The SNP, though, appears not to have attached any great importance to the development of a mature and self-sustaining intelligence network. In the negotiations following a yes vote, it risks being unprepared in negotiations over defense and intelligence. If it insists on merely using Whitehall’s security apparatus, Scotland’s independence begins to look compromised.
If Scotland is to have a mature intelligence service, then Alex Salmond must surely already have initiated a series of meetings with a confidential group looking at all scenarios. Does a blueprint exist outlining the infrastructure for an independent intelligence apparatus? Has anything been costed? Just as crucially, have any specialist academics, key undercover operatives and even sleepers been tapped on the shoulder and invited for a quiet word?
If none of this has yet occurred and the SNP is seeking simply to piggy-back on the intelligence services of the country it is so desperate to leave, it will look like a sell-out to many of its own supporters.
Kevin McKenna is a former deputy editor of the Herald and executive editor of the Daily Mail in Scotland.