Politics - Art - Scotland

2007 - 2022

Back to the Future

Scotland on Sunday’s story about the loss to Scotland of the protective arm of M15 around our shoulder (Independent Scotland a ‘terror risk’) was revealing. This is, in part, just the latest in a long and wearying line of scare stories, designed (despite protestation to the contrary), to create a climate of uncertainty about the possibility of change. The positive case for the union seems to boil down to: bad things may happen in the future.

They certainly will. But this is a recipe for inertia. The worldview this emerges from – and the world it defines – is not one of stability, it’s one of stagnation. But it was also instructive about how the editors see Britain, it’s a place of safety, continuity and a place where our role in the world is defined and secured. Having a secret state is presented unquestionably as a good thing, a bargain even, like sausages, or a tin of beans.

This mindset is becoming a constant refrain, going back to the future, where bad things might happen to us. Living in a state of fear and engendering a state of fear has become a leitmotif of Unionist messaging. But hypercaution is paralyzing. All the evidence about innovation and experimentation and creativity is against this approach. This is not a call for recklessness, but it’s a demand that we be more open to change. And, as a tactic for the unionist cabal, I’m not sure it’s going to work. People may be cautious in stricken times – but paralysis is rarely attractive.

None of this is to say that there aren’t legitimate questions to be raised about significant issues and questions for those advocating big constitutional change: on defence, economy, social policy and energy amongst others. But the M15 story was presented in such a way that the idea of the British security services being some sort of benign force for good in the world, and part of the great package that makes up the union was so lacking in critical awareness it defies credibility. This was presented as being all about – and only about – cost. Part of the problem stems from elements of the independence story being couched deliberately in terms of continuity: the pound sterling, the military, the Queen, all will be intact. Or so we’re told. If we aren’t imagining a different Scotland how can we expect others to do so?

If anything, the idea that we could create a form of governance that had transparency, legality, openness, accountability and honesty at the core of how it treated it’s own citizens, should be inspiring. The idea that we could move beyond the way that British intelligence has treated it’s own and foreign movements and individuals should be a rallying point for Scottish aspirations. At the very least we should have been presented with some context to the story.

These kind of issues make it clear we need to talk about a Scottish constitution, and before that we need to talk about what values we hold. Before we do that though let’s consider the role of M15. This isn’t Spooks. So what do the SIS do? What do we get for our £2 billion a year?

Let’s ignore Hilda Murrell, Willie MacRae, David Shayler and John Stalker for now. Let’s ignore the revelations that M15 spied on the SNP as revealed in 2007. And probably best to brush over the fact that documents found in Tripoli showed M15 asked known torturers to help in the ‘fight against terrorism’.

Let’s get a bit more up to date. Despite the glowing report of M15 efficiencies trumpeted by Graeme Pearson, a Labour MSP who was formerly director general of the Scottish Crime and Drugs Enforcement Agency (SCDEA), even a quick glance at recent history tells us this is pure fantasy. In Spycatcher Peter Wright wrote of how MI5 ‘bugged and burgled its way across London’. Writing a generation later, Annie Machon girlfriend to David Shayler shows that not a lot has changed: drunken officers who lose sensitive files, turf wars between the various agencies, turf wars between different sections within MI5, bureaucratic bungling, cavalier attitude to human rights, blatant lying to Ministers and an oversight committee, dirty tricks and smear campaigns against perceived enemies, enemies of the intelligence agencies that is, not enemies of the state. This is not the picture SoS tried to paint.

The extraordinary revelations about the role of M15 in giving information to private firms should not be ignored either. Northern Voice relates how the security services offered to spy for private firms.

Nor can we ignore the claims of the Carillion Blacklist Support Group or the extensive use of agent provocateurs like Mark Stone/Kennedy and their illegal malpractice.

Nor should we sweep over our security services role in Binyam Mohamed’s torture (probably the reason why Ed and not David Miliband is Labour leader today).

But the yawning gap in Scotland on Sunday’s account of M15’s role in British life is the activities dropped by the Gibson Enquiry in January of this year. These accounts of collusion and torture and extraordinary rendition were oddly missing from Graeme Pearsons strange account. The judge-led inquiry into the UK’s alleged role in the torture and rendition of detainees after the 9/11 attacks, which was already boycotted by most human rights groups, has been scrapped by the UK government in January of this year.

SoS claimed that ‘Creating a Scottish version would be difficult and costly, as MI5 is funded through the UK government’s £2 billion-a-year Single Intelligence Account and employs about 3,800 people.’

Nearly 4000 people? Doing what? What has become apparent in the last two decades is the astonishing reckless, illegal, and vicious role our own state plays on spying on us and others. Truly one of the clearest reasons for a new sovereign state emerging out of a total rejection of these values and practices,

Such is the choking deference of this journalism no-one thought to ask, can’t we do better than this?

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  1. Don’t you just wish someone would come up with even one positive reason to stay in the Union rather than the succession of ‘big scary world out there’ tactics that are as embarrassing as they are pathetic?
    Don’t the Three Stooges have a single idea between them as to why it is a good thing?
    Just what is it they are selling?
    I suspect they do not know.

  2. Dougie Strang says:

    Great post Mike. Again, comparison with Scandinavian countries would probably be instructive. I’ll bet none of them spend a couple of billion a year on secret services. For why on earth would they need to…

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks Dougie, will try an dig around and fund comparable figures. Of course the reality is its a self-fulfilling prophecy. You engage with a reckless illegal foreig policy and a punitive neoliberal social policy, you create the conditions where you need a secret state to control the climate you’ve created.

  3. leavergirl says:

    Seemed that the “map of Scotland” thing a couple of weeks back was of the same cloth (regardless of what the actual Economist articles inside the mag said). People argued whether the map was offensive or amusing, but it seems the real point is the scare message that will stick in the mind of the casual glancer at the mag cover.

    How about a barrage of articles about how wonderful Scotland can be in the future, independent again after all these years? What are you hoping for?

  4. bellacaledonia says:

    Normalcy is what I’d hope for leavergirl, then innovation. This is really the prime example of starting from scratch would be great. The article writes: ‘One senior police source said: “There are really significant challenges in starting a security service from scratch. It’s inconceivable we’d want to rely on another country to provide those services for us, but where would the experience and skills come from?’

    Where indeed?

    We need to be careful not to mirrror the doom-messengers with tales of Nirvana. We need to take on board difficult questins and not resort to ”ach we’ll sort that out after independence’.

    But you are right, there’s a real need to dream – and have some real aspirations.

  5. John Souter says:

    In the time of Rome is was -“Who will guard the guards?”

    In modern times this has escalated to – “who will guard the guards guarding the guards and what, why and whom are they guarding?

    Paranoia is an excuse for many criminal acts once reason is removed from actions.

  6. jmanonsunday says:

    I doubt the chinless wonders at MI5 would even know where Scotland is anyway. They’re too busy putting themselves in bags.

  7. genevageezer says:

    This post is not specifically a response to the piece by Mike Small and I apologize for that.
    However I did want to share my frustrations with the current politics and policies of the UK in general and why as an Englishman the idea of an independent Scotland is so appealing and exciting.
    I think that most people, whatever side of the border, will agree that the direction and style of government from Westminster has been stale, unimaginative and torpid to put it politely.
    These isles so desperately need some dynamism, new thinking and challenge to the status quo. It seems many in Westminster are deluded, believing the UK is still a key global player (when in fact Europe is being left behind). They are happy to lavish funds to maintain this delusion through twentieth century approaches such as military might.
    The idea of a spirited independent Scotland eager to makes its mark, claim its identity while being free of the history and connections of Westminster sounds great. Please Scotland show us English (and Westminster) a new path and new ideas. By claiming independence you will have broken the inertia of the status quo, grasp the opportunity, embrace change and we look forward to the creative spirit of Scotland leading us in new directions once again.

  8. James Morton says:

    It just another in a long line of tedious scare stories that attempt to reinforce the “too wee, too poor & too stupid” arguments to retain the union.

    If these assertions were true – you would have ask the obvious question – what does England get out of the Union? And what does it say about the Union that Scotland has not developed at all as a nation in almost 300 years of political and economic union with England.

    If the assertion is not true – what does it say about the Union that it’s advocates must try to scare people in staying?

    I am not saying that there will be issues to resolve, but they are within our means and capability to resolve them.

    I am still waiting to hear the “positive” reasons for staying within the union

  9. Angus McLellan says:


    “Scottish” intelligence expenditure, using the logic of GERS, works out at around £175 million a year. The Single Intelligence Account pays for MI5, MI6 and GCHQ only. Not “Special Branch” and not the various intelligence agencies among the armed forces. GCHQ is the largest and most expensive of the intelligence services, MI6 the smallest.

    Those exclusions make comparisons with our European neighbours, Scandinavian or otherwise, quite difficult. For example, Denmark’s two intelligence services probably cost as much per capita as the UK’s do, but that figure includes all forms of intelligence – police and armed forces too. Norway’s cost significantly less, but again it’s hard to compare exactly as the intelligence services don’t line up neatly.

    But New Zealand is easy to compare as it has the same sort of setup as the UK – and it’s not so different in size from Scotland either. Intelligence-related spending by the police and armed forces are not include in these headcount or budget numbers so they are as good a comparison as we could expect to find anywhere. New Zealand’s miniscule equivalent of MI5 – the National Assessments Bureau – employs just 30 people and has a budget of under £2 million. Their equivalent of MI6 – NZ SIS – employs about 200 and has a budget of about £20 million. And their GCHQ – the Govt Communication Security Branch – employs 330 with a budget of around £30 million. OK, Scotland’s only nearly a collection of islands whereas New Zealand really is, but 550 people and a budget of £50-100 million pounds is no sort of obstacle.

    The real issue is not the expense but establishing democratic controls and accountability, and fortunately there our neighbours have done a lot of useful research. The dcaf.ch site has good stuff on control of intelligence (and the military). This is a good paper to start with: http://www.dcaf.ch/Publications/Making-Intelligence-Accountable

    Hope this helps.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks, really useful

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