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 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?