Web of intrigue surrounds the way forward for intelligence gathering should Scots go it alone.
Whether it’s courtesy of Spooks on TV or James Bond on the big screen, everyone thinks they know something about the security services.
In reality their work is cloaked in so much secrecy that it’s hard to judge just how good a job they are doing and therefore exactly how much risk walking away from the UK’s spy structures would carry.
At the moment Scotland is covered by MI5 dealing with internal threats, MI6 operating internationally and GCHQ, the listening post in Cheltenham.
All three have a global reputation, but they are not perfect.
Britain has seen more than its fair share of atrocities down the years including the 7/7 bombs on London transport, IRA attacks in towns and cities including Warrington, Omagh and Birmingham and the most deadly terrorist attack on British soil that struck Lockerbie in 1988.
But were those incidents down to bungling by the spooks or does that actually count as a good record given the myriad of threats Britain has faced?
The more limited global role Scotland would have away from the UK would also bring with it fewer enemies.
As so often in the independence debate, the Yes camp point to Scandinavia for examples of small countries without designs on global grandeur and successful security services. But unfortunately those same nations are not the oases of peace sometimes portrayed.
For example Denmark faced its own terrorist threat after newspapers there printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005 and the authorities in Norway missed the internal threat that Anders Breivik posed before the right-wing extremist killed 77 in Oslo and Utoya three years ago.
Then there is the question of protecting Scots around the world. For example when Islamist terrorists stormed an oil facility in Algeria sadly there were Scots among the hostages.
The Scottish Government’s White Paper sets out plans for a single intelligence agency combining the duties of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ tasked with intelligence gathering, risk and threat assessment and ensuring cyber security from day one of independence.
The shape and cost of Scotland’s security services depends on the risks the nation would face, though inevitably there’s some dispute about this.
The Scottish Government cites terrorism, cyber-security and defending critical infrastructure such as oil rigs as priorities.
The UK Government, in their Scotland Analysis paper on security, added in organised crime, natural hazards and border security to the mix.
The question of border police is closely tied to that of immigration border patrols become more pressing if Scotland has an open door relative to the rest of the UK’s current anti-immigration stance. We’ll be looking at this in more detail next week.
The independent Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), in a paper on the issue, came down somewhere in the middle concentrating on cyber-security, terrorism and energy security.
It also expressed some puzzlement that the SNP didn’t mention organised crime in the White Paper despite research showing drugs cost the economy more than £2bn every year and the vast majority of gangs and crime syndicates are involved in drugs.
The institute recommends a cheaper set-up than the one put forward by the Scottish Government, with Police Scotland taking up responsibility for countering these threats.
The White Paper puts the security service bill at around £206 million based on Scotland’s population share.
The RUSI authors describe that as an “entirely meaningless figure” given the cost is based on threat not population size.
The UK Government says every pound of the current £2bn budget protects every citizen.
That’s true to some extent but clearly those in London where the threat level is highest have more spent on them than those in Lerwick. Preventing a cyber attack on the City surely takes priority over a mass hack in Hawick.
What all can agree on is that the cost of setting up security services training spies, establishing a Scottish GCHQ would be significant, perhaps as much as £1bn. But the Yes camp says that given Scotland has invested in the current security systems it would be entitled to something back in independence negotiations.
The Scottish Government asserts that Westminster would likely help to establish these facilities, and there is some truth in that. The White Paper points out that the UK has helped other small nations to establish their security services, and given it will be vital to UK security that Scotland is no rogue state it’s inconceivable Westminster would turn its back on Holyrood’s efforts.
The same logic applies to the vexed question of whether Scotland would be allowed to join the Five Eyes intelligence sharing scheme which sees the UK, the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand share intelligence relatively freely.
Westminster’s Defence Select Committee, in a report on independence, found it “unlikely” Scotland would be given access to Five Eyes. Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told them the arrangement worked on a “something for something” basis, meaning Scotland would need to bring something to the intelligence table from the off.
Five Eyes was implicated in the recent revelations courtesy of US whistleblower Edward Snowden, and the documents he leaked appeared to show that the US could access intelligence on UK nationals via the shared information scheme.
The Scottish Government insists protections will be built into the written constitution of an independent Scotland to ensure citizens are protected not just by the spooks but from them. Scotland may also have to overcome reluctance from the US to let it join.
The Washington administration remains unimpressed with the fact the Scottish Government saw fit to release Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds and the Americans’ mood would not be improved if Scotland were to give Nato a headache by insisting the British nuclear deterrent was removed from Faslane.
It would very much be in the UK’s interests to have Scotland inside the intelligence tent, however. Every government’s number one priority and responsibility is the security of its citizens. That could even trump any reticence or churlishness in London towards letting Scotland into the EU and Nato.
It seems an independent Scotland would rely on outside help to set up its own security services and run them as effectively as possible.
But that’s true of many and maybe all nations.
Enjoy the convenience of having The Sunday Post delivered as a digital ePaper straight to your smartphone, tablet or computer.
Subscribe for only £5.49 a month and enjoy all the benefits of the printed paper as a digital replica.Subscribe