by Gemma MacIntyre
British security services traditionally played a leading role in protecting both international and national security interests. In so doing, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), since it was first established in 1909, has benefitted from unrivalled access to issues of a covert nature. In turn, this has allowed the SIS to gain vast amounts of intelligence, that have enriched the conduct of both British and European foreign policy. Most notably, access to international data has enabled the SIS to be both preventative as well as proactive in tackling foreign threats, matters that are increasingly paramount in the current information age.
However, the British security environment in 2020 is very different to that of the early 1900s. In addition to a variety of emerging security issues – such as the ubiquity of hostile non-state actors, tensions with an increasingly clandestine Russia, and the threat of cyber-attacks – the impact of Brexit on security relations with the EU remains unclear. Nonetheless, by considering to what extent the UK has allied with the EU on security matters, particularly those most prominent today – one could speculate the challenges, and potential opportunities, that leaving the EU may serve.
In 2018, the National Security Capability Review (2018: 5) underscored the impact of security threats in the twentieth century on the ‘rules-based’ international system. The threat of cyber-attacks to British public services (as evidenced by the 2017 WannaCry attack on the NHS); instability in Middle Eastern and African areas that could give rise to Islamic-extremists; threats posed by Russia (underscored by the 2018 Salisbury nerve-agent poisoning); and, of course, the speed and access to telecommunications worldwide – all convey the increasingly transnational nature of security threats to twenty-first century Britain. This, coupled with uncertainties of Brexit, will inevitably impact the conduct of British security.
On paper, British policy-makers recognise the importance of adapting British security services to respond to evolving needs in an increasingly globalised order. In 2018, the British Government conceptualised the term ‘Global Britain’, to convey Britain’s commitment to multilateral cooperation (UK Parliament, 2018). The UK Government stressed that, despite leaving the EU, Britain continued to share mutual security interests with EU states; so cooperation would continue. Pro-Brexit advocates, such as British Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, have made clear that by leaving the EU, the British intelligence service would benefit from increased levels of funding, and the capacity to be more flexible in foreign policy security (Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 2019: 6). Scholars such as Hadfield (2018: 181) have also suggested that by leaving the EU, the UK may have greater freedom to enrich its bilateral security-relationships with EU states.
On the other hand, many remain dubious about the impact of Brexit on security. Neil Basu, Head of Counter-Terrorism in the UK, reported that, in the case of a no-deal Brexit, ‘The UK’s safety and security would suffer’ (The Guardian, 2019). Furthermore, it remains unclear to what extent the UK will continue to benefit from European security initiatives. The Schegen Information System II (SIS II) and the European Arrest Warrant are two European databases, which have helped to provide intelligence to the SIS on a range of security threats. Most critically, the SIS II has, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS, 2019), enriched the UK’s counter-terrorism policy – by enabling Britain to track terrorists from Europe more easily. The IISS also highlighted the benefit of the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), which enables EU convicts to be extradited in their home country. In the case of the Spivrak attack, the EAW enabled Russian perpetrators to be extradited outside of the UK. British intelligence also benefits from the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS), which significantly widens Britain’s security database. As a result, a no-deal Brexit, according to IISS (2019) would delay this process, making Brits more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
Coupled with this uncertainty, there is a lack of political-security leadership. Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised for not taking security seriously enough, with representatives from MI5 having to brief him on the current severity of issues (The Sunday Times, 2019). Jonson, on the other hand, faces a different – though, still concerning – sort of criticism. His crass comments about Islam not only underline his lack of sensitivity; they also risk exacerbating security issues further – by isolating minority groups. The proliferation of terrorist attacks in the UK by home-grown jihadists underline the saliency of this threat, as well as the need to understand and integrate minority groups – rather than ostracising them further.
While the impact of Brexit on UK security capabilities remains unclear; it is nonetheless important for the UK to consider potential measures, to strengthen its security capabilities. If the FCO does experience cuts, this may limit its previous capacity and access abroad. Dr. Champa Patel, Head of the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House, argued that in order for the UK to remain a leader in international security, the British government has to improve its cross-departmental cooperation (Chatham House, 2018). Sir John Sawers, former head of MI6, reinforced this argument, by stating that in the current security environment, intelligence data is vital to protect British interests (Financial Times, 2018). In other words, there is perhaps now, more than ever, a greater need for the intelligence service and policy-makers to work collaboratively in the interest of British security.
Of course, the arguments for cross-departmental cooperation are not new. Former intelligence officer-turned-academic, Michael Herman (1988), conceptualised the analogy of policy-makers as ‘consumers’ and intelligence agents as ‘producers’ over thirty years ago, to evoke the benefits of intelligence to British foreign policy-makers. Moreover, scholars have underscored the dangers of tensions between intelligence and diplomacy for years Bjola, 2014; Gookins, 2008; Pinkus, 2014). Blair’s fabrication of intelligence to justify Iraqi intervention (2003), is a case in point of the potential dangers of politicised intelligence, as well as the need for greater cooperation.
While advocacy for greater cross-departmental cooperation is hardly novel, what is relatively unprecedented is the use of intelligence in British foreign policy conduct – particularly in an increasingly uncertain security environment. This, coupled with the impact of Brexit on FCO funds and access to European security initiatives, underscores the increased need for cross-departmental cooperation. If security ties with the EU weaken; the UK must search for alternatives. Its domestic intelligence service serves the greatest beacon of hope to remain an influential leader in both national and international security policy.
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Gemma recently graduated from the University of St Andrews in International Relations and Management, and is now studying an MA in Conflict, Security and Development at King’s. Through her academic studies and voluntary experience with VSO in Nigeria, she has developed a strong interest in the relationship between corruption and development. During her undergraduate degree, she studied a range of post-conflict cases, with a particular focus on intractable conflicts such as Israel-Palestine and Bosnia. Her experience with VSO Nigeria furthered her interest, as she was made aware of the acute impacts of governance on public services, such as health and education. She hopes to pursue further research on the impact of conflict on health security.