Intelligence, security and accountability in an independent Scotland… more questions than answers?

Published: 16 September 2014

Colin Atkinson discusses intelligence, security and the role of parliament in oversight in an independent Scotland. 

Accountability is the requirement for those in positions of power to provide answers to those whom they serve. In the post-Snowden era, where we know seemingly evermore about the hitherto ‘secret’ activities of the intelligence agencies who act in our name, the issue of accountability has become increasingly important to the public and the agencies themselves. Andrew Parker, the Director General of the UK Security Service (MI5) has stated that his Service is ‘highly accountable’. Others, such as Clare Algar, Executive Director of the legal charity Reprieve, fundamentally disagree.

Whilst there may be dispute upon the nature and the extent of accountability of the intelligence agencies in the UK, there is consensus on one point: these agencies must be held accountable for their activities. In many ways, this consensus itself represents a paradigm shift in both how we view our intelligence agencies and how they view themselves. After all, it was only as the Cold War ended – not too long ago in our political history and cultural memory – that some of these agencies even acknowledged their own existence, let alone their activities.

Matters of intelligence and security have, with a few exceptions, been broadly absent from the debate on Scottish independence. Even as Scots became increasingly implicated in terrorist acts abroad – as both ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ – these issues failed to capture the public’s attention in the same way as other matters such as the economy, currency, the NHS and public services. Despite the failure of intelligence and security to gain significant traction in the referendum debate, academic interest has persisted, and rightly sought to shine a light on this relatively dark corner of the politics of Scottish independence.

In the latest in a series of seminars on ‘security in Scotland with or without constitutional change’ a contributor remarked that one of the most fundamental features of accountability is having the right people to ask the right questions. This raises some interesting issues in regards to a regime of accountability and scrutiny for intelligence and security in Scotland, and especially for a prospective Scottish security agency.

The Scottish Government’s white paper on independence, Scotland’s Future, sketches a quite broad vision of accountability for such an agency in the circumstances of independence. It states,

“Scottish Ministers will be accountable to the Scottish Parliament for what a Scottish security and intelligence agency does in their name. The Scottish Parliament and the Scottish equivalent of the relevant Commissioners will scrutinise and challenge the work of the agency, including its covert work.” (Scotland’s Future, p. 266).

On face value there seems to be little divergence from the nature and spirit of the existing UK structures, and specifically the remit of the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. There is no hint of a radical alternative here. This seems, therefore, to be a classic case of plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, a feature that inhabits (or inhibits) much of the thinking on issues of intelligence and security throughout the white paper. The political strategy of such an approach is expedient and understandable: gain confidence through reassurance. What must be considered in this context, however, is the immaturity of Scotland’s political structures in dealing with matters of national security.

The white paper is explicit in stating that the planned legislation would bring democratic control of national security to Scotland for the first time. A case can certainly be constructed that the current cadre of 129 MSPs in the Scottish Parliament broadly lack the capacity and capability to effectively scrutinise an emerging intelligence and security agency with the same rigour of its Westminster counterpart. The UK Intelligence and Security Committee is comprised of nine MPs, many of whom have extensive foreign policy and security experience. It is true to say that any analogous committee in Scotland would have less ground to cover, and would thus require fewer political representatives to function effectively. However, it is unclear as to whether there would actually be enough MSPs to provide the necessary level of scrutiny based on the current number of 129, particularly given the expanded remit of a newly independent Scottish Parliament to provide governance of, and accountability for, whole new swathes of political activity. The provision of additional civil service support would also be necessary, but at least here a case can be made here for ‘poaching’ expertise from the existing UK structures, although cost issues remain (an argument that would also undoubtedly apply to the staffing of the new Scottish security and intelligence agency itself).

Prompted by the nature of accountability raised by the contributor to the seminar series, a key question emerges: will an independent Scotland have the right people, asking the right questions, to effectively hold a developing intelligence and security agency to account? As with many of the issues raised in the context of the referendum, we simply do not know. At best, we can say there is uncertainty, and this should not be reassuring to the Scottish public. It will also not be reassuring to any partners considering the prospect of intelligence sharing or cooperation with an independent Scotland, who would certainly be concerned with both the (constitutional) powers of such a regime and its maturity in exercising these new powers.

The current critics of the accountability – or otherwise – of the UK intelligence agencies may be buoyed by the prospect of a new breed of political scrutinisers, divorced from the chains of vested interests in the shadowy world of the UK agencies that have been tainted by the polluting legacy of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, rendition and torture. However, should a suitable cadre of candidates be found in the relatively small ranks of any new Scottish Parliament, independent of Westminster, their inexperience in such matters may limit the extent to which they can hold a new agency effectively to account, or even jeopardise Scotland’s intelligence relationships with future partners. Again, whilst some would wish for a radical departure from the forms of surveillance currently undertaken by agencies such as GCHQ and the NSA, the white paper is more conservative in arguing (the contestable proposition) that cooperation with existing partners would continue in any independence settlement (Scotland’s Future, p. 264-265). A potential solution here would be for some current MPs to make the journey ‘back up the road’ to become MSPs in an independent Scotland, bringing with them their experiences of national security and intelligence from the UK. Whilst politically sensible, the reaction of the existing 129 MSPs, and the Scottish public, to such a suggestion, would be interesting to uncover.

Ultimately, the white paper could have been clearer in detailing the shape of a future accountability regime for intelligence and security matters in Scotland, even at the most basic levels of size, composition, and support. The capacity question could certainly have been answered, although it most likely was not because it raised the prospect of an expanded, and thus more expensive, set of political  institutions and structures; a prospect that would be unpalatable to the public and politically inexpedient for the ‘yes’ campaign. However, even if such capacity issues were resolved in the white paper, the capability of any such regime will only become apparent in the aftermath of a ‘yes’ vote. In these circumstances only time will tell if the right people have been selected, and if they are asking the right questions. 

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