Richard Dearlove: "The deterioration of European politics... is a far more serious problem for the UK" than terrorism ©Cate Gillon/Getty Images

Interview: Richard Dearlove—I spy nationalism

A former head of MI6 says that, though the White House commands our attention, Europe is the greater worry
April 13, 2017

Richard Dearlove frowned at the coffee pot on the table before him, as he pondered the phenomenon of Donald Trump. “I think he’s very strongly nationalist,” he said, pouring himself a small cup. The room, at a discreet location in central London, was large and empty of other people, its walls lined with 19th-century portraits. Is Trump the start of something worrying, I asked. “I think it depends on how fundamental this shift in politics in the US and other countries is,” he replied, speaking slowly. “I think the jury’s out on how far it is going to go.”

Between 1999 and 2004, Dearlove was head of the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, a tenure that included the bruising experience of the Iraq war, the drama of 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan. He joined the service in 1966 and in his time he ran MI6’s Washington station, the most significant posting in British intelligence and was also overall Director of Operations.

So he’s seen it all before. But the allegations that members of Trump’s staff had illegal contact with the Russian government during the election campaign are “unprecedented,” said Dearlove. As for the president’s personal position, he said, “What lingers for Trump may be what deals—on what terms—he did after the financial crisis of 2008 to borrow Russian money when others in the west apparently would not lend to him.” I also asked Dearlove about Trump’s suggestion that the US National Security Agency (NSA) or British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had bugged Trump Tower on the instructions of Barack Obama. This allegation was flatly rejected by both organisations and also by James Comey, Director of the FBI, who told Congress in a March hearing that “we have no information to support” Trump’s claim. “This is simply deeply embarrassing,” said Dearlove, “for Trump and the administration, that is. The only possible explanation is that Trump started tweeting without understanding how the NSA-GCHQ relationship actually works.”

But more than this display of ignorance by the White House, Dearlove is troubled by the changing face of European politics. The anxiety is striking coming from him, because last year—in the pages of Prospect—Dearlove set out his view that Brexit would not in itself harm the UK’s security or its intelligence work. Wider developments on the continent, however, are another matter. “For me, the intriguing question is what’s going to happen in the French and the German elections,” he said. “I don’t think at the moment [Marine] Le Pen will win the French presidency. But let’s say she comes close to winning—whoever beats her is going to have to probably move to the right,” including “a more activist nationalist foreign policy.”

That word again—nationalist. It is striking to hear anxieties about the world taking a sudden nationalist turn being aired by a man who is, by profession, supposed to be measured, detached and discreet. But there is no longer much doubt that the political mood has changed. It’s being felt in the US, Britain, France, and also in Germany, where the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) has been gaining ground. “[If] the AfD begins to get up to around 30 per cent in the German elections that will indicate a pretty firm shift in German politics,” said Dearlove. It will, he said, also begin to affect Britain’s Brexit negotiations with the European Union.

“The politics of the Brexit negotiations are going to be really fundamentally affected by this shift in thinking in the countries with whom we are negotiating,” he said. “So on the one hand you’ve got Brussels-type mandarins saying one thing—but it doesn’t reflect the political reality of changes in Europe. And I think, on the freedom of movement issue, for example, a lot of European countries are going to be moving towards the position that the UK would like to adopt.”

Dearlove is a very still man. He speaks fluently but slowly, which is suggestive of his childhood, which was spent in a small isolated fishing village on the southern Cornish coast. His accent is not of the south west, and was long ago hewn into the familiar brogue of the British foreign service. His measured manner gives his often forthright judgments all the more punch. A traditional servant of the nation state, he is critical of the open turn the world has taken during the years when the globalisers were in charge.

“Complete freedom of movement and uncontrolled migration into Europe is catastrophic,” he said. “Obviously one recognises the benefits of some migration, but when you get 1.3m people coming into Europe—that was the figure in 2015. And the total net migration into the UK was 270,000. The total entry, counting EU and outside the EU, was around 600,000. These are massive numbers.

“The CIA published these predictive papers around 2001,” he said. “I think it was published before 9/11. And at that point they were indicating that mass migration, particularly from the south to the north—particularly out of Africa—was going to be a huge problem for the European continent.

“If you look at the figures for population growth and unemployed youth and that sort of phenomenon, leaving aside the instability in the Middle East, we shouldn’t really be particularly surprised by what’s happened. We just didn’t prepare for it.”

The idea that the recent increase in immigration could have been foreseen 16 years ago is certainly open to challenge. And yet Britain’s failure to anticipate and prepare for the ensuing social and political pressures brought about by large-scale immigration is beyond question.

"The Islamist terrorist threat is obviously serious but containable and ultimately manageable"
That pressure is causing a rightward drift in British politics and when I asked Dearlove whether he thinks that drift will continue he says, “I think for the time being, yes,” but that in the longer term, prospects for the populist tendency are limited. “It’s not really in the character of British politics to have extremists. Let’s face it, Ukip has done its bit, hasn’t it? I don’t see Ukip being a one-issue party really surviving as it is. I see something coming in, which may suck up some of its support. There are potentially a lot of Lib Dem voters out there as well. Where did they go?”

Britain’s security challenges were made horrifyingly clear by the March attack in Westminster, when Khalid Masood, a man from Kent, drove a car through crowds on Westminster Bridge before stabbing a policeman in the grounds of the palace of Westminster. I reported from the immediate aftermath of the attack, in which four people died. The attacker was shot and killed.

“The Islamist terrorist threat is obviously serious but containable and ultimately manageable,” Dearlove told me in an email the day after the attack. “We have to keep a sense of proportion about it; successful terrorist attacks have been few in number. The situation would only change with several mass casualty incidents which would threaten that sense of proportion and drive society towards an extreme response. At the moment I judge that as unlikely to happen. Containment of the threat with occasional failures can continue almost indefinitely.”

Dearlove told me that despite the terrorist threat to Britain, it is not the most serious challenge the country faces. “The deterioration of European politics, with the rise of parties on the extreme right, is a far more serious problem for the UK. It is not in the UK’s national interest to see continental Europe being split apart by the revival of nationalist movements as a post-Brexit Britain returns to a mid-Atlantic rather than continental orientation to its foreign policy.

“Britain has played a vital role in Europe’s future when Europe has been in crisis,” said Dearlove, referring to the turmoil of the last century, adding that, “we are set to do that again as the EU goes through a period of profound change. That will in part be driven by the rise of extreme right parties, but it is important that, despite their influence, they do not control the political agenda.”

The election result in the Netherlands was cause for hope—the far-right party of Geert Wilders failed to make a breakthrough in the March general election. The question now is whether Le Pen in France and the AfD in Germany remain largely outside the government. “A cohesive Europe is still in the UK’s interest, though the nature of that cohesion may become something rather different from what we largely took for granted during what has been the high point of the EU’s existence,” said Dearlove. “Europe is now moving into a new historical phase. Post-war and post-Cold War Europe are both coming to an end and as they do we will have to endure a period of heightened political and social risk.”

And then there is Russia, the great political pot-stirrer, led by a man who seems determined to re-impose global Russian influence as a means of buoying up his domestic support. “I don’t see it as a return to the Cold War,” said Dearlove, who is more than qualified to make that judgment. “Russia has always set out to destabilise its immediate neighbours in order to exercise influence,” he said. “Putin’s on a crusade for Russia to be taken more seriously as a player in international affairs,” he said, adding that “if you analyse it historically, it’s in imperial decline.”

Dearlove then delivers another of his startlingly blunt assessments, this time of the country that was his chief adversary for most of his professional career: “It’s got a lousy economy, getting worse, it’s got terrible demographics, it’s got good strategic rocket forces and it’s got special forces and it’s able to focus its assets on issues and make its impact felt in a rather clever fashion. But that doesn’t disguise the fact that Russia’s in a mess and I don’t think we should be overawed.”

Despite its weakness, the question of how to deal with Russia poses deep problems for governments. The Kremlin has achieved pariah status after its invasion of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and its activities in Syria. These adventures were capped by its apparent interference in the US presidential election, where Putin allowed Russian operatives to conduct the hacking and propaganda campaign in favour of Trump that is now the subject of an FBI investigation. But how can other nations deal with a country that is so consistently wayward?

“Eastern Ukraine was a bit of a disaster really for the Russians and backing separatists in Eastern Ukraine was a hook they were keen to get off,” said Dearlove, attributing his analysis to a “few well-placed Russians that I spoke to.” The war in Ukraine is “very expensive,” he said and “it’s not really worked,” from Russia’s perspective. “Ukraine has more or less held together. The Ukrainian military has been more effective than the Russians expected and you’ve got a separatist war which is going absolutely nowhere.

“I did an event with Henry Kissinger in the States last summer with an invited audience,” said Dearlove. “He and I agreed that the isolation of Russia, which was a consequence of the evolution of Obama’s policy, was not beneficial for anybody. OK—Russia behaved extremely badly and it was difficult to pick your way through that and not end up in a situation where there’s a trade embargo and virtually a breakdown in communication. But if we can strengthen Nato and have a dialogue with Russia, which makes issues like Ukraine more manageable…” And with that, he trails off. But his intended message is clear. Better to talk to the Russians than freeze them out.

His criticism of Obama is not confined to Ukraine—Dearlove is also critical of US policy in Syria. “If the US had intervened it probably would have tipped the balance,” he said. In this situation, “the Russians would have maintained their interest by taking Assad out.” The double meaning of the last three words is perhaps unintentional.

And what about Russia’s meddling in the US election? The US’s own intelligence and security agencies have stated that they have evidence of interference. “I am pretty sure they wouldn’t have made those statements if they weren’t clear in their own minds that Russia was the perpetrator,” he said. “Trump himself seemed to have accepted that.” As for the suggestion that the Russian government holds compromising material on Trump, an allegation made in a dossier put together by Christopher Steele, a former MI6 officer, Dearlove will not comment. “The Russians must be slightly surprised themselves because they disfavoured Hillary, but I don’t think they necessarily expected Trump to be elected. And had they been confident that Trump was going to be elected they might have not behaved in the way that they have done—do you see what I mean? They wouldn’t have needed to push.”

“If they had worked out that Hillary was going to lose—they were going to have a better relationship with Trump; clearly they wanted Trump to be elected—they might not have unleashed that activity.” Dearlove laughs. It’s a restrained chuckle and as he smiles his voice takes on more of a laconic drawl. “But once you’ve started down that route, you can imagine Putin signing off on the operations.”