Former MI6 Head John Sawers: Brexit could pose long-term problems for British security

Britain’s ability to track intelligence targets could be limited by its departure from the EU, he said

February 14, 2018
John Sawers arriving at 10 Downing Street in 2013—when he was head  of MI6. Photo: Lewis Whyld/PA Archive/PA Images
John Sawers arriving at 10 Downing Street in 2013—when he was head of MI6. Photo: Lewis Whyld/PA Archive/PA Images

John Sawers, the former head of MI6, is worried. I spoke to him at his offices the day before Boris Johnson gave his optimistic speech about Britain after Brexit. Sawers, however, did not share the Foreign Secretary’s upbeat mood, in particular when it came to keeping Britain safe once we have left the European Union.

“My concern on the intelligence and security front is over the exchange of data,” Sawers told me, as we sat in a meeting room overlooking the West End. “Data is now central to the way in which security services in particular monitor threats—track people who might pose a threat to UK security. And the rules on exchange of data are going to be set in the EU.”

Sawers stressed that in the short term, Brexit would not affect British security arrangements with other European countries, but that in the longer term, “we won’t be round the table with our voice, with our weight, stressing the vital importance of these data exchanges to our national security.” This, he said, will effect Britain’s ability to work with partners to track intelligence targets and also criminals.

The stress that has been put on the economic consequences of Brexit has meant these highly sensitive security relationships have been overlooked. For Sawers, however, the future of these relationships is of fundamental importance—and the consequences of British departure from the EU go wider still.

“We are distracted as a nation by the requirements of Brexit,” he said. “I think the country’s become less confident. And less outward-looking itself. And now of course we are saddled with the Brexit negotiation.”

The distraction of Brexit has come at an especially challenging time for Britain, Sawers said. “We have made less impact in the world in the last ten years than we did in the 30 years before that,” he told me.

In the “period 1980 to 2010, Britain was quite an influential player in the world.” However, he said, “I don’t think since 2010 we’ve really had a big influence in global affairs.”

The reasons for this decline, according to Sawers, were a combination of the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as the economic shock caused by the global financial crisis of 2007-8. And then in 2013, the Cameron-led Coalition government held a vote in the Commons on whether Britain should intervene in Syria. Parliament voted against intervention.

Theresa May is not “a natural at engaging on these big political issues with foreign leaders”
In Sawers’s view, “David Cameron’s decision to refer the matter to parliament rather than taking the responsibility on his and his government’s shoulders—and then Barack Obama ducking and diving the issue in the US—that led to much greater suffering in Syria as a consequence and it opened the door for the Russian intervention.”

“Had David Cameron gone ahead with the original plan,” Sawers said, “he would have had very strong national and parliamentary approval for that.”

And since then, Sawers suggests, Britain has figured less prominently in international affairs overall. “Germany and France were actively involved in dealing with the crisis in Ukraine, and the Russian intervention there. Britain wasn’t really in the room.”

“It’s another example of us not really being engaged in the biggest issues on the global agenda.”

When it comes to Britain’s leaders and their ability to project British influence, Sawers has reservations about the current generation of political leaders. On Theresa May, he told me: “I don’t think she’s a natural at engaging on these big political issues with foreign leaders.” It’s a sharp judgement, especially from a career international public servant like Sawers.

As Britain prepares to leave the EU and with the problematic figure of Donald Trump in the White House, it is not entirely clear with whom Britain’s interests now coincide. “Right now,” Sawers told me, “we have ended up turning our back on Europe and not having a real welcome mat laid out for us in Washington. And we’ve got to work out which way we want to turn and be prepared to pay a price one way or the other.”

“One thing I don’t think we can accept is Britain adrift. A Britain without a major strategic anchor in the western world.”

Departure from the EU, according to Sawers, and a lessening of intelligence and security relations with the continent might mean Britain has to “associate ourselves more closely with the United States and accept that lesser role—loss of sovereignty, loss of decision-making—that being aligned with the United States brings with it.”

But the US will have other international strategic priorities, Sawers said, and its most crucial relationship will not be with Britain but with China. These two trans-Pacific super-powers will form an international top tier of two.

In Sawers’s view, Russia, Europe and increasingly India will form a second tier of international powers below the top pair, “and then at the next tier down—third tier down—Japan and Britain and so on. We will never be on an equal footing with China… and they see themselves as America’s counterpart. And that is the reality.”

Which is not to say that Britain doesn’t have much to offer, or that we should not be optimistic about our ability to do business with the US, China or any other nation, Sawers said.

But, he told me, “You have to be realistic about the role that we as a country can play in the world.”

Listen to the interview here

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