How coronavirus has stepped up geopolitical rivalry - outgoing UK spy chief
In an exclusive interview, Sir Alex Younger, codenamed 'C', who steps down from his role after 30 years at MI6 this week, tells FT editor Roula Khalaf the global pandemic has redoubled the secret service's mission and increased its myriad challenges
Presented and produced by Roula Khalaf. Edited by Petros Gioumpasis. Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis and Nicola Stansfield
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So Alex, you've been at the service for 30 years, 30 years of being a spy, and then a chief spy. What is the reality of life as a spy?
I think that there is a big intellectual curiosity thing. I mean, our job is asking questions a bit like yours. Every day you are learning something new. Frankly, it's just fascinating. And then there's the business of espionage, which is pretty esoteric. But the irony is it's done in plain sight. It's done amongst normal life.
So, you know, unlike soldiers who are on a battlefield and know there's a war going on, our work takes place in pubs and bars and supermarkets and shopping malls. And it's a curious juxtaposition. And sometimes it can lead to a sort of loneliness within the crowd. Sometimes it can be exhilarating.
On a personal level, when I was serving in the Middle East we were seeking to get inside an organisation that was proliferating nuclear weapons. And I had to go and approach someone and talk to them. And we did it in a shopping mall. And as I went up to this person I realised I was in familiar environments and had been in that place with my children the weekend before, so I'd gone from talking about Pingu to talking about proliferation. And it's just... it's an extraordinary contrast. And it is... it's intrinsically interesting and satisfying.
Knowing what you know, what keeps you up at night?
So in contrast to my counterparts in authoritarian regimes it's not my job to big up threats. That's not what I am for. I think if my job as exactly the other way around. It's for us alongside our colleagues in MI5 and GCHQ to deal with the threats that face this country so that people can go about their normal lives and be the best they can be.
But I do see myriad challenges. My background is in counter-terrorism. And of course I have spent 30 years in fear of failure. And I'm, of course, as we have discussed, we're in a position where terrorism is still a lethal and present threat in our societies. But I'm also extremely proud of what we have achieved on that. But you are only as good as your last operation. And necessarily that is a big preoccupation.
And now we see the counterpart threat of attempts to reduce trust in our institutions through disinformation by hostile state actors. And again, I think that is something that we shouldn't inadvertently big up. We should quietly work against it, so that this country has got the space to develop and thrive. And my fear would be that this narrative comes to dominate and we lose confidence in our institutions which are strong. And I don't want that to happen.
We've just been faced with an unprecedented crisis. We're still living it in the form of a pandemic. Does the pandemic change the way that you think about national security?
Well, first of all, to make the obvious point, our business is talking to people. So in terms of us as a capability and what we do it clearly has an influence. We've had to be pretty creative and flexible in working out new ways of carrying out our traditional mission.
And actually, I think by and large we've been pretty successful at that. And there's quite a lot of things we do now which I wouldn't change. We will keep. So it's been, I think, for many... like for many organisations, it's been a transforming experience and not necessarily for the worst.
But it's certainly also changed the mission. It's changed the things that I think our country is most concerned about. It's changed our scheme of prioritisation. And at the end I think that boils down to something that I basically regret, which is that something we knew was coming has been accelerated, which is the sort of steepening of geopolitical rivalry in the world.
I think the response to pandemic has broadly been characterised by a national response, by protectionism, by opportunism. And I think we all regret that. And that has accelerated the sort of steepening sense of international rivalry. I think we as a country should work to mitigate that.
But I also think that it kind of... it is what we as a service were brought into play to do in 1909, to give our government the strategic insights that it needs to maintain an advantage to keep the country safe. And I think that kind of most traditional of our missions has been redoubled in importance as a result of all of this.
Would you do it all over again?
Yes, I would. I think... I actually think that the next 30 years are going to be even more interesting than the 30 years just gone. I've already said I think people joining are lucky. They can do something about the things that worry people in this country. I also think that intelligence services, Britain's covert capabilities, are kind of closer to the middle of government capabilities than they were when I joined. The overt and covert have blended. It's a boundaryless world. There's more ambiguity.
And there's, generally speaking, more call on our services as part of the sort of broader national security team. So I think we play a much more central role in responding to the things the government cared about than we would have when I joined in 1991. And of course, the real reason why I would do it again is the people. And the privilege of my life has been to live amongst the people of MI6 and the honour of my life has been to lead them.