IS MI5 working to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom with a campaign of dirty tricks against the Scottish National Party and its allies in the run-up to the referendum on 18 September next year?
After all, the agency's motto of is Regnum Defende - or Defence of the Realm - inspired by a directive issued in 1952 by the then Home Secretary, (Edinburgh born) Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe. It defined MI5's mission as being "the defence of the realm as a whole" from threats to national security such as espionage, sabotage and subversion. Margo MacDonald, former deputy leader of the Scottish National Party and now an independent MSP, is convinced that MI5 is up to something and has written to Andrew Parker, its new Director General, saying: "I will be obliged if you can give me an assurance that UK Security Services will not be used in any respect in the lead-up to the Scottish referendum on sovereignty, unless, of course, the Scottish police have sufficient evidence to justify normal responses to potentially overtly criminal acts." She's been reading too many thrillers. It's certainly true that other intelligence services take a dim view of even constitutional separatists. Last month the Spanish Centro Nacional de Intelligencia (sensibly, in a globalised, world there is only one intelligence service in Spain) had a Moroccan-born businessman and religious leader, Noureddine Ziani, arrested by the Barcelona police as a "threat to national security". Some of the locals smell a rat: Ziani's real crime, they suggest, is to support Catalan independence. He runs an organisation that helps to assimilate immigrants into Catalan society, strongly supporting and admiring Catalan culture, language – and independence. One local MP sees "indications of a dirty war against the Catalan Sovereignty movement". We do things differently here. Most of the time our spooks are conscious both of the discipline of the rule of law and the requirement not to be heavy-handed. I bet if CNI need your house for a spot of surveillance a bunch of guys in designer dark glasses just turn up and take it over, lock stock and barrel. Someone I know lent her spare bedroom to an MI5 emergency surveillance team for a couple of days. They asked nicely, promised that their people wouldn't eat smelly takeaways and gave her a present once the operation was concluded – a free family ticket to Alton Towers. They will be on full alert in Scotland between now and the referendum, but in a rather different mode from that expected by the paranoid Margo MacDonald. Of particular concern will be the safety and integrity of HMNB Clyde, 25 miles west of Glasgow, the base for UK's 'black bombers' - the Vanguard class submarines that carry our Trident nuclear deterrent.
This is a high security area heavily guarded by armed MoD Police and an entire Royal Marines Commando unit who train in a sinister-sounding speciality called 'Final Denial of Access.' The potential for trouble around and even inside these bases is significant. MI5 will also be concerned that political tensions in Scotland could inflame the sectarian divide there - Glasgow is as segregated as Belfast. Finally, MI5 will have to help the police anticipate and head off any threats to the integrity of the elections themselves. The last thing anyone wants is for the outcome to hinge on a few tartan 'hanging chads' – or possibly, in this case, a few thousand 'farmed' postal votes. But currently, that's looking unlikely. Even if MI5 took the words 'Regnum Defende' literally, they wouldn't have to lift a finger. Just as President Nixon would have won the 1972 presidential election by a landslide without any help from the Watergate dirty tricks brigade, it looks as though the pro-independence campaign will go down to a historic defeat without any outside help. A spokesman for Ipsos MORI, the polling company, said this in May: "Following recent debates over the currency and pensions in an independent Scotland, our latest poll shows that support for Scotland remaining in the Union is growing. Although there are just under 500 days to go until the referendum, most Scots who plan to vote say that they have made up their minds, with a clear majority opting to remain part of the UK." Margo MacDonald's letter to MI5's DG is low politics by any measure and sadly an indication of things to come if the referendum comes up with a verdict uncongenial to the independence fundamentalists. What purpose could it possibly serve other than to lay the foundations of a destabilising and dishonest stab-in-the-back myth? "We wuz robbed of victory by treacherous Sassenach spooks."
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