By Kenneth Roy
Last weekend (7 February), we published an article by a retired civil servant, James Aitken, on the unequal resources with which Whitehall and St Andrew's House are engaged in the struggle over Scottish independence. It may have been prompted by an editorial of mine on Whitehall's relative command of intelligence and propaganda and the exclusion of the head of the Scottish civil service, Sir Peter Housden, from the constitutional working parties beavering away in London in support of the status quo.
In his article, Mr Aitken rightly flagged up the importance of covert intelligence and suggested that independence would be such a threat to the integrity of the UK that the security services could legitimately be tasked to discover all they could about the Scottish negotiating position. More tellingly, he also speculated that the United States was so sensitive to its own interests in Scotland that methods 'dubious under UK law' might be employed.
Although these thoughts had not been articulated in such a direct way before, or from so credible a source, they should not have come as a terrific surprise. They felt like par for a particularly challenging course, one feared for its treacherous bunkers and deep rough. But I was delighted to receive the piece and seized, for the purposes of a snappy headline, on Mr Aitken's all too plausible theory that sleepers may already be embedded in St Andrew's House (and Victoria Quay), ready to be activated if necessary.
The piece was widely reported and gave the little Scottish Review some unlooked-for exposure in the national media. Not that it made a bit of difference to our readership figures – neither up nor down. This confirmed that the few remaining people who buy newspapers do so, like myself, for the sport and the crossword and rarely trouble themselves with what passes for news, of which there is very little and most of it known many hours before.
But there is still an aficionado's pleasure to be derived from the craft of the headline-writer. I relished the Scottish Sun's – 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier...Aye' and was disappointed when comparatively few Sun readers signed up as SR subscribers on the strength of it. What must we do?
When I read Mr Aitken's article, I assumed that the Scottish Government would either take it very seriously or dismiss it out of hand. Though it could do both – take it very seriously (privately) and dismiss it out of hand (publicly). The preferred tone was one of airy disdain. A 'Scottish Government spokeswoman' was quoted in several newspapers with the response: 'These claims are fanciful, to say the least'.
This irritating know-all is regularly quoted in very similar terms. I see her, the 'Scottish Government spokeswoman', sitting smugly behind a desk in the Department of Official Denials waiting to heap scorn on the latest report inconvenient to her employer's interests. Note, however, that this negative oracle of Scottish public life enjoys a degree of anonymity denied to such ordinary mortals as James Aitken and myself. Last Friday, it was not enough for the omniscient spokeswoman to dismiss Mr Aitken's claims as fanciful. They had to be fanciful to say the least. Unfettered by the niceties of the communique, free to let rip, how far would she have gone to rubbish the possibility that fully-paid-up spooks lurk unactivated in some nearby corridor?
The big question is not the existence of sleepers. They are as likely an arrival in Edinburgh as the overnight train from King's Cross. The regular traffic of ambitious young civil servants from London makes their presence simple to organise (although they could equally well be home-grown MacSpooks). The big question is under what circumstances it would be deemed advisable to activate them. Mr Aitken's article was concerned mainly with possible developments post-referendum and assuming a Yes vote. But the sleepers could be aroused from their slumber long before the autumn of 2014.
Ian Jack, in his Saturday column in the Guardian, was not dimissing Mr Aitken's claims as fanciful to say the least. Indeed he was quoting them with interest and respect. Mr Jack went on to do some shrewd guesswork about the course of the next 18 months. He predicted that present trends pointing to an overwhelming rejection of independence will not be maintained, that the margin will narrow, that the vote will be very close. 'London as a political, social and financial phenomenon,' he wrote, 'will become more and more alienating, as will the coalition government that lives there. Independence will develop in Scotland as the lifeboat option – a way back to a normal life...'.
An intriguing hypothesis. One can feel MI5 twitching at the ghastly prospect of it all: the tightening of the opinion polls, the new bounce in the first minister's step, the inevitable approach of what Sir Alex Ferguson calls with his usual eloquence squeaky bum time.
What happens then? I have this theory that private files will be dusted down in dark places and scrutinised with a fresh and lively interest; and that, towards the end of the long season, with the outcome delicately poised, it will all get rather up close and personal. We can only hope – and pray, if we are so disposed – that the people with the biggest investment in an independent Scotland have very little if anything to hide.
Fanciful? To say the least.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review