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Safety first

The British state is failing to protect its citizens

Artillery Row

Over the past forty years, the Conservative Party has staked its reputation and electoral appeal on being the party of law and order, defence and fiscal responsibility. From the early 1990s until 2007, New Labour under Tony Blair also strove to capture the commanding heights of public confidence in these specific policy areas. Yet thirteen years after having come to power, the Tories have virtually ceased to portray themselves as the political party best placed to deliver on major policy. The era of acting as guarantor of stable governance in the UK is fast disappearing in the rear-view mirror

A notable exception to this new trend, however, is the Tories’ ongoing “big promise” to safeguard the British people and national interest. The official government website for the Home Office states quite clearly, “The first duty of the government is to keep citizens safe and the country secure.” Yet it can be argued that under a succession of Tory and Labour governments, citizens of the UK have actually become less safe. Claudius, the chief antagonist in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, lamented that, “When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.” Over the last twenty years, politicians and state officials have had to tackle a tsunami of threats to collective and individual safety. These have ranged from “smart” motorways, lax cyber security, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic (the public inquiry into which has already unearthed a catalogue of egregious mistakes committed by the government and Civil Service), through a failing NHS and social care system, food scarcity and water pollution, and a corrupt, toxic and dysfunctional Police Service, to the threat posed by Reinforced Aerated Autoclaved Concrete (RAAC) in our public buildings, flawed security in our prisons, fuel and cost-of-living crises, and air traffic control systems failures.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Two decades ago, British commentators counselled against the UK embarking on two “wars of choice” in Afghanistan and Iraq for fear of the threat posed by “home-grown” Islamic terrorism. Tragically, these concerns were fully vindicated by the 7/7 bomb attacks in London, the Westminster attack in March 2017, the Manchester arena bombing in May 2017, and the London Bridge attack in June 2017. The failure of Obama, Trump, Cameron and May, moreover, to deter foreign despots from crossing particular “red lines” — Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria between 2012 and 2019, and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Crimea in 2014 being prime examples — also multiplied existential threats to Britain and her citizens, as well as to the West as a whole. The continuing appeasement and cultivation of China (which has revanchist designs on the independent island of Taiwan) have further compounded these previous errors of judgement, making the world a far more dangerous place.

The government’s poor track record on ensuring the safety of the populace was brought into sharp focus recently by the announcement that a long-awaited “independent inquiry” into the death of Dawn Sturgess — a belated victim of the March 2018 “Salisbury poisonings” — will finally convene in October 2024. Sturgess was the only fatality arising from a GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) operation to assassinate Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, by means of Novichok, a weapons-grade chemical nerve agent. Skripal, a former member of the GRU, had been recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, popularly known as MI6) as a double-agent in 1995. In December 2004, Skripal was arrested by the Russian internal security agency, the FSB, and subsequently tried and imprisoned for “high treason”. Pardoned by President Dmitry Medvedev in July 2010, Skripal, along with three other Russians charged with spying for US Intelligence, were exchanged for ten Russian agents arrested for espionage in the United States in an “illegals program spy swap”.

The British secret state had simply taken its eye off the ball

Following his release, Skripal was settled by British Intelligence in the Wiltshire city of Salisbury. Astonishingly, Britain’s secret servants permitted the retention of Skripal’s real name, despite his remaining on their payroll as a valuable source of information on the Russian security and intelligence services. Even without the benefits of hindsight, this decision appears to have been a recklessly complacent step on the part of Britain’s spooks, one simply not in the “public interest” nor, for that matter, in the interest of their star agent. Predictably, Skripal’s consultancy work for Western Intelligence came to the attention of Putin’s spy masters. In March 2018, an operation involving the two GRU operatives “Alexander Petrov” and “Ruslan Boshirov” (real names Dr Alexander Mishkin and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga respectively) was launched to poison Skripal and his daughter, who was on a visit from Moscow. She may very well have led the hit team to her father’s home where the Novichok was deployed. Aside from poisoning father and daughter, the nerve agent also affected three policemen. Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who attended the actual crime scene, was placed in a life-threatening condition.

Evidently, British Intelligence not only failed to protect one of its own agents, but inadvertently exposed the British general public and emergency services to a highly-toxic nerve agent, a trail of which stretched from London to Wiltshire. Worse was to come. Despite a forensic clean-up operation by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), four months after the initial attack two further British nationals, who lived eight miles from Salisbury in Amesbury, were poisoned by Novichok discarded by Putin’s assassins. Whilst Charlie Rowley eventually recovered, Dawn Sturgess tragically died. Clearly, the “first duty of the government” to keep its “citizens safe and the country secure” — particularly from the covert activities of a hostile foreign state — had by 2018 descended the totem pole of priorities for the UK intelligence and security services, as well as for the Tory administration of Theresa May.

Numerous reasons for this “intelligence failure” were mooted. The most convincing explanation was that the British secret state had simply taken its eye off the ball with regards to the threat posed by the intelligence services of hostile foreign states, such as the Russian Federation. Too busy countering home-grown and international Islamic terrorism, the Security Service, MI5 and SIS had failed collectively to appreciate the measure of danger posed by Putin’s spies. Nevertheless, blame should not be apportioned exclusively to the denizens of Vauxhall Cross building, Thames House or indeed the Cabinet Office. A favourable long-term government policy towards Russia — stretching back to the Blair premiership — ultimately determined the degree to which the British Intelligence community was “tasked” with monitoring the Russian threat prior to the “Salisbury poisonings”. The resultant “groupthink” amongst politicians, officials and spooks would have bred a general consensus that it was safe for Skripal to continue to operate in what was still considered to be a relatively benign environment vis-à-vis the Russian security apparatus. In this light, the attempted assassination of the Skripals may well be viewed as an unintended consequence of the “classic instance of the policy wish fathering the intelligence estimate”.

As recently reported by The Guardian newspaper, the government is seeking to place “restriction orders” on what is disclosed at the independent inquiry into Dawn Sturgess’ death regarding “Skripal’s role as a spy”. Government officials are also withholding further material relating to the 2018 poisonings. The suspicion is that the British secret state and indeed the government have much to conceal regarding their respective roles in the Skripal case. Fear of embarrassing revelations, such as the lack of “risk assessments” and “safeguarding” surrounding Skripal’s housing in Salisbury, would act as a strong incentive not to cooperate fully with the inquiry. According to The Guardian, this investigation has “the power to examine issues such as the role of the Russian state” in the incident.

The extent of continued secrecy surrounding the “Salisbury poisonings” does not breed confidence in the state’s ability to keep its citizens safe. Levels of trust sink further still when the 2017 edition of the government’s National Register of Risk (NRR) is consulted. First published in 2008, the NRR is a publicly accessible version of the National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA), a “classified cross-government … assessment of the most serious risks facing the UK and its interests overseas”. Initially published every two years, the NRR has since 2017 appeared only every three years. It addresses the full spectrum of risks facing the UK, from international terrorism to cyber-attacks and earthquakes.

Markov was stabbed in the leg with a poison-tipped umbrella

Whilst the 2017 edition acknowledged the risk of a Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) attack on Great Britain, it did so with the proviso that such an act would almost certainly be committed by a “terrorist/extremist” organisation. Startlingly, the possibility of a state-directed attack utilising CBRN agents was not mentioned, despite the NRR alluding to the 2006 Litvinenko case. Almost casually, the NRR noted that aside from this incident, “there are relatively few examples of CBRN attacks outside of active warzones”. Just six months after these words appeared in print, GRU operatives were indiscriminately deploying a weapons-grade nerve agent on the streets of the United Kingdom with impunity.

State-directed attacks using CBRN agents against anti-Kremlin figures residing in the UK resonate keenly with this author. Georgi Markov, the dissident Bulgarian BBC World Service journalist, was murdered on 7 September 1978. On Waterloo Bridge, an assailant from the Bulgarian Secret Service stabbed Markov in the leg with a poison-tipped umbrella supplied by the KGB. He lived just around the corner from where I was first brought home as a baby. In the week preceding his poisoning, I had the honour of meeting the former KGB–FSB officer, Alexander Litvinenko, who died on 23 November 2006 due to organ failure triggered by the ingestion of the radioactive substance Polonium-210, allegedly administered by Dmitri Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi on the orders of President Putin. Unbelievably, on Sunday, 4 March 2018, the day the Skripals were exposed to Novichok, I was supposed to meet a friend for lunch at Zizzi, the very restaurant in which the Skripals — heavily contaminated with a toxic nerve agent — consumed their midday meal. Luckily, I cancelled at the last minute. Though there was a mercifully low death toll stemming from these covert operations, the potential for significant “collateral damage” — particularly in the Litvinenko and Skripal cases — was considerable.

These variations on a macabre theme have provoked in this author a profound unease, and indeed anger, at the inability of the UK state to protect its citizens from the depredations of hostile foreign powers. The death of Dawn Sturgess, and the resultant obfuscation by government officials as to the granular details pertaining to her violent, untimely demise, simply compounded these emotions. Consequently, the re-affirmation by the Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden at the recent launch of the 2023 National Risk Register, that “The first duty of government is to keep people safe”, rings hollow. In the context of the Sturgess Inquiry, it has more than a whiff of “gesture politics” about it.

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