The letter sent last week from the former Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, Sir Richard Dearlove, and the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, to Conservative Association Chairs is wrong on many counts. Sir Richard and Lord Guthrie were formidable public servants in their day but their concerns about the implications for our national defence and intelligence capabilities do not stand up to scrutiny. Their attempt to paint a post Brexit Britain, under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, as somehow subordinate to the EU and at odds with our other allies, is not the view of many more recent holders of senior defence and intelligence positions.
Both now and in a future under the Withdrawal Agreement Britain will make sovereign decisions on these matters in the national interest. Britain is leaving the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, the European Defence Agency and every other EU defence organisation. Contrary to the claims made in the letter, the deal ensures we have a flexible arrangement which allows us to work with the EU on foreign policy and defence matters. It is an option to co-operate not an obligation. This means we are consistent in our post-war policy of our membership of NATO being the corner stone of our defence posture. Some years ago, Britain signed a bilateral defence agreement with France. This has been a huge success and never at any stage has anyone suggested that this co-operation is a threat to national sovereignty or reduces our ability to act independently. So it will be with the EU.
In a recent speech the Director of MI5 said, “European intelligence cooperation today is simply unrecognisable to what it looked like even five years ago”. Given that Sir Richard retired 15 years ago, it is well worth studying this speech. Why would we not want the closest possible cooperation with intelligence agencies across Europe? We need such cooperation in a dangerous world with the continent of Europe sharing so many of the same threats as we do. The deal allows for an exchange of intelligence to support our efforts to counter our shared threats. That intelligence sharing is entirely voluntary. It is explicit that our national security will remain the sole responsibility of the UK.
It is hard to find anyone of note among the defence and intelligence world from our Five Eyes allies (the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) who see any threat to our intelligence relationship from the Withdrawal Agreement. In a recent speech to the Royal United Services Institute the current Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, said, “We live in a multi-polar world of competing powers, with divergent views on how the world should work, different values, a sense of historic entitlement and even some scores to settle.” We need to have every possible arrangement of benefit to all of us to protect the UK from a multiplicity of threats but not at any cost. Our Five Eyes relationship and our membership of NATO are not in any way put at risk by this agreement.