On Monday 3 December, Alex Younger, Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), delivered a speech at his alma mater, the University of St Andrews.
Mr Younger talked about his time as an undergraduate when he gained an Honours degree in economics. He also spoke about threats currently facing the UK and the future of SIS recruitment.
Topics included Russian actions in Salisbury, the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the recent imprisonment of British academic Matthew Hedges, increasing private influences in the security sector, and China’s desire to dominate the tech industries by the mid-point of this century.
The talk had been advertised in the weekly all-student email but Mr Younger’s identity had remained secret for security purposes.
Later in the day, The Saint had the opportunity to talk to Mr Younger in a rare exclusive interview.
During his speech, Mr Younger had said, “St Andrews taught me to think in an open-minded way about the world. It taught me the value of the human curiosity and curiosity about humans that has propelled my career, and the career of the surprisingly large number of St Andrews graduates in the ranks of the SIS.”
Therefore, it seemed fitting to ask what it was about St Andrews that made graduates suited to a role in the Service.
in no description is St Andrews a tough place to be in
“I was being polite in the speech but the reality is you have to make your own fun up. People need each other more and they interact more closely. In the SIS, funnily enough, the most satisfying postings I had aren’t in the lovely European cities or whatever, they’re in the really tough places where you have to get to know the people around you.
“But in no description is St Andrews a tough place to be in, on the contrary. But you are required to interact with each other; that was my experience. So unconsciously you learn a lot about yourself and other people and how to interact with them, and I think that’s one of the most profound keys to progress generally actually. But my profession is emotional intelligence, that’s what we do – understanding other people. So that would be my guess, I don’t actually know.”
After graduating from St Andrews in 1986, Mr Younger spent four years as an infantry officer in the Scots Guards, which he said prepared him for his work in the SIS.
He described this early experience as fundamental to understanding the consequences of one’s own actions.
“As a 22-year-old, I found myself in charge of 30 people, most of whom frankly knew more about stuff than I did.”
He continued, “you’re put sometimes in a position of life or death over them and you need to work together in some pretty tough environments at 22 or 23 … you don’t get everything right, but I promise you it really, really changes you.
“That produces pressure, don’t get me wrong, but looking back on it, it gives you confidence and gives you understanding of where your limits are and generally your limits are quite a lot further out than you would have thought.”
Following the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum, Mr Younger has been a vocal supporter of inter-agency intelligence sharing.
In February of this year, he joined the heads of the French and German intelligence agencies and called for continued security cooperation after the UK leaves the EU in an unprecedented joint statement.
In both his speech and interview with The Saint, Mr Younger reaffirmed his commitment to this goal.
can we remember that we are a continent with shared values and common threats?
Overall, Mr Younger attempted to convey that leaving the EU would not have disastrous consequences for the UK’s security. He vehemently denied that political turmoil from the latest Brexit deal made the UK appear weak in the eyes of its enemies.
“In practice, nothing really changes as a result of Brexit in the security arena; our relationships are either bilateral or multilateral. But we did call out a few months ago – we, the agency heads – that nonetheless there are some data sharing protocols that need to be sustained, and will not automatically be sustained unless we sustain them.
“There needs to be something both in the withdrawal agreement that does and then sign-posts a properly structured approach to sharing data.”
Furthermore, Mr Younger seemed cautiously optimistic about his role in the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
“Well I think first of all I’ve got the easiest job in Brexit because the government quite rightly took the view that if we’d be anything after Brexit, we’d be outward-looking, and we should be in those terms not only trying to maintain, but augment our security relationships and I’ve got to bring that to life.”
He continued, “I’m really proud of the way that stuff has come to life over the last few years. Admittedly in the face of some really serious common problems such as terrorism and Russia and all of that. So I just need to walk the walk on this. And as we said in Munich when Bruno Kahl, Bernard Emie [heads of the German and French agencies respectively] and me were sitting there together, we were trying to bring that to life.
“At the end of all this, when the heat has died down, can we remember that we are a continent with shared values and common threats? There are the same people trying to kill us as the ones trying to kill people in Europe.”
Moving the focus of the interview further to the east, The Saint queried what Mr Younger believed was the greatest threat Russia posed to the UK at this moment in time.
In his speech, Mr Younger had remarked, “I should emphasise that even as the Russian state seeks to destabilise us, we do not seek to destabilise Russia. We do not seek an escalation. If we see a change in Russian behaviour, we will respond positively.”
[Russia] has taught itself to fear the quality of our alliances
He echoed a similar sentiment in his answer to The Saint, asserting that the greatest threat Russia posed to the UK was destabilising its alliances.
“When you look at what makes us strong, it is our alliances and our institutions – our values.
“I think that Russia, for reasons rooted probably in the circumstances of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, has taught itself to fear the quality of our alliances and our political institutions and somehow feels that the undoing of the Soviet Union is related to that … but that’s my speculation.
“… as I said in my speech, I was trying to be very calibrated, and I’m not up for demonising Russia, but I do think insofar as they’ve threatened the integrity of our political institutions and therefore our way of life, it’s a problem. I don’t think they need to do it – they really don’t. I was trying to send that message this morning and I hope it is heard.”
Mr Younger’s interview with The Saint took place after a brief visit to the University’s computer science department.
He asserted that the future of intelligence lies at the nexus between the technical and the human. “Your life, you’re half virtual and half real, aren’t you? And our operations embody that.
[Technology is a] golden opportunity and an existential challenge
“… Of course, I did do computer science at St Andrews and I was massively into computers when I was a kid before it was kind of fashionable.”
In his speech, Mr Younger had revealed that his first posting in the SIS was to penetrate an organisation intent on genocide in the western Balkans in the mid-1990s.
With specific reference to that assignment, he contended that the manner in which the SIS used to operate was more risk-free and that since the rise of new technology, the work of MI6 is in greater danger of being exposed.
Mr Younger characterised developing technology as both a “golden opportunity and an existential challenge.”
Previously, in an interview with The Guardian, Mr Younger had conceded that MI6 had “suffered from groupthink,” and that he desired individuals that had the confidence to inform him if they disagreed with a decision.
“So we are MI6, we can attract people of extraordinary quality, I don’t expect that to change. But as I said, I do expect us to be able to recruit from an even more diverse base, and if I want one thing, it is that.”
He continued, “the type of person you need to be [is] the type of person who wants to make a difference, and above all, as I said, I want people who have never thought of joining us, to join us – if that’s not oxymoronic.”
Wrapping up the interview, The Saint finally asked what it was Mr Younger missed most about his time at St Andrews.
“I had no understanding of the privilege of being up here and just the space and the natural beauty and the effect that it has on people.
“Of course I lived in Cellardyke [near Anstruther]. The sun came up in the morning and shone through the windows over the Forth estuary and I just thought that was absolutely normal.”
Andrew Sinclair contributed to this article.