Sturgeon warning from ex-GCHQ head: UK on lookout for ‘subversion’ within Yes campaign

Indyref2: Expert discusses Nicola Sturgeon's referendum stance

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Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has proudly claimed she now has a mandate for a second independence referendum, known as Indyref2, after the Scots elected a majority of pro-independence MSPs in the Holyrood election last week. She has promised to wait until the Covid crisis has subsided before pushing the matter further with Downing Street. However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has claimed it would be “irresponsible and reckless” to hold another referendum, and is so far refusing to hand over the powers to hold such a public vote to Holyrood.

This has raised concerns of a future legal challenge between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament — and an interview last year with the former head of GCHQ suggested that even if the referendum goes ahead legally, UK authorities will be on edge.

Former spy chief, Sir David Omand, told Scottish newspaper The Herald on Sunday that the Yes campaign will be watched closely by the British intelligence services for any signs of “subversion”.

Speaking last December, Sir David, who was also the UK’s first Security and Intelligence Coordinator, claimed that the UK has not spied on the Yes movement as of yet.

But the spy expert pointed out that there have been fears of Russian cyber interference in future referendums.

Alluding to Russia, Sir David said: “You can be sure there would certainly be attempts to interfere with a Scottish referendum campaign.

“If there was evidence of a foreign state interfering in the referendum or trying to subvert the movement…. Then of course that would be a legitimate target.”

Russia has been accused of interfering in the last two Presidential elections in the US.

In January 2017, the CIA, FBI and NSA all confirmed there had been some Russian interference in the 2016 election, and claimed the aim was to undermine Americans’ confidence in their electoral system and to disparage the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

In March this year, the Director of National Intelligence found pockets of Russian intelligence had also promoted misleading tales about Donald Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden, “to US media organisations, US officials, and prominent US individuals”.

A landmark UK report from last July found Russian President Vladimir Putin was attempting to influence the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, as well as the EU referendum.

The document cited “credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014”.

It’s been widely reported that splitting the UK would suit Russia’s agenda.

Yet, when discussing the alleged meddling in the 2014 referendum, Ms Sturgeon pinned the blame on the Conservatives for not being “rigorous” enough.

She added: “I would say the Scottish independence movement and the values I and my party stand for, I don’t think could be further removed from the values Vladimir Putin and the Russian regime stand for.”

Sir David also looked at the possibility of London spying on its Scottish counterpart in the event that it becomes independent.

He explained: “Key to [England spying on Scotland] would be: would there be well substantiated fears in London that Edinburgh would be taking decisions that would directly harm the security of the citizens of England — which they might not intend as harm but would be decisions which could inadvertently have knock-on effects?”

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Sir David mentioned there was a risk that other ally nations, such as the US, France and Germany, would spy on an independent Scotland, too.

He said: “NATO allies are going to be asking some very searching questions, particularly in Washington, but also in Paris and Berlin, about what this new Scotland is up to.”

Sir David noted that an independent Scotland would also struggle to establish its own intelligence services quickly, and so would have to be reliant on the British spy services, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ — at least initially.

The expert claimed this would be essential after independence, as “Scotland would be vulnerable” in terms of defence and security.

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Sir David also hit out at Ms Sturgeon’s party, the SNP, over its stance towards Trident, the UK’s nuclear programme based in Scotland.

He suggested that for Scotland to be truly protected, it “would require significant adjustment to what I read as being the position of the Scottish National Party”.

He continued: “Namely its anti-nuclear stance and the magical thinking about the level of security that would be enjoyed in an independent Scotland without significant assistance from England.”

He pointed out that establishing its own armed forces, and protecting itself from hostile states and international terrorism would cost a great deal — meaning Scotland would probably require “active support” from “big brother” England to succeed.

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