If you listened to Boris Johnson on Wednesday, you would have got the idea that the Russia report was nothing but an attempt to subvert Brexit. But it wasn’t – in fact, the intelligence and security committee report is far more original and important than anyone expected. The real story it has uncovered isn’t even primarily about Russia. It’s about the UK intelligence agencies themselves.

The report’s main narrative is not new or hard to understand. Post-Soviet Russia wishes to be treated as a great power. It uses its intelligence services to damage western states such as Britain in order to advance that goal. Its tools include poisoning, cyber disruption, disinformation, financial influence and spying. And, as Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, admitted in relation to the 2019 election, it never stops trying.

But the big reveal in the Russia report is about Britain, not Russia. It’s that shortsighted British politicians have encouraged this to happen. It’s that UK intelligence agencies chose to watch from the sidelines while it went on. In the report’s three key phrases, the agencies regarded the defence of Britain’s democracy as too much of a “hot potato” to intervene; they were so busy on anti-terrorist work that they “took their eye off the ball”; and this all happened because the government in general, not just the agencies, fostered a “somewhat laissez-faire policy approach” to Russia.

This failure is crucial. First, because it says the UK’s intelligence agencies were not focused on hostile threats for which there was already clear public evidence. And, second, because it suggests uncertainty within government about the agencies’ proper purposes, which in the end prevented them from doing their job.

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This was not always so. When MI5 and MI6 were established more than a century ago, their remit was very clearly summed up in four words: “defence of the realm”. The phrase endured until MI5 finally became a statutory body in 1989, followed five years later by MI6.

Richard Haldane, who chaired the committee from which the agencies emerged in 1909, was explicit about those purposes. The agencies were tasked with uncovering “the nature and extent of foreign espionage that is at present taking place within this country”. Their gathering of intelligence should be “systematic”. That’s what MI5, in particular, proceeded to do for the rest of the 20th century. But it was the very thing that today’s politicians and agencies did not do in the Russian case.

There were three main reasons. The first was that successive governments took far too long to grasp that Vladimir Putin was intent on re-establishing a form of 21st-century cold war with western democracies. Instead, from Tony Blair to Johnson, they continued to offer an open door to Russian power and money. In this respect it is hard to place the main blame on the agencies, although they could and should have warned more firmly about the threat. The policy was beyond naive.

The second reason was the agencies’ post-cold war workloads. This was dominated by counter-terrorism, especially in the wake of 9/11, as well as ongoing issues related to Northern Ireland, and the mounting threat from far-right violent extremism. By 2008-09, according to the Russia report, just 3% of MI5’s effort was allocated to work against “hostile state activity”. By 2006, just 4% of GCHQ’s work was focused on the former Soviet bloc, for similar reasons. These proportions have risen again recently, although the precise figures have been redacted from the report. Nevertheless, they mean that Putin’s Russia was largely faced with an open goal.

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The third reason is the most difficult and challenging. Back in 1909, the “realm” the agencies were to defend was still a meaningful term. Today, in a liberal democracy, it is an anachronism. And yet, as the Russia report puts it, the agencies “do not view themselves as holding primary responsibility for the active defence of the UK’s democratic processes”. When asked by the committee about Russia’s possible role in the EU referendum they displayed “extreme caution” that this might be anything they should concern themselves with.

On one level this is admirable. It shows how seriously the agencies appear to take their statutory responsibilities. It shows sensitivity about the line they must tread, as secret agencies, in a world that demands transparency and good governance. But it also shows they are neglecting a key part of their job, and need to have more clarity about what they are defending.

Consider the following highly topical example. The potential break-up of Britain that might have resulted from the 2014 Scottish referendum is axiomatically not in the interest of the UK and is also a major problem for UK national security. It therefore has to be a concern to MI5, not least because breaking up the UK is obviously also in the interest of a hostile power such as Russia. The large political constraint is obvious. A majority in Scotland could have voted for it – and may yet do so. The agencies’ role here is obviously immensely delicate, but it is hard to argue that they should just do nothing.

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A deep governmental thinker like Haldane would have demanded more from the agencies and politicians. He believed in state bodies organised on rational principles, oriented to rational goals that could be accomplished by properly qualified public servants. So should we.

The case for thinking creatively about the secret agencies, which the nation needs but which have sat on their hands too often while Britain is under Russian assault, ought to be strong. And yet, tragically for Britain, the drive for reform of the state, so necessary in so many ways, is not in the hands of a Hegelian idealist like Haldane. Instead, it is in the hands of a vengeful tinpot vandal, Dominic Cummings, who promotes a malign and partisan agenda that can only breed public hostility to the state’s agencies – not help to restore the confidence that is so badly needed.

Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist



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