The security services in Britain and Europe work very closely together and it is essential that politicians on both sides of the Channel understand how important this is
When MI5 is open and straightforward there has to be something hidden in plain sight. This is a proposition that applies to all government departments, but for the security services it is especially important, and Andrew Parker’s speech in Berlin on Monday is a fine example of the craft. On the surface, the message was perfectly clear: Britain faces a sustained and dangerous attack, in part from Islamist terrorists whose plots are being disrupted at a rate of one a month; in part from the Russian government, which not only poisoned the Skripals in Salisbury, he says, but followed this up with a campaign of barefaced lying and disinformation on social media to obscure its own responsibility. None of this is untrue or unimportant, but it is rather less important than the message conveyed in the less sensational parts of the speech, and even in the choice of place and time to deliver it.
This was the first public speech delivered by a head of MI5 outside Britain, and it was given to the German security service, one of our most important partners in both the headline struggles. Mr Parker praised the quality and depth of the current European cooperation on counter-terrorism and security, and the way that it has grown over the last five years. There are now 28 countries sharing information in real time, and this kind of cooperation is only going to become more important as time goes on. It is true that the UK, partly because of its tight intelligence links with the US, possesses the most effective security services in Europe, but the traffic in information, and the benefits of collective effort, work both ways. It was a great mistake for Theresa May to threaten to use British intelligence cooperation as a bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiations, as she appeared to do in a speech in 2017. After she had spoken, a delegation of British spy chiefs went to see her to explain how vital these bonds were for Britain’s own security; that is also the really important message hidden in the plain text of Mr Parker’s speech in Berlin.