Picture the scene of abject despondency in the Kremlin. The UK Government is strongly considering regulation for the espionage industry, with spies compelled to sign a register. There’s Mr Putin jumping on that crisis telekit with Mr Xi not knowing which card to lay down next. Talk about pulling the rug out from under the spooks.
Given the post-Brexit labour shortages, there may be some opportunities for re-training. Like as nurses or fruit pickers. Most of them have arguably been picking the low-hanging fruit in Whitehall for decades, but hey ho.
This plan will doubtless have triggered all manner of sub-useless Civil Service activity, from meetings to papers and then the formation of committees and sub-committees, all attended by dullard representatives of every department or association splinter group.
In fact, I would be moderately confident that in some dimly lit basement, a team of short-straw-drawing, disaffected, low-level, thick-as-mince Executive Officers is already toiling over the registration form:
Q1: What acts of espionage are you planning and when?
And it will only go downhill from there to the point where a parched and turgid document will be squeezed from the policy sphincter.
In a parallel pointless universe will be a clown coterie of Customer Experience thought-leader quacks in a frantic race for the bottom to sketch out a Net Promoter Score cash-grab to flip to the Government as some sort of one-size-fits all rectal Key Performance Indicators.
Based on your experience today, how likely is it that you would recommend Her Majesty’s Government to the Russians/Chinese/North Koreans/SPECTRE/any other international organisation?
In all seriousness though, this is not as daft a move as it might seem, but it is manifestly sinister. The US has a (longstanding) Foreign Agents Registration Act that has demanded that persons representing the interests of foreign powers must formally declare this. But here is the foxily cunning part. The actions of such a person need be neither on behalf of the relevant power nor at its behest.
That blows the doors wide open to lower the bar of the criminal threshold and to provide security measures with an increased level of legitimacy. However, even with doubts about such a law fresh of the box, it is likely to be a whole new ball game once it all reaches the hands of lawyers, particularly Government briefs whose core purpose is to re-imagine and bend statutes in order to buttress the policies of the day.
And you have to ask what ‘in the interests of foreign powers’ actually means? Already, I can see that being interpreted as ‘anything deemed to be not in our interests’. It is a sobering thought for the freedom of speech. While the prospect of the shrill Liberal Democrat high command being herded into a meat wagon for propagating pro-EU jibber-jabber might prompt more than just a few sniggers, that would be a wildly gross abuse of any counter-espionage legislation.
But do not rule out that sort of interpretation in practice once the law is on the statute books. Once a law is out there, it is at the mercy of lawyers, judges, and precedents. Who would have imagined that The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (c. 23) (RIPA) – set up to combat the threat of international terrorism – would have been added to the toolkit of District Councils? As ‘public bodies’ they thereby fortuitously acquired the powers to carry out surveillance including the interception of communications. And not wishing to look a gift horse in the mouth, they employed those powers to snare housing benefit fiddlers and ASBO candidates.
It is nothing new. Law buffs will already know the ins and outs of our low-bar Public Order Act, introduced in 1936 to protect Londoners in the face of intimidation by Moseley’s brownshirts, which has been carried forward through the decades to put a stop to all manner of gatherings in opposition to the establishment.
Nowadays, the Act (and its several updated versions) is whipped out and routinely slapped on exuberantly insolent members of the public who find themselves at loggerheads with the Old Bill. It is the ace of clubbing for any gendarme whose intellect can take him no further in a dispute in the hood. You will doubtless have seen many clips online of rotund, burgered-out police officers exhaling, ‘Section 4, Public Order’. And, hey presto, that is a nailed-on conviction in the Magistrates’ Court right there. The evidence threshold is so low that any words credibly positioned as ‘insulting’ will get your ticket punched. Even in the wholly unfeasible event that you fought such a case and won, your non-refundable legal aid contribution would see you rogered and out.
So where is all this going? Just another step along an already hazardous path. Throughout history, the greatest threats to liberty have been the offers of protection by a benevolent force against a hidden enemy. That is how it all starts anyway. The response to COVID-19 has exemplified this perfectly. Look what has already been surrendered with scarcely a whimper, and that is not all over yet.
It hardly matters how things start but greatly matters how they end.
And I spy more to come. We should be more wary of this and the current direction of travel than any Russian on a park bench whispering, ‘Colorado is a river’.