Almost forty years ago I was appointed to run the London office of the Scottish New Towns Development Corporations. In those days, Cumbernauld, East Kilbride, Glenrothes, Irvine and Livingston were run by the development agencies that had built them. My job was to seek out inward investment opportunities for the towns and build awareness of what they had to offer. That meant promoting them to business, finance, the diplomatic corps and London’s enormous press contingent. And that’s how I came to be of interest to spies, or at least one spy.
My brush with the world of espionage came to mind on hearing the news that Members of the Scottish Parliament are being offered training on how to spot a spy.
The course is to be delivered by the UK’s National Protective Security Authority, the National Authority for Counter-Eavesdropping and the National Cyber Security Centre, which is part of GCHQ, the Government Communications Headquarters.
Cold War still hot
In the 1980s the Cold War was still hot. London was awash with foreign diplomats working for the ‘other side.’ The whole country knew this, thanks to a stream of spy scandals and TV dramas, most famously John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
When I had been interviewed for the London job by George Young, former Glasgow Herald journalist turned managing director of East Kilbride Development Corporation, no mention was made of having to keep a secret radio transmitter in my flat, wear a gaberdine trench coat or carry a last resort pill of deadly strychnine, in case of capture by the enemy. George was more inclined to offer a hospitable glass of malt. He gave me valuable advice on using humour, hospitality and deep research to promote the new towns and Scotland. Apart from being told not to be profligate with my expense account, I was sent naked into the world.
I was given no training or wise counsel on the matter of spies. Fortunately, I had not long before completed a degree in politics and international relations at the great and ancient University of Aberdeen. At least four of my tutors had worked in British military intelligence. Two people in my year joined the spooks in Whitehall. Staff and students alike were obsessed with Le Carre and the language of covert politics. The talk was often of ‘dead letter drops, tradecraft and one-time pads’; the stuff of everyday spying. Spying is, after all, part of the warp and weft of international relations.
I imagined I’d left all that behind on the green lawns of King’s College and on the beer-sticky floors of the university union. Before going to London, I’d worked for a year with Borders Regional Council. Not a spy had I spotted between Chirnside and Lauder and none appeared in Hawick, Melrose, Galashiels or Jedburgh, though mysterious figures could sometimes be seen measuring up a new sensation at No15 at one or other of those town’s famous rugby grounds.
So, one glorious spring morning I left the Borders behind to drive my battered Ford to London. In the space of 24-hours, I’d forsaken a cramped open plan office shared with six friendly colleagues. Deeply rural Newtown St Boswells’ dull grey 1960s concrete council HQ was gone from my life.
The gentle towns and rolling hills of the Borders were replaced with a huge private office, drinks cabinet and the roaring traffic of the heart of London’s west end. I was five floors high, in an elegant Victorian building once the British HQ of the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. I could lean out of my window and no more than 100 yards away see Nelson’s Column. Whitehall a five-minute walk, Fleet St a brisk taxi ride and a Northern Line tube train would speed from Trafalgar Square to the City in the blink of an eye. This was my beat. I was to go out into London town and sell Scotland and its new towns in the board rooms of the City, the pubs of Fleet St, receptions in livery halls, grand hotels, trade boards and international chambers of commerce. I was captivated and I knew I had the world’s greatest product to sell. Scotland.
A night at the Foreign Press Association
A big part of the job meant building a network of contacts in all kinds of organisations. That’s how I came to join the Foreign Press Association. The FPA lives in a fabulous wedding cake building tucked discreetly away in a cul de sac between The Mall and Pall Mall. Every one of London’s 2,500 overseas journalists is accredited to work in the UK by the Foreign Office, which pays most of the cost of running the FPA.
So it was, one autumn evening in 1985, I strolled the few minutes from my office to the FPA. The exact reason for the reception has long escaped me. The memory of what happened next never has.
I fell into conversation with a short, broad-shouldered man in an ill-fitting suit. He was a press attaché at the Soviet Embassy (then occupied by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and now by the Russian Federation). He was a friendly and witty chap. We passed a few minutes idly discussing the big stories of the day. There then appeared another man whom the Russian greeted with a handshake. Our new companion accepted the Russian’s hand with a certain deference. It transpired that the newcomer was a trade envoy at the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia. In common with all of the countries behind the Iron Curtain, Czechoslovakia was until the fall of Soviet communism in 1989, a client state of the Soviet Union. The Czech was simply acknowledging his boss.
In contrast with his Soviet friend, the Czech was severe, a bit taciturn and not in the least entertaining. He did though want to know all about me and my job. I gave him the standard spiel and we parted. He was no use to me or the Scottish new towns. I didn’t give him another thought. After all, I’d never hear from him again.
I was wrong. A few days later he called the office and invited me to lunch. He was, he said, interested in how people lived in the new towns. “Were they a worker’s paradise?”
I agreed to meet and asked him date, time and place, expecting him to name a restaurant, club or perhaps, the Czech Embassy dining room. “Meet me at the corner of the Swiss Centre,” he said. I felt myself immediately inside a Le Carre novel. A warning bell went off in my head.
You might ask why on earth a foreign communist power might have any interest in me or my job. I was certainly a very minor cog in the world. I had no power, authority or influence. I had one or two things going for me as a potential informant. I moved in important circles. I heard things. I had contact with potential high-tech manufacturing investors who might be persuaded to locate in Scotland. Among many things that spies seek to complete jigsaws of intelligence is gossip and tittle tattle. A more serious pursuit is information on advanced technology and investment plans.
Spook watching at the Swiss Centre
When the appointed day and time for lunch arrived, I headed for the Swiss Centre, a garish 1960s building close to Leicester Square, that promoted all things Swiss.
I decided to err on the side of caution. Half concealing myself in a nearby doorway, I planned to wait until my host arrived at the meeting spot. For some ten minutes nothing happened. And then, about 100 yards away, in a doorway on the opposite of the road, I spotted him. He was waiting for me to arrive before crossing to greet me. Now, the bell in my head began to ring louder. Why was he hiding himself? A sixth sense said best to quietly walk away, leaving my Czech friend to spy another day. He called me a few hours later, forcing me to invent an urgent matter that had kept me from lunch. I manged to avoid committing to a further meeting.
Months passed and not a sound from the spook. I’d been recruited by an advertising agency and given notice to my bosses in Scotland. As the development corporations were coming to the end of their lives, to be replaced by local councils, the decision was made to close the London office. The head of Glenrothes Development Corporation, Brigadier Martin Cracknell, got in touch to book the in-house private dining room for one last time. He wanted to nurture some senior businesspeople and top Whitehall contacts. Among his guests was a serving high-ranking military man who held the office of Adjutant General.
Martin Cracknell had kindly invited me to the lunch. As we got to the coffee stage, I thought it time for me to leave Cracknell and his guests to the port and cigars. The had all been in the army at high rank. They wanted to chat freely and reminisce.
I was back at my desk no more than ten minutes when the phone rang. It was my Czech friend. He wanted to meet. I explained I was moving to a new job and that the office was to close. As soon as politely possible I ended the call. The question you’ll now be asking is, did he know the Adjutant General and a clutch of other well-placed serving or former military top brass were in my building? We’ll never know, but it’s more credible that a watch was kept on the movements of the UK’s Adjutant General than on a minor figure in the world of Scottish economic development.
Czech spy expelled following attempt to recruit top computer writer
But the story wasn’t over. About six months later, the UK’s best-selling computer industry magazine ran a front-page story of how a Czech trade envoy had tried to recruit one of the paper’s top writers. The trade envoy was my friend from the Foreign Press Association. Within days of the story’s publication, the UK government expelled him on the grounds that his actions were “activities incompatible with his status.”
If there’s a lesson in all this, it is that even the smallest cog in the great endeavours of state, media, commerce and industry might at any time be of intertest to agents of another power. Remember too that spies have to justify their pay packet. They can make the most low-key piece of intelligence sound profoundly important. MSPs at Holyrood might want to catch up on their Le Carre. For me though, the best book ever written about the comedy that is spying is Graham Green’s Our Man in Havana. I recommend it.
Following the end of Soviet communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new era of international relations came about. It was all about détente and trade and the world had great hope that the end of the Cold War would bring a huge peace dividend across the globe. There were substantial benefits from that change, but times have changed again. Spies never went away. Now there are probably more of them, with bigger budgets and new targets. While cyber-spying is now big business, spies will always seek to snare mere humans. Some targets will be flattered by the attention, some excited by the intrigue and danger. Others may be bought with cash or lavish hospitality. Some might even have ideological motivation. Human frailty may be a secret agent’s best friend.
As for the Swiss Centre, it was demolished in 2008. Nobody knows how many spies met how many targets under its white and red flag. I wonder where the favoured meeting place is now?
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