One of the ongoing surprises of the current contest to become leader of the Conservative Party – and with it prime minister – has been the candidacy of Rory Stewart. An MP since 2010, Stewart was appointed international development secretary in the mini reshuffle that followed the sacking of defence secretary Gavin Williamson.
Stewart’s past employment is both interesting (he has been a tutor for Princes William and Harry, and also a deputy governor in Iraq following the 2003 invasion) and intriguing. It’s been claimed that Stewart worked for the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, for several years after completing his degree at Oxford. Stewart has refuted these claims, although adding that the lifelong duty of confidentiality exercised by former employees of the service would, in any case, prevent a positive answer to the question.
Stewart’s father was a senior Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) official. Joining the service in 1957, Brian Stewart served in Burma, China, Vietnam, rising to the post of assistant chief. He was secretary to the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and was described by former SIS chief Colin McColl as “one of the most remarkable people in the service”.
If the claims that Rory Stewart followed in his father’s footsteps are true, he is the latest in a long line of former spooks who have entered politics after leaving their secret life.
Labour and Liberal Democrat politician Roy Jenkins worked at Bletchley Park, the wartime codebreaking centre, while Labour MP Kenneth Younger was previously an MI5 officer.
The Conservatives have also had former intelligence officers turned politicians. Anthony Courtney, MP for Harrow, who was the victim of a KGB honey trap during a visit to Moscow, was involved in wartime naval intelligence, and supported MI6’s early Cold War operations in the Baltic (codenamed Operation Jungle).
Julian Amery’s wartime links to Albanian resistance groups were exploited by MI6 to recruit anti-Communist Albanians during “Operation Valuable”, a joint MI6-CIA operation to undermine the Hoxcha government. As a member of parliament for Preston North (later Brighton Pavilion), Amery continued to support MI6’s covert action in the Middle East, even lobbying colleagues and Whitehall contacts to support an aggressive anti-Soviet policy from Nicaragua to Afghanistan.
Spooks in high office
Some spooks-turned-politicians have successfully moved beyond the back benches. Following the end of World War II and the demise of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) which was responsible for wartime sabotage and subversion, several of its officers entered politics. They included Douglas Dodds-Parker, Tory MP for Banbury (1945-59) and Cheltenham (1964-74). An undersecretary for foreign affairs during the Suez Crisis, Dodds-Parker had run SOE’s mission in Algiers. Another was Patricia Hornsby-Smith, who became Conservative MP for Chislehurst and parliamentary under secretary at the Home Office in 1957. As principle private secretary to wartime minister of economic warfare Lord Selborne, she maintained links to SOE after the war, joining the Special Forces Club to keep in touch with SOE’s veterans.
Perhaps the most successful former spook was Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader and MP for Yeovil. Ashdown was rumoured to have served in MI6, having left the Special Boat Service (SBS) in the early 1970s to work as a “diplomat” in Geneva, under the cover of first secretary to the UK’s UN mission there. “Well, you can say what you like about it. I was a diplomat in Geneva”, he told journalists.
None of the above, however, made it to the highest office in the land. For this we need to look overseas. While Vladimir Putin’s Cold War past as an officer of the KGB is well documented, the only illustration in a Western democracy comes from former US president George H W Bush. A former director of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Bush successfully ran for the White House in 1989.
Bush showed the kind of qualities that a former intelligence officer could bring to national leadership. As CIA director, Bush “leaned over backward to protect the objectivity and independence of the agency’s estimates and to avoid slanting the results to fit some preconceived notion of what the president wanted to hear”.
As president, he visited the CIA and attended briefings to underline the importance he attached to their work, valuing their assessments in dealing with both the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. His insider knowledge meant that he understood the strengths and weaknesses of intelligence. This also allowed him to become his own analyst, opposing the views of the State Department and Department of Defense – usually a weakness with inexperienced policymakers, but one of Bush’s strengths.
Whatever the truth, claims about Rory Stewart’s past are a reminder that it is not unusual for former intelligence officers to enter politics. Being an intelligence officer requires individuals to display many of the skills needed for Downing Street. Analyzing a range of information from different sources, listening to others, and making firm decisions are just some of the traits needed. Whether we’ll ever see a former spy in the top job remains to be seen, but one thing is certain – they would be unlikely to admit it.