Tinker Tailor Soldier Jonathan

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Deputy Science and Tech editor Oliver Cohen interviews Jonathan Evans, the previous head of MI5, about terrorism, his move to the private sector and his Classics degree. As part of our Humans of UoB series where we interview past and present members of the University communitity

Walking into a small alcove-like room within the Wills building to meet a man who, for six years, was the head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In fact, even now I’m not sure what I should have expected. Nevertheless, with a polite manner and an eloquence that no doubt only comes from such an esteemed career - he certainly exceeded expectations.

Jonathan Evans, alumni, read Classics here at Bristol before starting with the Security Services in 1980 working on counter-espionage. Over the next few decades, he moved around working in areas such as international terrorism and eventually became head of the organisation, 27 years later in 2007. This period has meant he has been heavily involved with the development of the security services after events such as 9/11, 7/7 and the rise of radical Islamist terrorism within the west.

After stepping down from the service in 2013, he became a non-executive director of HSBC and Ark data centres where he currently serves.


Photo by Gordon Williams / Unsplash

Despite such a prolific career, my conversation with him started on a more moderate topic, his degree and more specifically moving from a very non-vocational degree to work in the fast-paced intelligence sector. He, however, didn’t view the lack of application of degree content to be of any disadvantage to him; rather the skills gained in undertaking the subject were worthwhile for the commercial world. His view was that graduate employers were looking for, “ability to think about data /information and an ability to engage with people and an element of sort of potential which isn’t really dependent on one particular degree.” This is no doubt good news for graduates of varying disciplines.

An element of sort of potential which isn’t really dependent on one particular degree.

The discussion became more interesting when I brought up Prevent. The strategy started by the Blair government in 2003 aims to act as a safeguarding mechanism to ‘prevent’ those at risk of becoming radicalised transitioning to terrorism. It has however come under fire recently, having become criticised for disproportionately targeting Muslims. On this topic, I asked Jonathan what he thought of the scheme and discussed where a line must be drawn to combat terrorism and gather intelligence, versus the discrimination of specific communities. His answers were thought-provoking. First of all, he viewed Prevent as nothing to do with the intelligence, in his own words, “More like a sort of safeguarding issue more than an intelligence issue.” He even went as far as to say it would be counterproductive for MI5 to be involved in the running of the scheme.

However, building on this he was adamant on the requirement to gather intelligence to stop people committing atrocities. He did, however, state the importance of the fact it is, “not aimed however at communities it is aimed at individuals who pose a threat.” I found this an interesting distinction, how intelligence was focused very much on the individual. Whether this includes contextual information that includes their community is conjecture, unfortunately, but makes for an interesting question, no doubt still being faced today.

Not aimed however at communities it is aimed at individuals who pose a threat.

Moving on from this topic and trying to further draw out this idea of the balance between infringement of civil liberties versus safety, I questioned him on internet surveillance, a hot topic for a generation of students who have an identity that has grown up and matured on the web. His answers were some of the most interesting and surprising of the interview. Getting straight to the point, he spoke of the, “expectation that the government will protect people from things like the Paris attacks.” He reasoned that while we may choose surveillance to be too intrusive; if we have an expectation an almost taken for granted stance on our protection, then we must accept such surveillance as the price we pay.

While I disagreed with certain nuances of the argument, I think it raises an obvious but sometimes glossed over point, that all the while that such surveillance methods are debated and attacked, our safety and the means to maintain it is never doubted. He did, however, agree that oversight was a bastion against such programs being used for nefarious purposes. Another interesting point followed; he said that the day to day activities of innocent citizens are simply of no interest to the security services; no surprises there. However, he went on to explain that in his experience, such irrelevant information including, “activities of people on Instagram and Facebook. If anything it is a problem as it kind of gets in the way of the stuff we want to see.” This was a point I never considered, the fact that so much information on us available online may be a hindrance to the services. It was in this vein that he emphasised his main point, the uninterest of the government of mass surveillance, preferring a targeted approach.


Photo by Tim Bennett / Unsplash

In a lighter approach, we then discussed his later move from the public to the private sector with HSBC. While he thought they were undoubtedly different mostly in the private sectors strategic freedom to choose what it wants to do, he also thought that certain things are a commonality between both. Mainly he talked of success and the qualities needed for it across both areas, “It’s that ability to think through issues rationally, the ability to be persuasive think about the wider picture and to have the resilience to achieve your goals.” Wise words for any graduates reading.

It’s that ability to think through issues rationally, the ability to be persuasive think about the wider picture and to have the resilience to achieve your goals.

To finish off, I asked the question I thought would be apt to end on, the biggest threat to the UK. He had a very specific triumvirate of what he thought we need be worried about. Firstly he acknowledged the slow defeat of ISIS, whose loss of land was important as it, “underlines this kind of spurious claim to be a state.” Nevertheless, he believed them still a threat as the ideology was not defeated, and there still exist many individuals who ally with them. Next, he talked of far-right extremism, raising a point I had never considered before. Stating that “Al-Qaida and ISIS and co have not actually killed a British parliamentary and the far right has with Jo Cox,” underlining his point that they and their rise are a serious threat. Finally, he talked of cyber warfare, acknowledging the huge roles technology plays underpinning modern life. He left with a stark warning: “We need to get that right because otherwise, we are going to have a major, potentially a very very serious problem.”

Nothing too much to worry about then.

Featured image: Epigram/ Bristol Law Conference - Ben Lin


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