What spies can teach civil servants: MI6 head Alex Younger on briefing the PM

Written by Jim Dunton on 15 November 2019 in News
News

Secret Intelligence Service chief details how he interacts with Downing Street and what he looks for in new recruits

Alex Younger Credit: PA

Secret Intelligence Service chief Sir Alex Younger is the only serving member of MI6 whose name is public knowledge, and in a new podcast he has given a fascinating insight into how he interacts with the nation’s top political brass and what the service looks for in its new recruits.

Younger, who has led SIS since 2014 following a career as an operational officer, also detailed his entry into the intelligence service, the need for spies to have a healthy work-life balance, and how he reacted to his cover being effectively blown when he was appointed SIS chief.

In a half-hour interview for Sky News defence and security correspondent Alistair Bunkall’s Off The Record podcast series, Younger – who is accountable to the foreign secretary – unpacked the pillars of his relationship with the prime minister.


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“You’ve got to be really clear what mode you’re in,” he said. “As intelligence professionals, we’re habitually very, very disciplined in distinguishing between fact and analysis. And it’s core to what we do. And when we present what we do, they’re presented separately.  

“That discipline runs right up to my relationship with the leadership of the country. So I’ve got two roles. One is to present intelligence and talk about – if you like – the day job of the service and make sure what we have produced is understood and make sure I understand what it is that we need to find out or do next. 

“And that’s the quite technical part of the job. But it nonetheless involves quite significant interaction with the prime minister. 

“But there’s another bit of my job which is about giving my opinion. And I attend the National Security Council, and that is different. And at that point I’m asked to use my judgment. And the key is that you are clear about the difference between the two.”

Tapped on the shoulder

Younger’s official government biography describes him as having joined SIS in 1991 after studying economics at university and serving in the British Army. He told the podcast that his entry into the service followed the classic university route familiar to spy-novel readers. 

“As intelligence professionals, we’re habitually very, very disciplined in distinguishing between fact and analysis. When we present what we do, they’re presented separately. That discipline runs right up to my relationship with the leadership of the country.”

“I was tapped on the shoulder. It was a bit of a surprise – I’ll be frank with you,” he said. “I had no conception of myself doing a career like this. Which was a good lesson, actually.”

Younger added that officer training at Sandhurst ahead of a spell in the Scots Guards also came as a shock to a “notoriously languid” student.

“It was a fantastic experience, although I might not have thought that at the time,” he said.

“It was an extraordinary change. I say it had a lifelong influence and it did because it taught me some really important things about where your limits lie and how far out those limits are compared to what you might assume. 

“It taught me a lot about an old-fashioned phrase, which is self-discipline. Which is not something I think I possessed in abundance before I went through that experience.”

He added that being in charge of a platoon of 30 people was “something that probably never leaves you” but was only one kind of leadership, and not entirely suitable for other situations. 

“That quite directive form of leadership is only one approach; it’s an approach that you can take when you have control and you’re in command of something,” he said.

“But often, and particularly now, that’s not always the case. I think there are many different modes of leadership that I’ve had to develop since then. But as a bedrock it was fantastic. I recommend it.”

Starting at the end of the Cold War 

Joining SIS “more or less at the end of the Cold War” was a “great opportunity” for a junior spy keen to learn his trade, Younger said.

“One of the things I’m most grateful for is the opportunities and space and trust I was given to develop my capabilities as an intelligence officer,” he said.

“And it’s one of the things I’m determined to keep in people’s earliest career so that they can develop and learn from each other – and from their circumstances and from their mistakes – and turn themselves into the formed professional product that they need to be. 

“One of the things I loved with my early career in SIS is that I was given problems to deal with and I was supported and I was trained. But by and large the way in which I did it, got on with it, was down to me. And that feeling of empowerment and creativity is something that I found validating, powerful, and It’s something we seek to instill now, right across the organisation.”

What SIS looks for in new recutits

Younger listed a detailed set of requirements his officers are looking for in new recruits, with a liking for Aston Martins and specific instructions for the creation of a Martini notoriously absent. 

“A developed degree of emotional intelligence and empathy and an ability to understand and connect with other human beings,” he says.

“A developed degree of curiosity about the world around them… people who have a thirst for knowledge in a way that can propel these relationships. 

“Finally – but also most importantly – a set of values that allow them to conduct themselves properly in some most difficult and stressful environments and properly esteem the fact that as a service we reflect the values of our country and uphold them, even as we protect them.  

“We need to see in people a developed moral literacy, such that they can operate, often independently and in comparatively isolated circumstances in a way that fully esteems us as a service that reflects this country’s values.” 

Going public

Five years ago this month, Younger was appointed SIS chief – a role traditionally referred to as “C” across Whitehall, after the SIS’s first director Captain Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming.

Younger said that after working largely in counter-terrorism – including the three-year runup to 2012 London Olympics – he had been less low-profile in the service than some when his promotion to chief made him the service’s “only declared member”.

“There wasn’t too much incredulity,” he said of his cover being deliberately blown.

“There were people who had never found it very plausible that I was a diplomat, which was a bit hurtful. But I can live with it.”

Younger said he never considered himself an ambitious person, but had seen himself as an effective intelligence officer, and “enjoyed it greatly”.

“Clearly it came with its stresses, its setbacks and its difficulties. But I found it profoundly satisfying,” he said.  

“It was a transition to start thinking about myself as a senior leader. You move into a leadership position and you learn from it, develop intellectual furniture … and it takes you to the next level.”

How spies unwind

“I have a family and I have numerous activities that I enjoy,” Younger explains. “I go and do those things and when I’m doing those things, I don’t think very hard about work.”

He is keen to stress that despite the demands of a career in SIS, not living in an espionage bubble is an important element of success.

“We do encourage people to be pretty open with their partners because you’ve got to strike a balance between the dictates of secrecy and the need for people to have a balanced emotional existence,” he said.

“We’re not enticing people to live in an entirely sealed-off world. You do find yourself very focused on what you do, but it brings a risk of losing perspective and becoming overwhelmed. 

“The reality is that it’s really important to have other sources of self-esteem in your life. That way you get the resilience that is essential.”

Younger's interview can be heard in full here.

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