Doctor of Laws
11 July 2008 – Orator: Professor Malcolm Evans, OBE
The preparation of an oration to accompany the presentation of an honorary graduand is both a pleasure and a challenge. It has to be admitted that the element of challenge has been rather more to the fore than is perhaps usual in this, the case of Jonathan Evans. It is not only modesty or humility which restricts his entry in ‘Who’s Who’ to a mere – some might say meagre – three lines, or which dictates that the most sophisticated internet search engine can produce no more than a handful of references to the same shards of basic biography. Nor does the reason for such rectitude reside in a lack of achievement or distinction – quite the reverse! When, however, I highlighted to him the difficulties to be faced in eking out the contours of his career, he merely smiled and remarked that he was glad to hear of it. For by profession, Jonathan Evans is a man of mystery whose trade is secrecy: he is the Head of MI5.
Having attended Sevenoaks School in Kent, Jonathan came to Bristol University in 1977 and read Classical Studies, living for a time in Hiatt Baker Hall. He graduated in 1980 and was looking forward to the challenge of the new position which had attracted his attention through the good offices of the University Careers Service. That position was, he believed, in the ‘Ministry of Defence Independent Intelligence Branch’. It was only after he had commenced his new role that he realised that he had in fact applied to, been interviewed by and been accepted for a post in the United Kingdom’s domestic security and counter-intelligence service. It is no doubt an interesting question whether this speaks highly of the ability of MI5 to operate in a suitably clandestine fashion, or whether it raises some issues concerning the research skills of Bristol graduates. That question is, however, considerably less interesting than the work in which Jonathan soon found himself immersed.
Jonathan’s first role was in counter-espionage and involved monitoring the activities of Warsaw Pact agents in the Capital, particularly the Bulgarians. Many in this Hall (though probably not many of the graduating students) may recall the Georgi Markov affair which had occurred the year before, in 1979. Markov was found to have been poisoned by having been jabbed with a poisoned tip of an umbrella in London by Bulgarian agents. This made the monitoring of their activities both particularly important and peculiarly sensitive. In 1985 he moved to what is known as ‘Protective Security’, and which involves maintaining the security of government and of its classified information.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, in the light of recent events there may be some merit in his revisiting that role, given the propensity for top secret dossiers to be left on commuter trains. Nevertheless, Jonathan’s next move took him in a very different direction. In the late 1980s the focus of his work switched to domestic counter-terrorism activities and for over a decade he was actively engaged in efforts to combat threats posed as a consequence of the troubles in Northern Ireland. This involved both obtaining and analysing intelligence and formulating practical responses in a climate of activity which was punctuated by such prominent outrages as the Enniskillen, Bishopsgate and Canary Wharf bombings.
Following the Good Friday Accords, and the lessening of tensions in Northern Ireland, Jonathan moved to a newly emergent area of concern which was shortly to command the attention of the entire international community. In 1999 he joined ‘G-Branch’, which deals with international terrorism, and swiftly became an expert on the activities of Al-Qaeda. His success in this role was such that he was promoted to Head of Section, assuming his new responsibilities on 1st September 2001 – a mere ten days before the attacks of September 11th. In the wake of 9/11 this taxing position become even more demanding as he was called on not only to oversee the conduct of live investigatory activities but also to help the Government understand the complexity of the issues involved in what might be described as the ‘war of attrition’ between the organisation and the security services. Elements of that ‘war of attrition’ also passed into the public domain in the following years, including the so-called ‘ricin plot’ and ‘fertiliser plot’, both of which were successfully addressed. Success in this context is a rather particular concept, though when asked by what measure it might be gauged his answer was clear – success lies in achieving a situation in which ‘nothing ever happens’.
Achieving nothing is not easily achieved and so, in the light of his record and experience of doing just that, it came as no surprise when Jonathan was appointed Deputy Director-General of MI5 in 2005. Once again, his appointment to a new position was followed soon after by an act of terrorism, in this case the London bombings of 7th July and the attempted bombings of 21st July, the consequences of which presented the Service with one of its most serious challenges in recent times. The following year, 2006, saw the thwarting of the ‘Airlines Plot’. For many of us, this is remembered for the additional security screening and the minor irritations of restrictions on carry-on baggage. For others, including Jonathan Evans, it is remembered as a major ‘victory’ in the ongoing struggle with international terrorism. Yet none of these successes are really ‘victories’. As he has acknowledged, the intelligence and security services can only deal with the symptoms of terrorism and not with its causes. Through their activities they can ‘hold the line’ and, by creating a space, ‘buy time’ for policy makers to address the underlying issues. But the importance of their work remains undiminished and it is important that the time it buys is not squandered. In the meanwhile, new challenges emerge, and the threats to cyber-security are an increasingly important issue.
In April 2007 Jonathan became Director-General of MI5, a position of awesome responsibility. Given the history of his previous elevations, one might wonder whether he might have been just a little anxious about what might occur in the days and weeks that followed. However, his assuming the Directorship has not been a harbinger of momentous acts of successful terrorist activity - or at least of any that we know of. On the contrary, it has been a period in which those responsible for acts of terrorism have finally come to trial and the doubters within the public at large have been able to see and hear the evidence that has lead to numerous convictions. Indeed, the relatively high percentage of those charged with terrorist-related offences who plead guilty speaks to the effectiveness of the police and security services in marshalling the necessary evidence. Nevertheless, the recent arrests of suspects here in the City of Bristol underlines the continuing need for vigilance – but Bristol, of course, holds far fonder resonances for Jonathan than its being a site of recent arrests. He remembers his time at the University with great affection – as well he might, since it was as a student here that he met his future wife, who is herself a Bristol graduate and whom we are delighted to welcome to this ceremony today. His passion for walking resulted in some memorable visits to the surrounding countryside, including the Wye Valley and Tintern Abbey, and to Somerset – for the cider. Not that it was always necessary to travel quite so far afield for the latter commodity, as the Arts Faculty was then the provider of very acceptable Cider and Cheese lunches which were also capable of making a significant impression on him. The utility of his Classical Studies for his future work should not be underestimated either. Acquiring a breadth of knowledge across a variety of fields of study proved to be a very useful training, facilitating an ease of engagement with a variety of conceptual approaches to practical issues and the ability to locate the particular within the broader perspective. It also had its uses when, on first joining, he received memos written to him in ancient Greek by other classicists within the service. Those were the days! … and a safer form of encryption might today be difficult to find!
Mr Vice-Chancellor, MI5 was originally founded in 1909 as a response to the intelligence-gathering activities of the German Naval Intelligence Services in the period prior to the outbreak of the First World War. 1909 also marks the date of the foundation of this University and so both of these great institutions will be celebrating their centenaries next year. It is, then, particularly gratifying that this historical confluence finds contemporary conjunction in the person of Jonathan Evans, whom I present to you as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.