Sir John Sawers, the UK ambassador to the UN, is to become the new head of the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6. Most of the coverage tomorrow is likely to focus on how unusual it is for an outsider to be appointed chief – or “C” as it is still called. But that’s not the only interesting thing to say about this highly gifted and well respected diplomat. Here’s my own little CX report on the new “C” (we, of course, apply all the usual intelligence caveats).
1) His nickname in the Foreign Office was “Jonny Blue Eyes”. He was a popular chap.
2) Whereas his predecessor distinguished himself in the Cold War, Sawers has seen the face of a hot conflict. He spent his early career in Syria while the war in Lebanon was at its most intense. I understand it involved dodging bombs on the Beruit-Damascus highway. SIS said he would be “rejoining” the service but declined to say when he left. It is possible his short career was more Fleming than le Carré.
3) Sawers served as private secretary to Douglas Hurd through a defining period of British foreign policy. The Srebrenica massacre (which started three days after Hurd left) and the UK’s relatively timid response in Bosnia had a profound effect on the diplomats involved. Many emerged as stronger advocates of humanitarian intervention. This outlook would certainly have helped Sawers when he acted as one of Tony Blair’s main foreign policy aides.