St Antony’s College Oxford – the “spy college”

04 januari 2023 | Forum for Democracy

When in September 2022 Thierry Baudet said that Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister had attended the “spy college”, St Antony’s College, Oxford, the whole government walked out of the parliamentary chamber in protest.  This moment was elected “Political Moment of the Year 2022” in a nationwide poll at the end of December.

Not all students at St Antony’s are spies yet the deep links between the British intelligence services and that college are undeniable.  The label “spy college” has been widely used – for instance, by the Australian historian, Sheila Fitzpatrick, in her 2013 book A Spy in the Archives (even though she was not a spy) and by the documentary film maker, Leslie Woodhead, in his 2005 book, My Life as a Spy.  But these authors were simply repeating what everyone knew, the College having been set up by people who were themselves secret service agents.

The first Warden of the College, founded in 1947, was thoroughly emblematic. A close associate of Sir Winston Churchill, whose books he helped to write, William (“Bill”) Deakin had distinguished himself during the war as an officer in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Balkans where the British made a major contribution to the victory of Tito’s Communists (and to the defeat of the Royalists under Draza Mihailovic). SOE was a secret special forces organization involved in sabotage, espionage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe.  There is a substantial literature on it and many of its officers were heroes. Unfortunately some of its operations were catastrophic failures, as with the sad story of the Englandspiel in the Netherlands from 1942-1944, when German counter-espionage infiltrated the cells, seized the weapons and captured all the agents.

Another important figure linking the college to the British intelligence services was David Footman, who transitioned effortlessly from having working for 20 years as an MI6 agent to becoming a Fellow of St Antony’s in 1953.  Footman initiated the weekly seminar on Soviet and Eastern European affairs, held every Monday at 5pm, which have now been running for half a century.  The seminars have been part of the education of generations of students interested in area studies, in this case Russia.  Since the college’s creation, seven other area research centres have been created, covering all the regions of the world – interestingly, the only area not studied is North America.

In more recent times, the links between St Antony’s and the intelligence services have evolved with the changes those services have themselves undergone.  Espionage is no longer only about collecting information: instead, it is about undertaking covert operations in order to influence outcomes.  A good example of this are secret operations to effect political decision-making in other countries, of which the “colour revolutions” which spread on Russia’s borders and in the Middle East are a perfect example. 

This new role was well explained in a book published in 2000 and based on a conference held in St Antony’s: Agents for Change, edited by a veteran don, Harold Shukman.  According to this set of beliefs, intelligence agencies have a role in shaping the world, not just in understanding it, putting forward progressive solutions against those proposed by “populist demagogues”.  A perfect illustration of this new ethos came when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.  The current head of the Secret Intelligence Services (MI6), Richard Moore, tweeted, “With the tragedy and destruction unfolding so distressingly in Ukraine, we should remember the hard won freedoms that distinguish us from Putin, none more than LGBT+ rights.  So let’s resume our series of tweets to mark LGBTHM (LGBT human rights) 2022.”  For the head of the British security services, war is approached purely in terms of emotion (‘tragedy’, ‘distress’) but not in terms of security; LGBT rights are the most important value at stake, not parliamentary democracy or the rule of law; and the right response to this attack is to do more tweets, i.e. to partake in pure gesture politics.

A very representative figure in this respect is Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European Studies at St Antony’s.  Garton Ash is a governor of Ditchley Park, which although a private foundation in fact serves the function of promoting the trans-Atlantic relationship and is staffed by appropriately senior former public officials from the British government.  He is also a founder of the European Council on Foreign Relations, the European counterpart of the Council on Foreign Relations which is widely believed to be one of the most powerful organs of the American deep state.  Garton Ash was awarded the CMG (Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George) which is traditionally given to diplomats or to those who have served their country in a non-military capacity in its foreign relations. You get the picture.

But St Antony’s is not just the long arm of the British services, it is also a place where foreign students come to study who will later go on to work for the secret services of their respective countries of origin.  In this way, networks and links are created between those “agents for change” who ultimately constitute a single global elite, often sharing more in common with each other than with their respective peoples.  This is perhaps the most important role St Antony’s plays today – as Thierry said in his speech, St Antony’s is “a training college for globalist elites”.  This only makes it all the more remarkable that Sigrid Kaag was so sensitive about the words “spy college” that she left the chamber and later called Thierry Baudet “an extremist” for uttering them. 

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.


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