Vol. 23 No. 20 · 18 October 2001

More Interesting than Learning how to Make Brandy Snaps

Bernard Porter

3007 words
Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5 
by Stella Rimington.
Hutchinson, 296 pp., £18.99, September 2001, 0 09 179360 2
Show More
Show More

Secret service memoirs are invariably rubbished. When Robert Anderson’s Lighter Side of My Official Life appeared in 1910 – Anderson had headed a counter-Fenian agency – Winston Churchill lambasted it in the House of Commons for its ‘gross boastfulness’: ‘It is written, if I may say so, in the style of “How Bill Adams Won the Battle of Waterloo”. The writer has been so anxious to show how important he was, how invariably he was right, and how much more he could tell if only his mouth was not what he was pleased to call closed.’ Peter Wright’s Spycatcher (1987) got the same kind of treatment; even Stella Rimington rubbishes it. Nobody loved him, whether they accepted his charges – a Russian mole in MI5, the ‘Wilson plot’ – or not. This is understandable. Ministers (like Churchill) resent the betrayal of trust; outsiders are bound to be sceptical. Spies are liars by vocation, certainly if they’re involved in disinformation, as Rimington admits she was. They have the same urge to justify themselves as any of us, and less chance of being found out: we can’t check up on them. Espionage is a funny business which may attract odd people, and even if they’re not odd, it’s likely to turn them – in the view of Harold Macmillan – ‘either weird or mad’. There are so many examples in modern British history where covert derring-do denied at the time comes to be acknowledged thirty years later, when it is safe, as to make it reasonable to suspend judgment on more recent events. This is a cross that people like Stella Rimington have to bear.

Her memoirs are in fact some of the most candid in this unfortunate genre. Not, I need hardly say, on the activities of MI5, where I have no means of telling whether they’re candid or not. They’re obviously not candid in some respects. They were already self-bowdlerised before Rimington submitted them to her MI5 vetters, who insisted she bowdlerise them some more, all in the interests of ‘national security’. Whether the parts that remain are truthful is impossible for an outsider to say. I do know that many of the historical passages are seriously flawed, especially her flattering account of the early history of MI5, which seems to be taken from an in-house history written in the 1920s to justify the agency’s continuation, and before most of the documentary evidence it was based on was destroyed. It would be charitable but also probably fair to assume that Rimington doesn’t know the modern, independent research on this. History is not her strong suit. At school, she tells us, ‘I had whiled away my time during boring history lessons by gazing out of the classroom window into the houses across the road, and watching people having their tea.’ (Is that normal?) In other words, she may be writing out of pure ignorance, not deception.

The same may be true – though it’s harder to believe – of the mistakes she makes in her discussion of Peter Wright’s allegation of an MI5 plot against Harold Wilson when he was Prime Minister. She claims he ‘withdrew’ it; he never strictly did. As for the events she was intimately connected with – Northern Ireland in 1969, counter-espionage in the 1970s, counter-subversion in the early and mid-1980s, counter-terrorism in the late 1980s, and everything, one presumes, as Director-General between December 1991 and April 1996 – who knows whether she is telling the truth or not? Doubts must linger about her activities against the miners in 1984: she denies being Thatcher’s political puppet, but never directly addresses the evidence that has come to light which points the other way. She obviously feels frustrated by this. ‘I don’t suppose that any amount of denials, mine or others’, will ever alter the minds of those who believe it, and there is little more other than denying it that can be said.’ If she is innocent this must be infuriating, but she should not be surprised if people don’t take her protestations entirely on trust.

There is overall not much that is new here about MI5’s operations and methods, or little that was not pretty well known (or claimed) before. Presumably the ‘revelations’ have all been blue-pencilled out – which will disappoint espionage buffs. References to Northern Ireland are anodyne, and there is nothing about counter-terrorist Intelligence which has a bearing on the attack on the World Trade Center. Whether MI5 was aware of the threat or not, the events of 11 September make the book seem dated. Even the stuff about how necessary MI5 is (‘It is a mistake to ridicule all this activity’), how scrupulously it tries to avoid going beyond confusing ‘subversion’ with ‘legitimate dissent’ (‘We gave a great deal of careful thought to this distinction, and to establishing what we should and should not investigate’) and how much good it has done in the world is familiar. Most of it appeared in Rimington’s famous Dimbleby Lecture seven years ago. Anyone who heard or read that will find this version no more plausible, or specious, depending on their prejudices. She certainly hasn’t moved the argument on.

What she does here is describe quite vividly the ethos and mentality of MI5, especially during her early years. The blue pencillers won’t have been so active at this point, and she provides some fascinating reading, as in this description of the routine of the old MI5 guard in the 1970s:

They spent a lot of time in the office telling jokes about their colonial experiences, and took extremely long lunch hours. It was routine for them to return from lunch at about four in the afternoon (they had some ‘arrangement’ with a pub up the road), and then we all settled down to afternoon tea laced with whisky accompanied by peppermints in case the boss called them to a meeting. He rarely did and the days passed quite peacefully.

That may be a caricature (one can be both candid and wrong). Interestingly, however, it more or less corroborates the picture that Peter Wright gave, which is ironic in view of Rimington’s dislike of him. In fact, the two have a great deal in common. Both considered themselves outsiders: she as a woman, he as a grammar school boy. Each waged a kind of war against the ‘establishment’: he over its infiltration by Soviet agents, she over its male chauvinism – a major theme of Open Secret. The only difference was that while Wright was turfed out (she claims), she became Director-General. That did not staunch her sense of resentment, which comes through almost as powerfully in her book as it did in his. Each of their memoirs can be regarded as damaging to MI5, painting as they both do a ludicrous picture of it for much of its history. Rimington’s image of stuffy old soaks in ‘hairy tweed suits and khaki braces’, spending most of their days lunching and calling her ‘dear’, is hard indeed to reconcile with her claims for their terrific effectiveness.

Essentially, Open Secret, like Spycatcher, is a kind of whistleblowing, an activity which she herself defines as ‘purporting to disclose something seriously wrong in an organisation’. Rimington disapproves of the practice. In her experience, she says, it is ‘invariably partial, one-sided and . . . misleading’, and tends ‘to reveal far more about the whistleblower than about the organisation which is having the whistle blown on it’. In other words, her descriptions of the old farts who used to run MI5 may tell us far more about her.

In fact, one has to admire Rimington for what she’s prepared to say about herself. As a girl and as a young woman she was nervous, anxious and terrified of lightning, and suffered from a form of claustrophobia which made her ‘come out in a cold sweat and start to shake’ if there were any people between her and the doors in a room. Before her wedding (at the age of 28) she was physically sick, and had to be stiffened with brandies to get to the altar. She was always socially insecure. She was a bad judge of houses: the boiler blew up in one and in another the ceiling fell in. Her marriage appears to have been cold (at least, there is no warmth recorded here) and unsatisfactory long before she split with her husband in 1984. This turned her into a single mother, which seems to have shocked her employers – unless it was the fact that she wanted to go on working despite being a single mother that shocked them – and to have started her off on a wholly praiseworthy campaign against the rampant sexism she found in MI5. The stress of her work made her ratty at home, and she is clearly troubled by the effect it had on her two daughters, especially when she reached the top of the tree and the press began harassing them. There are some touching pictures here of teenage angst, and real questions raised, incidentally – though not terribly originally – about the difficulties for women who want to combine careers and families, in a primitive society like ours that still doesn’t provide equal and adequate leave for both parents.

The curious thing is that Rimington was ever taken into MI5 with this sort of psychological profile – unless someone had observed her juvenile spying activities and reported back. Not much else in her early life seems to have fitted her for the job. She had a lot of disappointments in early adulthood, partly because she interviewed badly, which is what kept her out of Newnham, in the days when Cambridge still relied on this notoriously flawed procedure. Her self-confidence can’t have been much boosted by her ability to read upside-down writing, which enabled her to decipher phrases like ‘all nerves’ and ‘an ill-made face’ on her interviewers’ notepads. (Maybe MI5 spotted this skill, too.) She went eventually to Edinburgh University, to read English, which she now thinks was useless. There are references to ‘rebellion’ and a craving for excitement in these recollections, but they are difficult to pin down. She claims that when her schoolmates elected her head girl she was blackballed by her teachers on account of her bolshiness, but we are never told what form (apart from looking into windows) that took. The only demos she took part in at Edinburgh were against ‘Bulge and Krush’. After college she decided that teaching was too boring, so became an archivist. She seems to have had no real outside interests: but maybe she feels they aren’t worth mentioning – unless they’re so startling they had to be censored. (It would be nice to believe the latter.) She married her childhood boyfriend because it seemed ‘safe’.

It was her marriage that led her into MI5, by pure accident. Having gone with her diplomat husband to India, she was approached by the local MI5 agent to help him sort out his records. That seemed more interesting than being polite to other diplomats’ wives and learning how to make brandy snaps, which is all she had got out of India until then. She was obviously recruited because she was well connected socially (as the wife of a First Secretary), and her ‘vetting’ was minimal. The Indian experience got her into MI5 proper in Curzon Street on the couple’s return to Britain in 1969. Her first job was helping to vet others.

At first, and for a long time into her career, she claims that her only motive was to have a job of some sort and be earning, partly so that she could afford the repairs on the places she lived in. Earning became more important when, as a result of an interruption in her husband’s service, his pension prospects took a knock. Later, she embarked on her women’s crusade. She told her bosses that she loved filing (‘the orderly collection of information and research’), but claims now that this was only because it was what she thought they wanted to hear. ‘In fact, I was still romantically dreaming about the Great Game,’ she writes; yet her account of a trip to Afghanistan towards the end of her time in India is mainly concerned with the thermoses of Martini they took with them and the trouble they had with their car. She admits to having no ‘particular urge to serve my country . . . nor did I have a strong sense of dangers to the state to be tackled or wrongs to be righted.’ This lack of commitment to the service as such seems to have lasted a long time. In the early 1980s she thought of getting out, and applied for the headship of Roedean, which is startling in view of her early opinion of teaching and her entire lack of experience. (Is Roedean the sort of school that would take on an ex-spook as its head?) Then, however, she was put in charge of recruitment (briefly); in connection with that she describes the qualities she believes should motivate MI5 officers: ‘Motivation is complex. It comes from a combination of the intrinsic interest and excitement of the work itself . . . and a sense of the importance of the job to be done. There is also a strong sense of loyalty to the organisation, to colleagues and the country, however that is defined and however unfashionable that may sound.’ This reads strangely in the light of her own declared attitudes. If these standards had been applied in 1969, they must have excluded her.

This is one of a number of anomalies in the book. Elsewhere, Rimington claims that ‘imagination’ is a quality essential in security service work, yet she displays little of it here (in the Afghan episode, for example), and describes her own best quality as her practicality: ‘I don’t like sitting around theorising.’ Maybe if she had been prepared to theorise more on her watch, the events of 11 September would have come as less of a surprise. She admits that the culture in MI5 was closed and inward-looking as late as the 1980s, so encouraging a kind of ‘cloning’ (her word) among recruits. Yet she also maintains that ‘diversity, individuality and even eccentricity have always been tolerated.’ She admires strong teachers and managers, even ‘bullies’: ‘he bullied us all,’ she says of her first-ever boss at the Worcestershire County Record Office, ‘but it was meant well and was taken by us in that spirit.’ Yet she claims to have introduced a more ‘collegiate’ approach when she became Director-General: ‘a style which comes more naturally to women’. She insists that she got where she did without having to think like the others in MI5. Yet there are hints throughout her memoir of right-wing attitudes and assumptions that probably won’t have jarred greatly with theirs. Gender is the only exception, and there, of course, she had the example of the right-wing Thatcher to go on.

Read Rimington on education, for example, where she first reveals her preference for martinets, instilling knowledge through fear, unlike today’s teachers, who turn out children (like her daughters) who can’t even recite the table of English kings (this really is reactionary); on India and the Indians (post-colonial patronising); on her nanny and au pair problems (so undependable, my dear); on any Labour politician who happens to flit into her picture (what do they know?); and – especially – this comment on the industrial crisis of 1973-74: ‘it was difficult to avoid a feeling that civilised life was coming to an end.’ No it wasn’t. Only rabid rightists felt this way. If she believed this then it may justify her claim that the Thatcher Government put no political pressure on her during the similar crisis ten years later. It hardly needed to.

Rimington says the ‘ferocity of the reaction’ this memoir received when she first showed it to officials took her by surprise, and she can’t understand the hostility her insistence on publishing it still arouses. That must be because she doesn’t realise how much it gives away. Others have claimed that it’s boring: it isn’t, though it does read Pooterishly in places. (One of the least boring passages is where she describes how she used to bore Home Secretaries with her official briefings. John Major once told her to leave because he found himself dropping off; Michael Howard used to ‘rock and lurch in his chair’ to try to keep awake; and Douglas Hurd’s technique was to ‘sink far down into his chair and hood his eyes so you could not tell whether he was awake or asleep.’ The inference Rimington draws from this is that they were ‘chronically exhausted’, poor lambs.) Her accounts of MI5 operations are not particularly riveting, true, but that is mainly because they’ve been neutered by the censors. The value – and interest – of the book lies elsewhere: in what it reveals of the mentality of one of the people who master (or mistress)-minded them. That is probably what has made her former employers and colleagues so cross.

It is a shame that this is the abiding impression left by the book, especially if Rimington really was as successful a reformer – dragging MI5 out of the tweed-jacketed age, making it more open, less male chauvinist, better focused – as she implies. I hope she was, at this time when it must be apparent to her what a genuine threat to ‘civilised life’ looks like, and it is obvious to the rest of us that we need a security service able to cope with more than miners and militants. Memoirs by secret servants almost never enhance the reputations of their agencies, especially when they are as revealing of the ordinary – almost self-deprecating – humanity of their authors as Rimington’s. Her critics clearly realise this. Maybe if she’d concentrated more on her history lessons at school, instead of on the houses across the road, she might have realised it, too.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 23 No. 21 · 1 November 2001

Bernard Porter (LRB, 18 October) is a little hard on Stella Rimington. Working in the building next door to MI5 headquarters on the Albert Embankment, I came across Rimington driving out of the building while on my way to work one morning. I considered getting a copy of the Socialist Worker out of my bag to offer her, but dismissed the idea. Why should the enemy within be so easy to uncover? However, the fact that the head of MI5 should come into such close proximity with subversion and, apparently, suspect nothing did not entirely surprise me.

Keith Flett
London N17

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences