The spying dame – Stella Rimington

November 28, 2003

Stella Rimington

Long ago, in another country, I lived along the road from a notorious mole. At least, the industrial secret she leaked was notorious; the mole kept her cover despite strenuous efforts to unearth her. We regularly passed on the street and once ate at the same table but, betweentimes, I could never remember what she looked like. She was the perfect spy. I hadn’t thought of her for 20 years, until the day I met Dame Stella Rimington.

For operational reasons I interview the former director general of MI5 before reading her comprehensively unrevealing autobiography. But I have read the flurry of disappointed press coverage that accompanied its publication, and am expecting a nervous woman, mousy and unimpressive. Nothing could be further from the truth, that much is obvious. But beyond that … think of the myriad verbal and visual clues we all put out, allowing others to read us: Stella Rimington has jammed most of those signals.

She’s 68 but seems much younger, dressed in a jacket that looks like suede but turns out to be corduroy, black trousers, fashionably pointy boots. Her hair is short and chic and dyed pale blonde. She has a way of occupying her skin. Comfortable in it, to borrow the French phrase; calm and focused; and something else … Impregnable: that’s the word. She seems impregnable in her own skin.

In 1992, when she became the first director general to have her identity made public, the tabloids dubbed her the Housewife Superspy. It was the best they could do under the circumstances, though clearly they would have preferred someone more exotic, a Mata Hari or a Rosa Klebb.

“There’s a rather artificial romanticism attached to the intelligence services,” she says wearily. We’re a nation of spy story readers: we want to believe in James Bond and George Smiley.

“People who work in the intelligence services are ever such normal people. They’re not these twisted John le Carré characters really. They live normal lives, they have normal families.” But for 80 years the head of MI5 had been a figure shrouded in secrecy. “When you realise what they are is a fairly down-to-earth person trying to balance complex issues, there may indeed be a sense of disappointment.”

So speaks Rimington the manager, the professional who steered an old-fashioned organisation through a period of necessary change. The new world order required a new kind of security service and a new personality-type to staff it. No longer the ex-military or colonial chaps on their second career, but fresh thinkers straight out of university. “Fighting espionage in the Cold War was a completely different thing from fighting terrorism. Fighting espionage was much more slow: don’t move until you’re certain. It generated very closed organisations. You didn’t need self-confident people who could present themselves to the outside world. Then came terrorism, which grew to be far and away the most important threat to the country. You need a different kind of people for that, people who are prepared to balance risks and gains, and take risks, and move quickly.”

Sitting opposite her, watching her almost anonymous face, listening to her virtually featureless idiolect, it’s tempting to take her on her own terms: as an executive who confronted much the same challenges as the leader of any other large organisation. But then you remember this is a woman whose stock-in-trade included dead letter boxes in hollowed-out trees, chalk marks on lampposts, documents left behind loose bricks in walls … After her name was released to the press, a newspaper published a photograph of her house. She and her younger daughter spent the next few years living underground, using false names. Not part of the job description of your average executive.

Was there ever a threat to her life? Her expression loses its composure and for a moment I glimpse another Stella Rimington. She tries to fob me off with the assertion that anyone associated with the British state was at risk from the IRA. But was there ever a specific threat to her personally? “I don’t hugely like to talk about those sorts of security angles, but yes, I was regarded by somebody who would have been an interested party as a target for those who wished us ill.”

So here we are, Dame Stella and I, in the oddly intimate setting of a half-lit hotel room and, frankly, it all feels a little unreal. As we’re so cosy, I confess my difficulty: had I met her in the 1980s, when she was assistant director of counter-subversion, investigating figures in the anti-nuclear, trade union and Labour movements, I would have regarded her as … “Your social enemy?” she suggests.

Twenty years ago many on the Channel 4-watching, Guardian-reading Left believed MI5 was a much greater threat to democracy than a few street-corner Trots in leather jackets. There was a widespread view that, far from protecting national security, Rimington’s department was infringing civil liberties to further the political agenda of Mrs Thatcher and the Conservative Party. As late as 1994, after publication of Seumas Milne’s The Enemy Within, 50 MPs signed a House of Commons motion stating that, if the book’s allegations were well-founded, “Stella Rimington is not a fit person to run the security service and should be dismissed”.

She has repeated her denials in interview after interview: MI5 has never been subject to political direction and did not run agents or pay informers in the NUM during the Miners’ Strike (though she can’t answer for the police or Special Branch). It was, however, legitimate to investigate those who had declared that they were using the strike to try to bring down the elected government. Likewise, MI5 limited its investigation of the peace movement to Soviet-encouraged attempts to infiltrate CND at key strategic levels.

There seems little point in wasting precious minutes of a half-hour interview listening to her make this speech again. It may be truthful, as far as it goes, but were it not, she’d say exactly the same thing.

Stella Rimington’s father was a draughtsman, her mother a midwife. Her first job was as an assistant archivist at the Worcestershire County Record Office. It’s not the most obvious launching pad for the top job in the secret state. What did she have that took her so far?

“Common sense I would say is the biggest thing. A kind of directness, which I think is often a female quality, a tendency to say things as I think they are instead of beating about the bush.”

In 1989 the Security Service Act was passed, giving MI5’s powers a statutory basis and introducing a degree of ministerial and judicial scrutiny. It was part of a wider move towards openness that required careful handling. “It’s about balancing pressures, balancing risks and rewards, which I enjoy and I think I’m quite good at. I think it’s those sort of things which fitted the moment as the world started to change: I think I was in the right place at the right time.”

Hmm. She can’t have been the only MI5 employee possessed of common sense. She certainly wasn’t the only woman. And the chances are she wasn’t the only staffer who saw the way the wind was blowing, globally and domestically, and realised it was time for a culture-shift. But to be so steeped in, and successfully associated with, a workplace culture that you rise almost to the top and then to embrace its antithesis: that may be more unusual. She seems to have had a knack of “fitting the moment” again and again.

Every life is a bundle of inconsistencies but Rimington’s seems more contradictory than most. Time after time she found herself in situations where she was an outsider, yet she was able to pass. As a Protestant convent schoolgirl. As a parvenu diplomatic Memsahib in Delhi. As a fun-seeking dilettante joining the tweedy monocled afternoon-drinkers who staffed MI5 in the late-1960s; a state-educated feminist promoted despite a sexually discriminatory career structure dominated by former public schoolboys. As an Islington single parent whose neighbours never guessed her professional identity. And now, as an ex-spymistress-turned-public speaker. It comes as no great surprise to learn that in the 1960s, when she accompanied her husband to a diplomatic posting in India, one of her hobbies was acting. Some years later MI5 sent her on an agent-running course designed to teach the skill of merging into the background. I doubt that she had much to learn.

As for who she really is, behind all the roleplaying: your guess is as good as mine. Her autobiography, Open Secret, ought to provide an answer but she remains as opaque on the final page as on the first. The dedicated reader will find references to the nights she spent hand-washing her daughter’s nappies, the stress of running the Delhi Diplomatic Wives’ jumble sale, even the breakdown of her marriage. But the personal revelations feel like so many decoys, there to draw attention away from exactly which peace protesters she kept under surveillance, which IRA operations she did – or did not – foil, which Soviet agents she caught and turned: all questions left firmly unanswered.

It is possible Rimington herself did not truly understand who – or what – she was until after her retirement in 1996. For most of her career she had lived undercover. Only her best friends knew how she earned her living. She told acquaintances she bought boots for the army. Once she found herself at a dinner party with a judge in whose court she’d given evidence, disguised in a wig and ageing make-up. He didn’t recognise her. Even once her name was released to the press and the veil of secrecy began to lift, there was a hundred times more that had to remain hidden. Living like that takes its toll, she says.

“Having worked so long in that world I think it makes you more inward, not isolated quite, but certainly relying on yourself more. It’s very difficult to know how you would have turned out if you hadn’t been in that world. When you’re at the top of any organisation it’s quite a lonely job; if you’ve learned to be quite self-contained that can be a help.” On the other hand, she adds with one of her sudden, disarming, gummy smiles: “I’m sure the psychologists would say it’s not the ideal personality.”

Leaving such a sealed environment was a big step. “It’s hard to make that transition. Working in the intelligence services sort of takes over your life, because of the requirements of security and not talking about what you do. Because you can’t have a normal direct relationship with the outside world, they become your sort of family. I should think it took me a year to try to extract my life and to feel that I was an individual again.”

Even after that first year, there were shocks in store. She decided to write an autobiography and, anxious to abide by the rules, she informed the authorities. The surprising thing about the reaction to this news – the dressing-down from Cabinet secretary Sir Richard Wilson, the whispering campaign in the press, the unknown civil servant who put a copy of the book in a taxi and sent it round to the Sun – is not that it happened, but that Rimington was astounded by it. “Having what was, in fact, a black propaganda campaign conducted against you is quite upsetting,” she says. “When every time you open a newspaper you’re accused of doing X, Y and Z.”

At the time she spoke of feeling persecuted and, in what seems to have been something of a blinding revelation, drew parallels between her own bewildered emotions and the experiences of people targeted by MI5. Now she insists it’s all water under the bridge. It was stirred-up by a certain part of Whitehall. The Ministry of Defence, wasn’t it? She takes a deep breath: “It was the Ministry of Defence.” At the time they were prosecuting a former SAS man for revealing potentially damaging details of operations and methods. Although there were no such details in her book, and she handed the manuscript over for vetting, she was tarred with the same brush. It’s recognised now that the fuss was overdone. “It hasn’t in any longstanding sense affected my relations with my former colleagues.”

Though she doesn’t say so, I get the impression that she doesn’t much care either way. That ever-flexible personality has adapted itself to a new set of circumstances. She’s a writer now. Her debut novel, a thriller about an intelligence officer and a terrorist operation, is due out in July: the first of a series with the same heroine. Along with the writing, she speaks at dinners and annual conferences, and sits on various boards: a school, a cancer charity, a couple of big companies. “I do lots and lots of different things, I find myself in lots of different situations, meeting lots of different people, and I love it.”

What do these people want from her, I wonder: are they fascinated by her former power, seeking the lingering thrill of that shadowy world?

“I’m on the board of Marks & Spencer now,” she says.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications