The first woman to head up MI5 – and its first chief to be publicly named – Stella Rimington is now a bestselling novelist and chair of the Man Booker prize. There's no doubt she has had a gilded career, but at what cost to herself and her family?
By Sabine Durrant
10 July 2011
I had arranged to meet Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, in a London gentleman's club – the sort of place where the chairs are leather, the walls panelled and the newspapers on sticks. She is photographed in one of the main rooms, as befits her status as the grand Dame of the security service, but from 10am non-members, viz women, are allowed only in a distant 'library'.
Experience of an intelligence-gathering nature proves an essential asset in locating this, and once Rimington, with me in tow, has caromed through peg-lined cloakrooms, slotted into cranking lifts and orienteered along complicated corridors, the displacement begins to seem a suitable metaphor for her professional life: central to the Establishment and yet, by necessity, kept tucked away in a distant room on the third floor.
Rimington is Britain's most famous spy, the first woman to rise to the top of MI5 and the first director general to be publicly named: a double whammy. Her career, which spanned 25 important years and covered all three branches of the service (counter-espionage, counter-subversion and counter-terrorism) involved her, Zelig-like, in many of the key events and social changes of the second half of the 20th century.
She was behind the scenes during the Cold War, the miners' strike, CND, the activities of the IRA. But within the service itself she was also representative of a huge shift, from a time in 1968, the year of her recruitment, when women were excluded from operational or intelligence work, to 1992, when 'a housewife superspy', as the tabloids called her, could run the whole shebang – and be photographed on her way to do it.
Her 'outing' was brilliant for PR purposes – look how enlightened we are! – but has caused uneasiness ever since. The demands of transparency don't sit well with those of espionage, or personal safety. When Rimington retired she wrote an autobiography, Open Secret, which, despite revealing very little, caused an awful stink, and since then a series of spy novels – the latest published this July – the publicising of which demand the kind of self-promotion one can't imagine comes naturally to a spook. As she writes in Open Secret, the best agents have an important skill: 'the ability to merge into the background, to be unmemorable'.
Some of us may want all the gossip we can get, but for others, like Bernard Ingham, 'the most effective Secret Service is the one which is secret. She should shut up.' She doesn't though. She talks a lot.
While we tried to find our room we chatted about Brussels; she had lived around the corner from my grandparents in the 1970s (I wondered, hopefully, whether the passing cleaner might think we were talking in code 'Wezembeek … Walloon…'). But in the library she ignored the comfy leather sofa and sat on a hard, upright chair, her hands in her lap, as if being interrogated.
She is 76 but looks extraordinarily youthful; her hair is expensively bobbed, her teeth even and her face, with its penetrating blue eyes, lightly made up. She says 'quite frankly' and 'clearly' a lot, and 'these are real issues', which gives the impression of total disclosure, and sometimes her answers are so long you forget what you asked in the first place (which I suspect is intentional).
To any question directed at MI5 she is practised in the use of abstract generalities. Describing how it has moved on since her departure, she says, 'There are huge changes in the technology, but the gathering of intelligence from technical means and human sources and then the analysis and the decision of what action to take is the progression that will still take place.'
And on a finding of the report into the 7/7 bombings that MI5 was let down by its paperwork: 'I have always said and thought' – separating speech from thought is another habit – 'that the great strength of an intelligence organisation was their record keeping and their ability to know what they know.' Maybe things have slipped since you left? She laughs. 'Any complex organisation ultimately comes down to the activities of individuals within it.'
On her life outside the service, she is altogether less guarded. 'Oh, shut up,' she tells her mobile phone when it rings for the second time, and almost makes me drop my notebook when she suddenly describes two MI6 characters in her latest novel as 'slightly s—ish'.
It is serendipity, she claims, that got her into MI5. 'Looking back, my life has been completely by chance.' Born in 1935, she was a war child, buffeted around the country, from South Norwood to Essex to Barrow-in-Furness to Nottingham. She studied English at Edinburgh university and worked as an archivist before marrying John Rimington, whom she had met while at school.
He was posted to India in 1965, to work for the British High Commission, and it was while she was spinning out her days as a diplomatic wife that her shoulder was tapped and she was employed as a clerical assistant for a security liaison officer.
She hoped to get pregnant, and if she had done so earlier (she was to go on to have two daughters), she says she would probably have called a halt to her career, 'or ended up a county archivist somewhere'. As it was, returning to England in 1969, in an 'unsettled' mood, she approached an MI5 recruiter, was interviewed for the role of junior assistant officer, and got it.
The heroine of her spy series, Liz Carlyle, 'clearly isn't me, but has elements of me when I was her age. I certainly allow her to think and say things that I said.' She corrects herself. 'Probably didn't say, but thought. I have learnt that you get on better by not being over forceful and pushy. You have to get your way by more subtle means. Quite frankly, though, in today's world women are accepted as part of the human race now in a way when I started they certainly weren't.'
When, in the 1970s, the service began running out of colonial military-types, she and other 'well-educated' female contemporaries watched the promotion of men younger and less experienced than themselves. 'It was the beginning of women's lib and sex-discrimination legislation and all that.' Was there a strong feminist movement within the service? 'Absolutely, yes, there was. We were quite a feisty bunch.'
She has no regrets about any of her activities during her service, though she was associated with some of the more controversial aspects, such as investigating the miners. 'No, people didn't like that. But what we did was entirely appropriate. I am not one for regrets, quite frankly. I think you do stuff and some of it goes right and some of it goes wrong and you move on. Life doesn't go exactly as you plan when you are young, but you go with it.'
The hardest thing, she says, was keeping quiet to friends and family about what she did. Her husband, her parents and her brother knew, but 'not in any great detail. I think it does have a huge influence on one's life. Even now, anybody in the service who isn't the director general lives as a sort of undercover [sic]. It is particularly difficult for young people because it's the thing people talk about – their job, their work.'
What did she say if people asked her? 'Various things, depending on the circumstances. You are given advice … But it is a feature of working for a secret organisation. It is never easy. You create a carapace.'
Rimington's marriage broke down under this and other strains in 1984, leaving her as a single mother (though she never actually got a divorce and she and John are still amicable).
'But you do lose friends,' she adds. 'There is no doubt about it.' In her autobiography she writes particularly fondly about a girl at school, and when I ask if she still sees her the answer is insightful. 'We did lose touch. During the middle period when I wasn't able to say what I did. And when I became … a public figure she was quite upset. She is quite Left-wing and she thought I had been intruding into everybody's private life, but we managed to get back on friendly terms again.' She brightens. 'And in fact I went to stay with her last weekend.'
Was it a relief when her name was released? She makes a 'not sure' grimace. 'It made life easier in some ways. But it was a difficulty for the children. We were exposed to a great deal of media attention; they found out very quickly where we lived and it was at a time when the IRA were very active in London.'
Her elder daughter was at university then – 'outside the zone of protection, which was worse' – but she and her younger child, and their dog, Stanley, spent time in a safe house before moving. It was the only time in her career that she felt personally in danger.
'I did for a moment think, "Hang on, should I be doing this?"' In the end she didn't retire from the service until 1996, shortly after being made a dame. She has hardly stopped since – boards of this and that (including Marks & Spencer), though she is learning, she says, to slow down a bit.
She keeps 'a sharp eye' on world events, occasionally spouting her views – anti ID cards, for example – in print. She is a director of the International Spy Museum in Washington and on the board of Refuge, the charity for victims of domestic violence. This year she is chairing the Man Booker prize. 'When I was asked, I thought, "God, this is going to be like herding cats," because I had heard stories of such huge arguments between the judges, but so far it's very jolly.' Her aim is 'to produce a book people will actually read'.
She divides her time between a cottage in north London ('I'm not telling you any more than that') and a house in Norfolk. Is she good at village life? 'Yes, I am, actually. I am patron of the friends of the church and work in a bookshop once a week to raise money for it.' She loves gardening and sitting in a deckchair, listening to the swifts. Is there a man in her life? 'None that I wish to talk about.' She would quite like another dog. 'I feel silly going for walks without one.'
Her daughters don't like her talking about them much, but she has five 'smashing' grandchildren, and clearly dotes upon them all. This summer she is taking the eldest, 12-year-old Charlotte, to New York and Washington where she is giving a lecture on the changing face of national security.
'I take my job as a granny very seriously as you can imagine.' She raises an eyebrow. 'I take everything very seriously.'