Reviewed by: Janette Dalgliesh
You would expect an autobiography from Dame Stella Rimington, the first woman Director-General of MI5, to be fascinating. And you’d be right.
But perhaps not for the reasons you might expect.
This is not the licence-to-kill world of James Bond, even though Judi Dench’s “M” was apparently inspired by Rimington. This is the real world of a major secret service, seen through the eyes of a woman who worked “at the coalface” for many years, and who believes passionately in the importance of openness and effective communication.
As she puts it “excessive secrecy harms the position of our vital security services rather than protecting it”.
It’s also the world of a working woman, treading the familiar path of juggling career, husband, children and social change. But it’s a brutal and uncomplaining insight into the extra burden faced by a woman working for an idiosyncratic, secretive and—at least to begin with—antiquated secret service replete with eccentric characters, internal tensions and mind-bending bureaucracy.
Following the terrors of a childhood in the Blitz, Rimington did not start out with any concept of working in the secret services. She attained a degree in English from the University of Edinburgh and began a career as an archivist, demonstrating from the beginning a respect for accurate and well-managed information.
The path which took her from those everyday beginnings, via the restrictive life of a diplomatic wife, and on to the top position at MI5 is remarkable. Not because it’s full of conspiracies and secrets and danger and adventure—although there are plenty of those sprinkled liberally throughout —but because it’s the story of a real woman, with a set of experiences that most of us can relate to.
It’s true that most of us have not been forced out of our homes by an intense and poorly managed media circus, following the announcement of our appointment to a job. And most of us haven’t had to lie to our children about our work. But we can relate to the initial feelings of helplessness and frustration at seeing our loved ones impacted unfairly by our career choices. And we can relate to the moments of taking charge, to find the best solution available at the time.
And that’s what appeals so much about Rimington and her story. She has a quintessentially commonsense approach to everything, whether it’s an urgent call from her child’s school interrupting an important meeting, car troubles in Afghanistan or a sensitive first contact with a wannabe KGB defector.
Her loyalty to the democratic process, and her capacity to remain detached from any particular political ideology, shine through every page. But they don’t stop her from sharing revealing moments in her dealings with the leaders of the day. One of my favourite stories was the much-anticipated first visit by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to MI5. No doubt Thatcher’s reputation as the “Iron Lady” helped motivate staff in ensuring everything was perfect for her arrival. But after all their hard work, Thatcher’s only concern appeared to be that her whisky wasn’t strong enough.
When Rimington joined the service in 1967, many of the old paradigms still existed. By the time she retired in 1996, she had been instrumental in triggering, implementing or overseeing many significant changes. With typical modesty, she credits many other people for those changes, but it’s clear that her presence and her actions over the years provided a major contribution.
Rimington was the first woman permitted to undertake field work, and it was her cleverly subtle tactics which finally set MI5 on the path to gender equity in pay and conditions. As Director-General she successfully oversaw the publication of a small booklet about MI5 which revealed publicly, for the first time, details of the service’s activities, operations and duties. Behind the scenes, she was involved at senior levels during the long overdue legislative changes which created better accountability and controls for the service.
Perhaps the clearest demonstration of these major cultural changes lies in the area of recruiting.
In the earliest days of the secret service, born in 1909, and for many years afterwards, new staff were recruited via a discreet tap on the shoulder from someone already inside. In 1967, Rimington herself only discovered she was actually working for MI5 after she agreed to assist one of the First Secretaries at the High Commission in India with his office work. Not surprisingly, this approach to hiring staff resulted in a cloning of existing staff and a resultant intensifying of eccentricities and paranoia. In recent decades the system has been radically overhauled and the old boys’ club approach dissolved.
These days, of course, one applies to join MI5 online. I can’t help thinking Rimington would thoroughly approve.
If you’re looking for a spill-the-beans spy romp, this might fit the bill. Rimington certainly spills plenty of beans, not on operational details (which, as she points out, would put lives at risk), but on the deeper, far more important aspects of the secret service.
If you’re in the market for plenty of conspiracies, eccentricities, plots and counter-plots, and an intriguing insight into the mind-twisting machinations of government and the Civil Service, this would do very well.
And if you like a well-told insight into the very human lives of those who take responsibility, usually unknown and unheralded, for our safety—then look no further. This is the book for you.