Title: Open Secret
Author: Stella Rimington
Rimington, Stella (2001). Open Secret: The Autobiography Of The Former Director-General of MI5. London: Hutchinson
- Rimington, Stella.
- Great Britain. MI5–Officials and employees–Biography.
- Women intelligence officers–Great Britain–Biography.
- Intelligence officers–Great Britain–Biography.
Date Posted: November 1, 2017
Review by Chris Mullin
Chris Mullin believes that all has not been revealed in Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5 and still has questions for Stella Rimington
Soon after first joining the home affairs select committee, I suggested that we invite Stella Rimington, the newly appointed head of MI5, to give evidence. This was in the days before she had been outed; all that was known of her then was her name and one blurred, out-of-date photograph. At first the chairman, Sir Ivan Lawrence, hummed and hawed, but eventually he warmed to the idea. An invitation was dispatched and in due course word came back that it had been vetoed by the home secretary, Kenneth Clarke.
Meanwhile, it was rumored that she was dining with newspaper editors. I rang a couple who confirmed that they had indeed entertained her. So when Kenneth Clarke next came to the committee we put it to him that if it was OK for Mrs. Rimington to meet unelected newspaper editors, how could it be wrong for her to meet elected members of parliament? At which point, he came out with his hands up. We were offered not an evidence session (the Home Office being anxious not to concede that parliament had any right to scrutinize the security services), but a free lunch.
A cloak-and-dagger atmosphere surrounded our visit. On the appointed day MI5 sent cars to whisk us across London to an unspecified destination, which turned out, unsurprisingly, to be MI5’s then headquarters at Gower Street. We were chased across London by photographers on motorbikes. At every traffic light, lenses were poked through the windows. It was all very exciting.
That was nearly 10 years ago. Since then, the relationship between MI5 and the outside world has been transformed. Its work and that of the other intelligence agencies is now subject to parliamentary inspection (albeit by a committee appointed by and reporting to the prime minister) and there is an annual debate in parliament; we now know far more about its inner workings than ever before. Stella Rimington’s memoirs are only the latest step on the long road towards a mature relationship between the security services and the public they exist to serve.
Despite the upset she may have caused in certain parts of the establishment, there is nothing here that is likely to cause the least offence to any but the most obtuse of her former colleagues in the secret world. Rimington is no whistleblower and, if you believe her, there are no whistles to blow. She tells us nothing new about the activities of MI5 during the miners’ strike beyond assuring us that it was all perfectly above board.
Maybe, but one would still like to know the relationship between the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, Roger Windsor, and the security services. She says only that “he was never an agent in any sense of the word that you can possibly imagine”. What was he then? Whose idea was it to send him to Libya and then leak news of the trip to the Sunday Times? What part did MI5 play in the attempts to frame Arthur Scargill by pretending that he had used money donated to the strike fund to pay off his mortgage? Whose idea was the unsuccessful attempt to deposit £500,000 in a Dublin bank account with the aim of suggesting that Scargill was an embezzler? These are all areas in which Rimington could assist with inquiries, but she does not. Beyond admitting to a little over-enthusiasm when it came to targeting groups on the the left, Rimington concedes nothing.
If Rimington were in a mood to be frank, she could tell us what Brigadier Ronnie Stoneham was doing in room 105 at BBC Broadcasting House, stamping upturned Christmas trees on the personnel files of staff thought to be insufficiently patriotic. Alas, however, there is little or no mention of MI5’s close relationship with certain sections of the media, which has proved so useful at times of crisis, such as a miners’ strike.
There are occasions when her memory is at fault. Peter Wright, she says, later withdrew the allegation that there had been a plot involving himself and other MI5 officers to destabilize the government of Harold Wilson. Not quite. All Wright conceded was that any such plot had been a great deal smaller than he had alleged in Spycatcher and that, far from being drawn into it, he was one of the ringleaders. In any case, there is plenty of evidence from sources other than Wright of a whispering campaign against Wilson and some of his ministers. And while we are on the subject, who went to the trouble of forging a Swiss bank account for dear old Ted Short when he was deputy prime minister in the mid-1970s?
This is not to say her book is of no interest; on the contrary. The story of MI5’s transformation from a stuffy, paranoid, introverted, exclusively male, incompetent dinosaur into a modern, efficient, self-confident public service is fascinating. So, too, is Rimington’s account of her rise in what was very definitely a man’s world—and only a certain type of man at that. “Some,” she says of the men who ran MI5 30 years ago, “seemed to do very little at all and there was a lot of heavy drinking.”
By the mid-1990s all that had changed. The changes began under her predecessor, Sir Antony Duff, and continued under her. By the time she left the service there was an air of professionalism wholly absent from the early days and almost half the staff were women (I recall a Tory home secretary whispering to me that they had got rid of “an awful lot of dead wood”).
Even so, it seems that some female operatives still found the going hard, especially those seconded to anti-terrorist work with the Metropolitan Police. “They got some first-hand experience of how women are treated in the police.” One female officer seconded to the Met found a pile of dirty washing on her desk, with the instruction that she was to wash it. “She threw it out of the window and was not harassed again.”
Fascinating, too, is the way in which Rimington juggled her domestic life as a mother of two young daughters (and in later years as a single parent) with the extraordinary demands of her job. She recounts one occasion when she had to borrow taxi fares from a prospective defector in order to cope with a domestic crisis, and there is a touching little account of a Christmas dinner eaten off plastic garden furniture in an otherwise bare room, after she and the girls had moved to a house still in a state of disrepair. It’s a far cry from the stereotyped world of spy masters in popular fiction.
Finally, I have my own little bone to pick with Rimington. When I visited her at Gower Street 10 years ago, I noticed a framed quotation from Edmund Burke hanging on the wall behind her desk. It read: “Those who would carry on great public schemes must be proof against the most fatiguing delays, the most mortifying disappointments, the most shocking insults and worst of all the presumptuous judgment of the ignorant upon their designs.”
She takes up the story at page 259: “I was rather embarrassed about this and hoped no one would notice it, but as luck would have it, Chris Mullin did, and later sent a message asking for the wording. I did not give it to him, as I suspected it would only turn up later in some sardonic article. Instead I removed it.” At the time she told me it had been lost in the move from Gower Street to Millbank. Dear Stella, devious to the last.
 Chris Mullin, “A Spy Like Us,” The Guardian (September 28, 2001). Accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/sep/29/biography.highereducation At the time of writing, Chris Mullin was the chairman of the home affairs select committee and MP for Sunderland South.
 Wright, Peter (1987) with Paul Greengrass. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of A Senior Intelligence Officer. New York: Viking