More Interesting than Learning how to Make Brandy Snaps

Bernard Porter

  • Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5 by Stella Rimington
    Hutchinson, 296 pp, £18.99, September 2001, ISBN 0 09 179360 2

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.

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