Stella Rimington: ‘KGB saw us as extraordinary creatures from another world’

The Ex-MI5 chief talks end of the cold war, and her struggles as a single-parent with two growing girls in a Letter to My Younger Self

was a child of the war, born just four years before the Second World War broke out. We left Nottingham and went to stay with my granny in Wallasey, across the river from Liverpool. And we lived there when the Liverpool docks were bombed. By 1951, when I turned 16, people were finally looking towards the future again. That was the year of the Festival of Britain, on London’s South Bank. It was to celebrate a new start. I remember a fairground and a Dome of Discovery, full of new scientific inventions. I found it enormous fun. The government were saying, the gloom is over now and we have something to look forward to. Do I think we’ll have a Festival of Brexit in a few years? I very much doubt it.

My father fought in the First World War and he was subject to periods of depression. He was very fond of my brother and me but he wasn’t very communicative. I had a closer relationship with my mother. She propped us all up. She had worked as a midwife in the East End, just like the nurses in Call the Midwife. But she came from an era when women weren’t expected to have a job after they married, so she gave her work up after the war. I do wonder if she ever thought about what her life might have been like if she’d been born at a different time. It must have been very stressful, carrying the weight of two small children and a very anxious husband through the war. I regard her as an unsung hero when I think of her.

Stella Rimmington with her daughters
With her two daughter Sophie. Image: New Statesman Ltd

I found work as a county archivist after university but I did assume I would eventually get married and then my career would come second to my husband’s. And it did for a while. When he got a job in New Delhi I immediately gave up work and went off to be a diplomat’s wife. India was fantastic but I found the life rather boring – hosting tea parties and getting involved in amateur dramatics. When we came back to England I expected we’d start a family, but it didn’t happen. I suppose I was kind of a failed mother at that point, so when I managed to get a job as a typing clerk in MI5 my husband encouraged me.

I thought the MI5 work was interesting but I was slightly bored because the women were very clearly second class. I had a degree just like the men, but we were regarded as men’s helpers. But as the Seventies went on, and we had Women’s Lib and the Sexual Discrimination Act, those vague feelings that it wasn’t quite fair began to mount. Women like me became discreet revolutionaries. We were politely saying, why are we not thought fit to do the real work? And things began to change.

I’m not optimistic about the future right now

It wasn’t easy for me. I split up with my husband when my older daughter was about 10. From then on we were a
single-parent family with two growing girls. And me in a full-time 24/7 kind of job. We managed with a combination of au pairs, nannies, the lady down the road. It was a bit hand to mouth at times, I admit. My daughters talk it about it sometimes, usually very generously. They say it was good to have a mother who was doing something but it wasn’t as cosy a childhood as they might have had.

In 1951 the year Stella turns 16…

  • Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister again
  • The King & I opens on Broadway
  • The Catcher In The Rye is published

The end of the Cold War was a time of vast excitement and great hope. Suddenly the world began to change radically. Everything I had been working against began to crumble. Gorbachev had started an avalanche, which led to the total collapse of the Iron Curtain. It was a bit like 1951 again, that sense of the world opening up. But I’m not optimistic about the future right now. I feel the world is in a very worrying state with the rise of nationalism and people retreating behind borders. The uncertainty of Brexit. Things feel very unstable. The golden hope of the late Eighties has not been fulfilled.

I was finally told I’d been made Director-General of MI5 just after the end of the Cold War. So getting that job just felt like part of a series of amazing things happening. I was very excited and thrilled and surprised. The government then decided that, for the first time ever, they were going to announce the appointment of the new MI5 boss and tell people who I was. So after years of being very cautious about telling anyone what I did, I was on the front of every newspaper. It was a very strange period actually. A mixture of elation and alarm. My mother was stunned. I hadn’t talked to my daughters about what I did, though I think they had their suspicions. Their friends were all saying, ‘Ooh I read about your mum’. I had one friend who was very hurt. She was traditionally left wing and thought the services were the enemies of the people. So when she found out what I had been doing all those years she was very upset and didn’t speak to me for ages.

In 1992 Stella becomes MI5's Director-General – the first time the appointment is revealed to the public. Image: New Statesman Ltd/REX/Shutterstock

We tried to combat the press’ initial image of me as the James Bond housewife superspy and I think we were making some progress. Then of course the new Bond film had Judi Dench as M. And she was said to be modelled on me. So rather than knocking the James Bond thing on the head it became quite fun.

If I could go back and relive one day it would be the day I went to meet the men who had so long been our enemies, the KGB. The idea was that we would help them legislate the secret services so they could operate in a democracy. But really, it was like talking to the deaf. They saw us as extraordinary creatures from another world. I was the only woman at the table of course. At the concluding speech one of them said, “In your country you have a woman Prime Minister, you have a lady Queen, and now we have a woman leading your intelligence service.” There was a sense of ‘you must be mad’. But still, that was one of the most amazing things that ever happened to me. I didn’t think it would ever be possible to go to Russia. I thought the Cold War would last for my lifetime. Yet there I was in the British ambassador’s Rolls-Royce with the Union Jack flying on the bonnet, driving through a snowy Moscow night to have dinner with the KBG. It was something straight out of a novel.

1996, at Buckingham Palace after being made a Dame – the same year she retired from MI5. Image: REX/Shutterstock

The 16-year-old Stella was be completely amazed by the way my life has gone. Some of the things I’ve seen she didn’t even know existed.She would have worried that my life wasn’t safe, because she came out of a world of fear and saw it turn into what looked like a new peace. And everything I’ve been involved in has not been about peace, it’s been about protecting against threats. But that hasn’t made me a more fearful person. Quite the opposite.

Stella Rimington’s latest Liz Carlyle novel The Moscow Sleepers is  out now  (Bloomsbury, £12.99)

Image: GL Portrait