Norfolk’s former spymaster says today’s world is no more safe than during Cold War
PUBLISHED: 10:20 09 February 2019 | UPDATED: 23:47 12 February 2019
Dame Stella Rimington, the first female head of MI5, talks to STUART ANDERSON about global security, trailblazing women and the joys of Norfolk life.
When the superpowers trained nuclear arsenals on each other at the height of the Cold War doomsday seemed just one rash decision away.
But the world is no less dangerous today, according to Dame Stella Rimington.
The former director general (DG) of MI5, who lives in a village near Swaffham, said the path to world peace had proven far rockier than she’d imagined when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Dame Stella, 83, clearly recalls the day she travelled to Moscow in December that year to make the first friendly contact between British intelligence and their old enemies at the KGB.
The meeting was at the Lubyanka, the dreaded nerve centre of Soviet spydom. But as a symbol of changing times, a huge statue of the service’s founder ‘Iron’ Felix Dzerzhinsky no longer loomed over the entrance.
Dame Stella said: “We arrived just after (the statue) had been pulled down and taken away, and the people we were meeting didn’t even know what their future was. (Boris) Yeltisn had said he wanted to modernise the KGB and make it more democratic, but of course they ended up carrying on more or less as they were.
“I think people forget how frightening it seemed during the Cold War. We did feel at some points we were within minutes of annihilation.
“But today the leadership of Russia still regards the West as its enemies and seems intent on undermining them in all sorts of ways, and the Middle East has become very disrupted. Now there’s terrorism which comes from diverse sources.
“The job of my successors is much more difficult and complex - it’s ironic the way it’s turned out.”
Dame Stella held MI5’s top job from 1992 to 1996, blazing a trail for being not just the first woman to hold the role, but the first DG to be publicly identified.
Stepping out of the shadows was meant to give the public a more accurate picture of the intelligence services to counter the spy thrillers of Ian Fleming and John le Carré.
She said: “But James Bond struck back when M was played by a woman, and Judi Dench looked quite a bit like I did at the time.”
But despite their fantastical plotlines Dame Stella admitted a fondness for the 007 films, in particular Skyfall. “It was slightly more realistic and even showed things like parliamentary oversight, which no-one would have dreamt of putting in, in the early days.”
Since leaving the service Dame Stella had made her own name in spy fiction, and has just published her 10th novel, The Moscow Sleepers, about intelligence officer Liz Carlyle.
She said she found Norfolk the “perfect place” to write, and much preferred her country lifestyle to the bustle of the capital.
“I started off with a weekender here when I was working in London, and about seven years ago I decided to leave London altogether and live here. I find it extremely beautiful, peaceful and relaxing. There’s always something to do in Norfolk.
“I particularly enjoy going to all the National Trust properties, and Norwich is wonderful city and culturally quite vivid.”
A photograph of Dame Stella by Anita Corbin features in an exhibition called 100 First Women Portraits, which opens at Palace House in Newmarket on February 14.
She said of the show: “It’s fascinating for the variety of professions and trades that these first women have been in over the past few years, ranging from the first female ambassador to athletes and dancers and judges and actors. Absolutely everything, even the first woman iron forger.
“These women have helped change the world and that’s something to be very proud of.”
Dame Stella said she had “no regrets” about her own role in beating a path towards gender equality.
“I was in the service for 27 years and I enjoyed all of it, which may sound a strange thing to say given the horrendous things we were dealing with. When I started it was very much a blokes’ world and the women were ‘there to help’.
“But it was gradually accepted that women had a role to play.”