Baroness Meta Ramsay reminisces on her time at the University of Glasgow and her friends from those days who went on to lead New Labour.
Baroness Meta Ramsay’s career since graduating from the University of Glasgow has not been short of drama nor prestige. Since her days frequenting Gilmorehill as President of the Student Representative Council (SRC), Ramsay has seen a lot – from working as a spy in the Nordic states during the Cold War to being an important part of the Labour Party in the House of Lords during the Iraq War.
Ramsay welcomed me to her flat to talk about what it was like being part of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and her involvement in the New Labour, as well as to reminisce on her time as a student at Glasgow with some of the figures who would go on to become big names through those years. From her endearing and gentle nature, urging me to take a biscuit from the selection she’d laid out on platters, it would be hard to guess this woman was once believed to be in the running for chief of MI6. Although her meticulousness in making sure my cup of tea was made to my liking might be indicative of the type of character that led to such a successful career.
Though Ramsay’s early politics may have been influenced by Glasgow Uni, a member of the debating society where her contemporaries were the likes of John Smith and Donald Dewar, she insists this was not the case for her career in intelligence. Some journalists have suggested circles Ramsay was involved in during her time at university, particularly in her role as President of the Scottish National Union of Students, were CIA and MI6 fronts used to recruit for the intelligence services – a claim Ramsay dismisses as rubbish. “It had absolutely nothing to do with Glasgow University. Sometimes people ask because they’ve read all these things about Oxford and Cambridge tutorials, the classic idea from all these novels and things. That your tutor tapped you on the shoulder. At Glasgow University we didn’t have tutorials and glasses of sherry and people tapping you on the shoulder.” I noted with curiosity that judging from her book shelves, she does seem to enjoy a spy novel herself. On the real way she was recruited, the former MI6 Case Officer simply explains she was abroad at the time, and the Ministry of Defence spoke to her.
Ramsay went on to have a successful career in MI6 beginning in the sixties and spanning to the early nineties, which she tells me she enjoyed very much. Reaching the rank of Case Officer as head of the SIS Helsinki station, she worked on the exfiltration of former KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky, a notable achievement for MI6 at the time. Through the seventies and eighties, Ramsay was one of only two women who made it to a senior rank in MI6. She highlights the passing of the Equal Opportunities and Sex Discrimination Act in 1975 as a turning point that got the wheels moving, albeit slowly, on seeing more women in the secret service, since it became illegal not to hire someone on the basis of their sex. “They went through big periods when they just wouldn’t look at women, they just didn’t recruit women. Legislation helped, I would say that was the definite foundation block of letting women in with a fair chance to get up,” Ramsay explains, adding that it took a while for progress to be noticeable since, naturally, it takes years from being recruited to work up to a senior role in the service. “As one knows, women are just as talented as men in anything, but it takes a lot of time to get up through the ranks of any of these bureaucracies or organisations. But we’re getting there. We’ve made strides. We’re not there 100% even yet, I think, sometimes, but it’s getting very much less and less.” Over 30 years on from the time Ramsay was a name rumoured as a potential MI6 head, there is yet to be a female in charge – although she does think it’s coming soon.
Due to SIS’s policy of staff having to retire at 55, Ramsay’s career in the intelligence services came to an end in August 1991. But the challenge of keeping the line to people in her life that she simply worked at the Foreign Office continued: “How do you disguise that you stopped your career at 55 when everyone knows the Foreign Office goes on to 60? Why were you never an ambassador? So they either think you’ve been an absolute dead loss or done something terrible at some point, so you have to try and make it so that it doesn’t seem unusual, which can be quite difficult.”
But Ramsay’s 55th birthday arguably fell at the perfect time. It wasn’t to be a simple early retirement – her old friends from the Glasgow Uni days were gearing up to New Labour and working towards electoral success that would see them in power until 2010. Her old friend John Smith immediately asked her to join his team as a foreign policy advisor after winning the Labour leadership. After working in the leader’s office until Smith passed away in 1994, Tony Blair nominated Ramsay for the House of Lords, which she joined in 1996. She has held a number of roles in the House, including as a government whip, and acting as a junior minister for the Departments of Health, Scotland and the Foreign Office.
The transition into politics was also eased largely by the fact she was still friends with her contemporaries from student politics; people like John Smith, Donald Dewar, James Gordon and Teddy Taylor. Although at the time the Glasgow University Union (GUU) was still the ‘men’s union’ and the Queen Margaret Union the ‘women’s union’, they all came together every second Friday at the GUU for the parliamentary debate. “Nobody thought this was a special group, nobody thought this was going to be a Labour minister or a Labour that at the time. You just take them as your contemporaries and you don’t necessarily know that,” Ramsay reflects.
One of the proudest moments of her political career, Ramsay tells me, was being one of three front bench government ministers in the House of Lords who took the Scotland Act through. A Scottish parliament was something her contemporaries at Glasgow Uni used to talk about. “It wasn’t a question of being Scottish nationalists, because most of us were Labour, but we all wanted a Scottish parliament. Devolution was almost something you talked about as a name and you couldn’t really see it coming to pass. It was certainly something John Smith felt very strongly about, as we all did. Of course, once he was leader, we really thought we’d do it and the Labour party did adopt it as a policy and we managed to deliver it. Well, he didn’t live to see it, but never mind, we fulfilled it.”
Ramsay is clearly very proud of all that the Labour governments achieved, so I wonder whether she is concerned that its legacy is tainted by criticism of the Iraq war. “This is where you’re maybe going to get a great surprise – the Iraq war was completely justified. The first problem and mistake was made in the first Gulf war. It was stopped too soon…we should never have stopped when we did.” She argues that without getting rid of Saddam, it was bound to be a massacre of the Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south. “Saddam had to go. It was a horrible, dreadful, awful regime. I mean, the horror stories of what happened to people and went on happening, and resolutions after resolutions were ignored from the UN. It should never have taken until 2003. It was absolutely inevitable and it was quite right to go in. I would have gone in. Well, I wouldn’t have stopped when we stopped and I would have gone back much faster.”
With the 20 year anniversary of the Iraq war falling in March this year, debates of whether or not Britain should have joined Bush in Iraq have naturally spiked again. “Recently, I can’t tell you how frustrated and angry I’ve been at the television coverage of the anniversary. People who don’t know what they’re talking about, they really don’t. They think it all started then. No, it came from a very bad set of circumstances in 1991. And of course, it’s now just become conventional wisdom, the Iraq war and how terrible it was. I don’t think most of the people who say it really understand what they’re talking about. It’s just something that gets parrotted.”
Baroness Ramsay has seen a lot in her career, both abroad and at home. So what should Labour’s priorities be in the next general election, which is tipped to start a new era of British politics by ending over a decade of Conservative rule? “Trying to give everyone a better life. Giving them a sense of wellbeing and to protect the people who need protection, the weakest in society who have problems. But the trouble is, of course, where do you start?”