Oxford, spies and the secret service


I can’t be the only person who’s spent at least some of my time at Oxford hoping to be talent spotted by MI5. But, disappointingly, on the Wikipedia page for my college, Lincoln, it states: “There is little evidence to substantiate the college’s reputation as a recruiting ground for spies”. I choose to interpret this as proof that Lincolnites are just particularly good spies – ones who don’t get found out. But just what is the deal with Oxford and spying?

The Secret Service Bureau, first created in 1909, later split into the Security Service (MI5), which deals with domestic issues, and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) which combats overseas threats – and was so secret that its existence was only officially acknowledged in 1994. Past heads of MI6 consist almost entirely of Oxbridge alumni, and have the responsibility of collecting intelligence to pass onto the government. The nature of the job has evolved from operations in Germany throughout the World Wars, to countering the ‘Soviet threat’ to a more recent focus on terrorism. As per a tradition started by the first head of the Service, all correspondence is signed with a letter ‘C’, the single initial by which the official is known, in green ink. Sort of like Dumbledore.

A few Oxonians who have occupied the role are Colin McColl (Queen’s), John Rennie (Balliol), and John Scarlett (Magdalen). The latter took on the role just a week before the September 11th attacks, was heavily involved in drawing up the September Dossier on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – one of the documents Parliament would use as justification for the Iraq war – and was later expelled from Moscow in a tit-for-tat response to a Russian spy’s expulsion from England.

Sir David Spedding, a Hertford alumnus recruited by a tutor, was yet another Oxford ‘C’. An Arab specialist responsible for many covert intelligence operations in the Middle East, he is also notable for inviting Dame Judi Dench to the MI6 Christmas lunch, after the actress said she would be interested to learn about the real-life counterpart to ‘M’.

During the Cold War, MI5 and MI6 recruitment focused on Oxbridge in an attempt to tackle the fears of Communism spreading in England. They approached young students who had returned from the war and were benefitting from Labour’s free university education, appealing to their sense of patriotism as a means of persuading them to join the Secret Service.

David Cornwell, better known under the pseudonym John Le Carré, was one of those working for both MI5 and MI6 at the height of the Cold War. His knowledge of German allowed him to work in Hamburg and carry out interrogations on those who had crossed to the West through the Iron Curtain. Even while studying at Lincoln College he was working undercover for the secret service, joining far-left societies to look out for anyone in league with the Soviets. His career came to an abrupt end when British double agent (and Cambridge student, not that I’m implying anything) Kim Philby exposed the identities of several British secret agents to the KGB. Le Carré became a full-time author, and his spy novels inspired by his time in the service were well received. The rowing boats belonging to Lincoln’s Boat Club are still named after perhaps his best known book, ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’.

But Oxford’s spies weren’t always quite what they seemed. Arthur Wynn, known by the disappointingly pedestrian codename ‘Agent Scott’, was recently revealed to be a recruiter of Soviet spies in the University. Having lived in Nazi Germany, he developed Soviet sympathies, and his marriage to a Communist leader was soon dissolved after bringing her to the UK to escape Nazi Germany. Back in England, he read Law at Oxford, where he met Theodore Mally, a KGB controller. He would send Soviet officials information on Oxford members of the Communist Party, with the objective of creating a spy ring – according to KGB documents, five from his list of potentials were considered suitable Soviet spies.

And what of those who turn down the invitation? Whilst studying languages at LMH, Nigella Lawson was allegedly approached by her tutor, who later became head of MI5, to join the service. Her father, Nigel Lawson, advised her against it, however, and the rest is cookery-based history.

So, if your tutor does approach you for a word about your ‘future options’, be aware they might not just mean choosing your FHS papers, and an altogether more dangerous and exciting path may be in store…