In an unprecedented interview, Baroness Meta Ramsay meets our Writer at Large and reveals what it’s like to be an officer at the heart of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service

META Ramsay is explaining why she never married. “There just wasn’t the right man at the right time,” she says, “or if the time was right, the men weren’t.”

There was also the small matter of explaining away “things that would seem very odd” to any husband. Such as? “Why all your nails are broken when you’re only supposed to have been in an office.” She smiles and looks down at her dark-painted fingertips.

Why would her nails be broken? “Oh, things that you do with machinery or guns,” she says matter-of-factly.

Meta Ramsay – or Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale to use her House of Lords title, where she’s a Labour peer – keeps her address in Glasgow secret.

However, if you happened to walk past her on Sauchiehall Street, a main city thoroughfare where she regularly strolls, you’d never suspect that she rose to the very top of MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, as one of Britain’s most celebrated spies.

At 87, she arrives at The Herald’s offices dressed in a Chinese-style blouse with black-and-white pearls and those dark-painted fingernails, which she taps on the table when emphasising a point. Who would ever guess that she was part of the most sensational spying operation of the Cold War, a series of events which changed the course of history?

It wasn’t until 1994 that the British government officially acknowledged MI6 even existed, so it’s unprecedented for the press to get such access to an intelligence officer of Ramsay’s rank.

It’s rumoured she was in contention to be the first woman head of MI6, but all she will say is that when she finally retired she was “the most senior woman in the service”.


 EDITORIAL USE ONLY.A general view of the Secret Intelligence Service building, headquarters of MI6 at Vauxhall in central London..

A general view of the Secret Intelligence Service building, headquarters of MI6 at Vauxhall in central London


It’s been quite the journey. Ramsay was born in Glasgow in 1936 into a working-class family. Her mother was Jewish and her father Church of Scotland. Ramsay’s maternal grandmother fled Tsarist pogroms in Ukraine, settling in the Gorbals.

“Immigrants have always gone there,” she says. On her mother’s side, it was a “Zionist, socialist family”.

Her father was from Govan and a pattern-maker, a skilled trade which saw him work with engineers. His family were “very Labour”.

Ramsay’s parents had dreams for her. By now they were living in Langside, in the south of Glasgow. It cost £10 per term to send her to nearby Hutchesons’ private school. So they saved and after Battlefield Primary, Ramsay passed the qualifying exams.


She fell in love with Latin and won prizes for debating. All girls at “Hutchie”, she says, were expected to go to Glasgow University. She read for a general degree, an MA covering the arts, languages, philosophy and at least one science, which troubled Ramsay as she hated maths.

She pondered a career as an educational psychologist – her interest in the mind clearly an asset when it comes to espionage.

She lived at home and was soon a star of the university’s debating society, where she became lifelong friends with John Smith, later leader of the Labour Party, and Donald Dewar, Scotland’s founding First Minister. “Friendships at that stage in life really stay with you,” she says.

Ramsay became the first woman president of the then-Scottish Union of Students, shocking some misogynistic classmates, and quickly got a taste for the cut and thrust of politics.

She smiles and says: “I suppose that’s where the rot began.” After graduation, she moved into international student politics. Two organisations dominated the world during the Cold War when it came to students: the International Union of Students, controlled by communists; and the International Student Conference which fought democracy’s corner. Ramsay was a key member.

The Cold War saw the two organisations battle for influence over students in Africa and Latin America. This was Ramsay’s first experience of confronting the Soviets. “It was very ideological,” she says. But she wasn’t yet working for British intelligence.

It was the travel she loved most. She’d meet student leaders around the world. Some would go on to be presidents, others would be assassinated during the conflicts of the Cold War. “Latin America had a high death rate for student leaders,” she says.

While Ramsay won’t explain precisely how she ended up working for MI6, she will say that “it was a natural progression” from international student politics to the Foreign Office which she joined officially in 1968. Was it unusual for a working-class woman who hadn’t gone to Oxbridge to be recruited into MI6? She didn’t suffer any snobbery, she says. “The most serious problem was the fact I was a woman.”


HER reasons for becoming a spy may surprise some. “I wanted to achieve something positive and helpful to the fight and the cause of democratic socialism.”

Many might raise an eyebrow at a woman who was at the very top of British intelligence championing socialism. “You don’t switch your brain off just because you become a civil servant – everybody has positions,” she says.

Ramsay seems uncomfortable with the word “spy” – does she dislike the term? No, she says. Did she think of herself as a spy? “I thought of myself as a public servant.” But she’s a rather unique form of public servant, no? “I don’t think so,” she replies. “You’re just doing the best for your country … It’s what we were paid for.” She later jokes: “Not that we were paid very much.”

The conversation turns to her role in one of the most audacious spying operations of the 20th century: the rescue of the double-agent Oleg Gordievsky from inside Russia at the height of the Cold War.


Author Frederick Forsyth (left) with Foyles luncheon chairman Oleg Gordievsky, at the Foyles Literary luncheon in honour of MR Forsyth, in London today (Weds). Photo by David Cheskin..

Author Frederick Forsyth (left) with Foyles luncheon chairman Oleg Gordievsky, at the Foyle's Literary luncheon in honour of MR Forsyth, in London. Photo by David Cheskin

Gordievsky was MI6’s most prized double agent. “He was the gold standard. Very special,” Ramsay says. A KGB colonel, Gordievsky ran Russia’s spying operations in Britain. Unbeknown to MI6, a CIA officer called Aldrich Ames – who had turned traitor and was working for the Kremlin – blew Gordievsky’s cover, telling the KGB he was a British agent.

In 1985, Gordievsky was recalled to Moscow, and soon realised he faced execution. MI6 launched an “exfiltration” plan to spirit Gordievsky out alive. An MI6 officer arranged to smuggle Gordievsky over the border to Finland in the boot of his car.

At the border, Soviet guards were using sniffer dogs to search for Gordievsky. The MI6 officer had taken his wife and baby along as cover. As the guards approached their car, his wife got out and changed her baby’s nappy on the boot, with Gordievsky hiding inside, literally throwing the dogs off the scent.

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Ramsay was MI6 “head of station” in Helsinki, waiting for Gordievsky’s arrival in Finland. She won’t say what role she had. “Everything to do with Oleg was to go to the grave with us,” she explains. If Gordievsky hadn’t later written about his exploits, Ramsay wouldn’t even offer the few tidbits she’s willing to discuss today. “I’d still pretend I didn’t know anything about him. I got to know him very well afterwards, but we won’t go into that.”

It was the stuff of Hollywood movies. Yet she still won’t accept there’s anything unique about her career. Is that Glaswegian reluctance to get to big for your boots – fear of tall poppy syndrome? Perhaps, she says.

However, she doesn’t hold back on Ames, the CIA traitor. Other agents he gave up were executed by the Soviets. “What an awful man. He did it for money. It’s no thanks to him Oleg survived. I could kill Ames.”

He was later caught and sentenced to life in prison where he remains.

“How could you live with yourself knowing you caused the death of people who trusted you and were helping you?” Ramsay asks. “Our lives are about loyalty, not treachery.” She taps the table again with her fingernails. “You can never excuse treachery – betrayal is unforgivable in any circumstances.”

Gordievsky’s information was vital to Britain and America, and helped pave the path towards the fall of Communism. Gordievsky swapped sides when he was first posted to Copenhagen and realised “the Soviet system was a lie”.

“You get to meet a lot of defectors,” Ramsay says. Most are motivated by self-interest – “they didn’t get a promotion, there’s an unhappy marriage” – but Gordievsky was totally ideological. “There was nothing quite like Oleg. He’s unique.”


Baroness Meta Ramsay, Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale poses for a photograph in the offices of The Herald in Glasgow. Photograph by Colin Mearns 10th June 2024 For Herald on Sunday, see interview by Neil Mackay

Baroness Meta Ramsay, Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale poses for a photograph in the offices of The Herald in Glasgow. Photograph by Colin Mearns 



RAMSAY could tell nobody – not even her “closest family” – that she was anything other than a Foreign Office civil servant. Although she had close confidants in MI6, especially another woman intelligence officer who had served in the Special Operations Executive, Britain’s espionage and sabotage wing in occupied Europe during the Second World War.

Did she regret not marrying? “No, she says, “not in theory. It would’ve been nice if the right man had been there at the right time but that juxtaposition didn’t happen. There are difficulties in developing relationships.”

She adds: “It’s quite a difficult life, you’re always on the move, doing all sorts of things that seem very odd.”

Just going to the doctor – or dealing with “ordinary people” – could be problematic. “I once had a problem with a cracked rib,” she says, “and went to the local doctor of the place [she was stationed] with somebody from my outfit. The doctor said, ‘how did you do this?’.”

She’d hurt herself at judo – a martial art, Ramsay later confesses, that she wasn’t “very good at”.

How did she cope with danger? “If you get yourself into a difficult situation, the adrenalin goes so hard your training kicks in, it prepares you. There are times when you’re in a place you’d never in a million years have gone, especially as a woman. You’re there in the pitch black in the wrong bit of town.”

It wasn’t just the KGB she had to worry about in those situations. “You’re making yourself extremely vulnerable, somewhere no woman in her right mind would ever go.”

That hypervigilance, however, meant she was more wary than male officers. Without some fear, you drop your guard. “You’ve got to always be on edge a little if you’re meeting an agent or doing something you shouldn’t be doing and there’s no way of explaining away why you’re where you are. If you don’t keep on edge, that’s when it gets dangerous. You don’t relax. If you do, you do something wrong.

“I mean, it happens, people are human, but when you’re meeting an agent you really mustn’t be so relaxed that you haven’t noticed surveillance somewhere.”

How does the relationship between a spy and the agent they’ve recruited work? “You’ve got to have chemistry, they have to trust you with their life – at best disgrace, at worst their lives. You have a special rapport but it can’t be too close. It’s a very delicate balance. You have to give enough of yourself for them to feel you’re real.”

The “target” – not a word Ramsay uses – may have radically different beliefs. “You don’t show that. They must feel comfortable … It’s like being an actor.”

She adds: “It’s tricky. You give a lot of yourself. In a way they use you if it’s all working properly. You’re the one person in the world they can tell anything to. I sometimes thought it was a cross between priest and psychiatrist. You’re the person they can call in the middle of the night who’ll never be put out.”

An intelligence officer’s biggest fear is the cover of their agent being blown. “It’s absolutely the worst thought,” she says. “There were occasions when I was in places where something went badly wrong and somebody was arrested. Everybody in the whole line would go over everything to try to make sure if there was anything they were responsible for.”


Baroness Meta Ramsay, Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale poses for a photograph in the offices of The Herald in Glasgow. Photograph by Colin Mearns 10th June 2024 For Herald on Sunday, see interview by Neil Mackay

Baroness Meta Ramsay, Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale. Photograph by Colin Mearns 


CLEARLY, Ramsay suffered the same sexism any woman experienced in the workplace in the 20th century. But the most complex issue, when it came to being a woman, centred on the men she was trying to recruit as spies. You don’t want the target to fall in love, and then have to deal with a bruised male ego.

“You’re cultivating someone and you haven’t got to the stage – because you want to recruit them – of asking them that,” Ramsay explains. “Yet you’re making all the signs of being very happy, and wanting to see him and have lunch and all these things.”

That scenario is easily misinterpreted, she says. “That’s an absolute killer if you don’t get it right.

“You must never let a man make a move thinking that it will be welcomed and then it’s not because then you’ve really ruined your own project.”

Flirtation wasn’t part of her toolkit. “No, it’s a very bad idea – the last thing you want. The real danger is that it might make you go much earlier when it comes to putting the question.”

How do you “put the question”? “The rule is that you should never get a ‘no’. You shouldn’t be asking the question if you’re not going to get a ‘yes’.” Women, she adds, are “very good” at judging human nature.

Like all MI6 officers, Ramsay retired at 55. The biggest event of her final years was the first Gulf War following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. After retiring, she briefly worked for the private security company Control Risks as a consultant specialising in kidnap.

However, soon her old friend John Smith came calling. Now Labour leader, he asked her to be his foreign policy adviser.

Ramsay entered the world of politics. “He’d have been a great Prime Minister,” she says. Smith died in 1994 and Tony Blair took over.

He put her forward for the House of Lords in 1996, where she was government whip and got the foreign affairs portfolio. She later became Lords Deputy Speaker.


John Smith

John Smith



UNDER Blair, Ramsay soon found herself caught up in the Iraq War. “I’m one of the few around who still thinks Tony had to go in,” she says. Ramsay believes America stopped the first Gulf War “too soon”. Saddam should have – and could have – been toppled, she says. “We wouldn’t have needed to go back 10 years later, and it wouldn’t have caused all that trouble.”

She’s aware support for the Iraq invasion in 2003 is “discredited” in the eyes of many and her comments might make her sound “like a great warmonger”. However, Ramsay adds, Saddam “was a maniac, just horrible. The things they did. One of his sons was a psychopath, they put people through shredders”.

But how can she support the war given there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – and that was the claim used to justify the invasion?

“There had been” WMD in Iraq, Ramsay says, and Saddam’s scientists still had the capabilities of making them. Saddam also “wasn’t letting in” weapons inspectors. “It seemed to be that he didn’t have the actual things there, but he was just waiting,” she claims.

So, is she saying Saddam didn’t have WMD, but he had the ability and intention to make them and was also interfering with weapons inspections? “Yes,” she adds, “that’s fair.”

If the first Gulf War had been prolonged, Saddam could have fallen as “the Shia were rising in the south. We encouraged the Shia and the Kurds to rise”. She taps the table again with her nails for emphasis.

Their revolt, however, was put down brutally by Saddam after America halted the conflict. “The one thing that makes me feel I’ve blood on my hands is what happened to the Shia … They rose and then we weren’t there.”

Saddam had also breached the conditions of the UN resolution drafted at the end of the war, Ramsay says. “He didn’t do any one of the things required.” Those breaches, she believes, provided legal authority for the 2003 invasion.

Why did Britain and America claim Saddam had WMD? “That was the considered opinion of most intelligence services, certainly the Americans and us.”

She insists Blair’s government didn’t lean on the intelligence services to provide the WMD evidence required to justify invasion. Intelligence can be “fuzzy”, Ramsay says.

“Reports aren’t always black and white. You’ve got to a make a decision. There’s a lot of fog. There was certainly evidence of Iraqis going around buying equipment for component parts [of WMDs]. It certainly wasn’t that Alastair [Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell] and Tony were deliberately lying, it was just a case of a slight confusion, a fog.

“But as far as I was concerned, the big thing to decide whether we should go to war again and depose [Saddam] had nothing to do with whether he still had these weapons or not.” The “casus belli” was, Ramsay believes, Saddam’s failure to comply with conditions laid down after the end of the first Gulf War. “It was completely legal to take action.”


Alastair Campbell

Alastair Campbell


Ramsay remains active in Scottish Labour. She sits on its executive committee, but doesn’t appear particularly enthused by the experience. A firm supporter of devolution and the Scottish Parliament, she is deeply opposed to independence, however. “It’s nonsense,” she says. “It’s madness to break up the UK.” Nor has she any time for the SNP.

One of her first comments is about the state of Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow under the city’s SNP administration. “It’s a disgrace,” she adds. “What are the Scot Nats doing if they can’t do something about that? What’s the council doing?”

The SNP at government level is “worse than people who are even not their friends could ever have imagined. You don’t think there’s going to be lack of honesty and integrity … I thought they would be wrong because they’re all fanatics for a cause I don’t believe in, but I never thought they’d turn out to be corrupt and nasty – and they’re both.

“There was definitely pressure from the government on all sort of things in Scotland – contracts and things – and people being silenced. That was starting to be more like a communist state. Luckily they didn’t have all the levers, otherwise they’d have been pulling them. And I really was appalled at that.”

And the Tories? “They’re a disgrace.” The rise of the far right in Europe and America chills her. “I mean, Germany is a real problem.” She pauses and adds: “Ancestral memories.”

In France, she fears Emmanuel Macron has “made a mistake” calling an election in the hope of taming Marine Le Pen. Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s far-right leader, surprised Ramsay, however, by not being as extreme in office as expected.


UKRAINE is the battlefield for democracy today, Ramsay believes, and must not lose. “If the Americans don’t stop messing around, Ukraine will not win.” She hits her nails off the table again for emphasis. There have been delays in US support due to the Republican Party. “Men are dying because of that. It’s like the First World War.”

Ukraine will only win “if we get our act together and give them better protection. Putin is a murdering little …”. She pauses and laughs at the insult she almost let slip. Ramsay tries, she says, not to use “unladylike language”, but adds: “I am a Glasgow girl after all.”

She compares Putin to Hitler and says future generations won’t thank us if we fail to defeat him. “He wants the 17 countries that were part of the Soviet Union back. Ukraine is just the beginning.” Russia taking Crimea was equivalent to Hitler taking the Sudetenland. “He must not be placated.”

Putin was a spy like Ramsay, but not a very impressive one. “He wasn’t a star, nothing like Oleg, for example.” She grimaces at the thought of Trump returning.

“It would be difficult to find somebody worse than Boris Johnson, but Trump probably is.”

As the daughter of a Jewish mother, and chair of Labour Friends of Israel in the Lords, Ramsay says she’s “appalled” at growing anti-Semitism in Britain. “I know anti-Semitism when I hear, see or smell it. That’s what’s being unleashed,” she adds.

She quotes the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who said “anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism”, and that in the Middle Ages, Jews were persecuted because of their religion, then in the 1920s persecuted because of their race, and now they are persecuted because of their state.

When it comes to the conflict ongoing in the Middle East, Ramsay is a strong supporter of the two-state solution. She regularly visits Israel and has family there who, like her, oppose Benjamin Netanyahu politically. “How unfortunate he’s the face of Israel. He’s in hock to right-wing extremists,” she adds, tapping her fingernails on the table once more.

Soon, it’s time for her to leave. A driver awaits. She needs a little help down a steep flight of stairs to the pavement but otherwise is remarkably fit given her age. Her driver opens the car door for her.

Is she still concerned about her security? “Well, yes and no. I don’t throw my address about, but you have to try and live a normal life, don’t you?” She gets into the passenger seat and disappears into a bright Glasgow afternoon.