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Writers in British Intelligence

Writers in British Intelligence: The Secret State and the Public Sphere

Intelligence work is characterised by secrecy and, as such, is often assumed to be detached from the public sphere. Popular images of the spy from 007's 'license to kill' onwards have tended to reinforce this idea, portraying intelligence as something outside the law, exempt from public oversight. As this project will show, this is far from being the case.

Despite the cloak of official secrecy, British intelligence has always been highly conscious of political opinion, and writers have often found themselves acting as intermediaries between the secret state and the people. The aim of this research is to explore this interaction, looking at five writers in particular.

Our work will be divided into four strands:

1) In the 1900s the idea of having a state 'secret police' was widely regarded as un-British by government. It took a mass campaign of 'citizen spies' spearheaded by the novelist William Le Queux to change this posture. For the first time, we will examine Le Queux's campaign and the responses it elicited from officials in detail. In so doing we will ask: how could a work of fiction achieve sufficient political momentum to force the establishment of Britain's first state intelligence service?

2) Dennis Wheatley's and John Masterman's involvement with intelligence in WW2 is well known. However, the way their imaginative skills as novelists were used strategically, to 'game' adverse scenarios and to sell complex deceptions to the Abwehr, has never been closely analysed. 25 years after the end of the war, both writers broke official silence by publishing their stories: the effect of these revelations on the public reputation of British intelligence has also, never been properly assessed. In doing so, we aim to develop a new understanding of the complex role these writers played in the history of British intelligence.

3) In 1963, a serving MI6 officer emerged from nowhere to become the most successful spy writer in history. His scathing account of the intelligence 'circus' would shape the popular image of the agencies for a generation. The early 1960s were an intensely turbulent period for the politics of intelligence in Britain: for the first time, we will assess the impact of Le Carré's 'New Realism' within this febrile media climate. As arguably the most influential intervention made by any spy writer, what does it reveal about the changing relationship between British intelligence and the public sphere in this era of exposure?

4) In 1992, as the first publicly acknowledged Director of MI5, Stella Rimington became the new face of 'openness' in British intelligence. All of her writing, both fictional and non-fictional, is concerned with negotiating a fresh, democratic image for the agencies. Almost none of it, however, has met with serious scrutiny. As we will show, during her tenure Rimington oversaw a major revolution in intelligence gathering methods, in many ways threatening the democratic rights and freedoms she claimed to defend. On this, her writing is almost completely silent. As such, we will ask whether Rimington's project is ultimately more about concealment than openness, obscuring the real evolution of intelligence work in the 90s and beyond.

This project aims to engage both academic and non-academic audiences, encouraging further enquiry into the role of writers in intelligence. To stimulate cross-disciplinary dialogue between Literary and Intelligence studies, our programme includes a symposium in which leading scholars from each discipline will be brought together, leading to a ground-breaking collection of essays. Our public engagement strategy includes a major author event, as well as an innovative online exhibition on the Google Arts & Culture Platform. Our blog 'Writers in Intelligence' will provide a space for ongoing debate and dialogue between intelligence and the people.

Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project

Dr Jago Morrison
Dr Jago Morrison - Jago Morrison is a specialist in contemporary literature. His key areas of expertise are: Contemporary Fiction and Security. Postcolonial Writing in English, with a special interest in Chinua Achebe. Contemporary women’s writing. Jago welcomes expressions of interest from research students interested in studying to MPhil and PhD level in his specialist areas, including from candidates wishing to pursue critical/creative research projects. Jago is an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Peer Reviewer and represents Brunel at the Council for College and University English (CCUE).

Related Research Group(s)


Contemporary Writing - The group facilitates, promotes and disseminates cutting-edge creative, critical and socially-engaged work within English Studies and affiliated fields.

Partnering with confidence

Organisations interested in our research can partner with us with confidence backed by an external and independent benchmark: The Knowledge Exchange Framework. Read more.

Project last modified 09/01/2024