Within the UK, MI6 is something of a revered institution. It hasn’t been as tainted as the NSA, or even MI5 and GCHQ to an extent within the UK in the recent privacy revelations. Instead, it still maintains its image of chivalric and sportsmanlike conduct combined with an efficient ruthlessness. Obviously a certain amount of this image is sparked by popular culture, James Bond is the predominant example. He is suave, sophisticated, and sexy; the embodiment of cool and he gets the job done for the good of the country.
Aside from Bond, how did MI6’s reputation evolve into such a positive light in this nation where the institutions of old have come under increasing fire for a variety of reasons. Most accept the fact that the reality is far removed from the fiction, but there is still a romantic tint to perceptions of the service. Reflecting on this, the vast majority of British citizens know very little about the Secret Intelligence Service (as MI6 officially is). It exists, and it lives in a dominant building in Vauxhall. But I only learnt today that it was founded in 1909, that its history was a mystery to the public until 2009, and even then only history up to 1949 was released. I learnt that even the retirement age in such a secretive agency is a secret. What is surprising is that the majority of things the public knows about MI6 is what it doesn’t know. We don’t know the stories of operatives, we don’t know their lives and their missions, we don’t know their successes or failures, we don’t even know the floorplan of their Vauxhall base.
This makes us value what we can glean from their mythical history. I recently purchased MI6 by Keith Jeffery in an attempt to both fulfil my romantic visions of the life of secret agents, but also to attempt to learn more about what is essentially a modern legend. Fittingly enough, it was said by the Mail on Sunday to “read like a Bond film”-which makes one wonder; is it possible to square such romantic visions of a patriotic service with agents who live a life of sophisticated cool with a modern, cynical, and ultimately disbelieving outlook? Hopefully Jeffery-and Spectre-contain at least some of the answers. Personally I hope not however, in a time when mythical institutions are hard to come by, such a service where there seems to exist a remnant of old school values should maintain its secretive air.