The cliché of MI5 and MI6 recruitment is that you get tapped on the shoulder at university by a shadowy figure and told to leave your former life behind. But is this a trope of James Bond spy fiction, or does it really happen?
When I email both MI5 and MI6 to discuss this, they unsurprisingly deign not to reveal the secret inner workings of their recruitment policy. But there are various answers that reveal themselves after a bit of digging.
In his biography The Big Breach: From Top Secret to Maximum Security, Richard Tomlinson, who worked as an intelligence officer for MI6 before being fired, wrote about being approached by a tutor called Christopher Pilchard while studying aeronautical engineering at Cambridge in the mid 80s:
“Every Oxford and Cambridge college and leading British university has a 'talent spotter' like Pilchard, a don sympathetic to MI6 who looks out for suitable recruits. The majority of MI6 recruits come this way from the two most prestigious universities in Britain…”
Today, MI6 includes a myth-busting section on its website; one apparent myth is “It's probably full of super-bright graduates from the UK's top universities.”
Annie Machon went to Cambridge from 1986 to 1989. During this period, she says, MI5 had a bad reputation; whistleblowers like Sarah Tisdall had been jailed for leaking official documents. This was when the organisations were all but invisible in and of themselves. The British government had only acknowledged MI6's existence in 1986, and MI5 wasn't legally recognised until three years later.
Machon studied Classics and was active in a number of university societies. “Back then, having a degree in Classics from Oxbridge was basically a free pass into the heart of the British establishment,” she says.
Her recruitment to MI5 wasn't “the classic tap on the shoulder at a sherry party”, says Machon, but she confirms that this practice “definitely definitely did happen for decades”. Wanting to be a diplomat, she applied to the Foreign Office but received a letter from the Ministry of Defence, telling her they might have other jobs she would find interesting. “Oh fuck, it's MI5,” she said in her dining room.
There followed an intense recruitment process that lasted the best part of a year, in which the organisation asked her to sit various tests. After the tests there was months of “developed vetting”, in which the organisation grilled four people about her background; these four people then nominated four others, who were grilled in turn.
“There were known spotters and recruiters at Oxford and Cambridge,” Machon says, reiterating that the practice is not a myth. “Looking back and talking to other people, they were bleeding obvious.”
She heard from friends that the procedure literally did involve a tap on a shoulder at a social event; or it could be a discussion with a tutor, who would put you forward for a position. “Just because somebody goes to a snobby, posh university, as most people would see it, doesn't mean that they're going to be a total idiot.”
David Wolstencroft, who created the BBC MI5 drama Spooks, remembers from his time at Cambridge in the 80s that there was a tutor who probably recruited for an intelligence agency. He also met people at university who went on to “join the Foreign Office but not really” or “join the Home Office but not really”, as he puts it, adding that universities are far from having a monopoly on talent but they are useful for intelligence agencies, who probably look at the institutions as “Petri dishes of possibility”.
A university is a handy corral, he says: people are “all collected in one place and they don't know what they're doing yet”. A source who used to be in a senior position at GCHQ corroborates this, saying that you can hook young people in if you recruit them early and give them exciting things to do.
Susan Branford studied Modern Languages at Oxford from 1985 to 1989. There was a rumour that her tutor was a recruiter for MI6. (Until these tutors die, they are rarely named.) After she graduated, she applied to take the Foreign Office exams; she was turned down, but then received a letter asking if she would consider other opportunities in foreign service.
She went for an interview in a white stucco building on Pall Mall. “I'll never forget going into that building,” she says. “I had never walked on such thick red carpet before.” (Until recently, if you revealed the colour of the carpet in MI6 you would be breaking the Official Secrets Act.)
Branford, whose name has been changed as applicants are not meant to discuss their interviews, remembers that the interviewers had done some sort of research about her parents. “You could see that they wanted to recruit from places they knew,” she says. “I think it goes back to this whole notion of Establishment – and they all basically pissed in the same pot, didn't they.” She turned down the opportunity, frightened by the prospective life the interviewers described.
Now that MI5 and MI6 no longer keep their existence secret from the public, they are able to advertise openly. Machon remembers one of the very first adverts appearing in The Independent in the early 90s; the advert was public, but didn't reveal that it referred to vacancies within MI5. Her ex-partner, David Shayler, came to work for MI5 by responding to one of these adverts. By the end of the decade, MI5 were openly recruiting. Machon believes that at one point they received 20,000 applications and accepted six.
This transparency is a conscious effort on the part of the intelligence agencies to better reflect the world they inhabit. The infamous Cambridge Five scandal – in which five Cambridge graduates were revealed to be working for the Soviet Union – proved that the old Oxbridge technique was far from perfect. This was just as true for GCHQ, says the ex-employee. “The future of the organisation depended on having that diversity of mind,” he says.
In the last decade there have been efforts by both MI5 and MI6 to publicly dispel the myth that only Oxbridge candidates ought to apply. “We don't have a preference as to whether our applicants are graduates or not,” MI5 say on their website. “Every community from every part of Britain should feel they have what it takes, no matter what their background or status,” said the chief of MI6 in 2017, announcing that taps on the shoulder had to be used – not at Oxbridge, but on people who wouldn't otherwise apply.
And after a week of assuming that MI5 won't tell me their secrets, I finally hear back from them. They confirm that they used the “tap on the shoulder” in the past but no longer do so. “Our graduate recruitment process is now very transparent,” they say, “and we regularly attend careers fairs at universities to advertise our various graduate career streams.”
But Machon doesn't think that the tap on the shoulder will ever go away; this is simply how the British establishment works – though at least the technique is no longer used only on what Machon calls the “pale, stale, male” candidate. “I think the taps on the shoulder now happen in every walk of life,” says Wolstencroft. “I think it's a massive hand that's tapping a lot of people.”