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In 1994 Meta was reported to have been short-listed for the role of Head of MI6 but that she never believed the job would be filled by a woman and, indeed, it was Sir David Spedding who took over the role. Reports say that Meta retired from the diplomatic service in 1994.
KIM WINSER, OBE
As the rumours rumble about the first ever female James Bond, I am lucky to be friends with the real thing. Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale – known to her friends as Meta - is reportedly a former Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6) officer, although neither she nor the agency will confirm or deny that she ever worked there, but I know differently.
Meta is an impressive and wonderful lady and a fellow Scot. We met recently for dinner at The House of Lords and I asked her about her intriguing life.
Meta, thank you so much for meeting up with me this evening. May I start at the very beginning and ask what you were like as a child?
Hello again Kim, it is my pleasure – we always have such a fabulous time chatting!
I was an only child and, until I was 16, the only grandchild and niece of that generation in my
family. It meant that I was the focus of attention of every adult member of the family,
which was marvellous.
In 1945, a couple of months before WWII ended, the first election for a decade took place.
My mother’s younger brother was campaigning for a Labour seat and, as I was the only
child, I was taken along to all of his speeches. My uncle was an impressive orator and
became my biggest inspiration. I was nine years old and I remember tremendous
excitement as Labour won with a landslide victory. It felt like a new dawn and everything
At school I was an active member of the Debating Society and received a prize for public
speaking. I had a natural confidence with people and I think it was these things combined
that led me to the career that followed.
How did your career in the diplomatic service begin?
I was at Glasgow University in the ‘60s with many people who ended up being successful
politicians. John Smith (with whom I worked 30 years later) was there with me. We were in
‘Debaters’ together - it was an extraordinary time. I was unaware quite how extraordinary it
all was – I thought it was normal and that everyone was having this type of experience at
university. Most of my Debater friends and David Steel (who was at Edinburgh University at
the time) went into the House of Commons straight from university. It wasn’t a great time
for them as, being Labour, they were not in power for 18 years. I however, took a different
Indeed. It has been reported that your path took you into the SIS and I appreciate that
anyone who has held such a role cannot talk publicly about it.
- Reports state that Meta was the SIS Head of Station in Helsinki at the time of the
successful exfiltration of the former KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky and one of only two
women who rose to a senior rank in MI6 during the 1970s and 1980s.
- In 1994 she was reported to have been short-listed for the role of Head of MI6 but
that she never believed the job would be filled by a woman and, indeed, it was Sir
David Spedding who took over the role. Reports say that Meta retired from the
diplomatic service in 1994.
- She then turned to full-time politics, becoming a foreign policy adviser to John Smith
and then special adviser to Jack Cunningham, Shadow Secretary of State for Trade
and Industry in the mid-90s.
What happened next?
Having retired from my first career, I decided to really focus on politics in 1992 when my
friend John Smith – who was Leader of the Labour Party at the time - asked me to be his
foreign policy adviser. A couple of years later, he died suddenly of a heart attack the
morning after a big fundraising event I had also attended at the Park Lane Hotel. It was a
very difficult and sad time.
I then became special adviser to Jack Cunningham, Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and
Industry, and was made a life peer in 1996, which was a real honour.
I know you have a close group of female friends and colleagues in the House of Lords -Baronesses with incredible careers and fabulous personalities. It must be inspiring and very supportive to have such close ties. Do tell us more about your friendship with these women?
It really is wonderful to have such a close-knit group of female colleagues and friends at the
House of Lords. I have Baroness friends who were elected and entered the Lords when they
were very much the minority. I think it was quite a hard time for those few being such a
small group, but exciting for them too. When I arrived in 1996, I made some wonderful
female friends across the parties, who I am still close to today. What binds us together is
being women – party allegiance comes very much second. Just under a third of members of
the House of Lords are women today.
You dress in a sophisticated, modern way which really suits you. What type of clothes do you like to wear for work?
Thank you, Kim, that’s kind of you to say. I do enjoy colour and l love clothes for the
confidence the right ones can bring. I prefer pieces that are simple and that don’t date. I’m
quite a conservative (with a little ‘c’!) dresser, but not dowdy – slightly classic, in a good
way, I hope. It’s also important that my work outfits are comfortable and don’t distract me.
I have to say that women’s clothes designed by women really are the best – it makes sense!
That is one of the reasons I think the Winser London collections are so good – for both
professional and non-working women.
I am grateful that you have been a long-standing fan of Winser London. May I ask which are your favourite pieces from our current collection?
From the current collection, it has to be the Boyfriend Jumper which I have five or six of in
different colours – purple, light pink, ivory, light blue... I like to wear one on colder days
with a matching Winser London knitted piece such as a coatigan in exactly the same colour.
It then looks like a modern twinset and has a slimming and lengthening effect that’s rather
good! On warmer days I will team a Boyfriend Jumper with one of your beautiful silk
blouses in the same colour, which gives a very sophisticated look.
An outstanding favourite Winser piece of mine is the beautiful Eau de Nil leather coat, which
I don’t think you do any more, but it always attracts admiring attention when I wear it ... I
What do you do to support your health and wellbeing?
I am not athletic, but I want to be fit and healthy and well. I do Pilates, which is good for strength and flexibility. Back home in Adelaide I live by the ocean , so I walk on the beach and swim regularly. In London, I walk everywhere. During lockdown I discovered the joy of jigsaws and audio books - I really enjoy listening to those while I do a puzzle or walk, especially if it’s someone reading their own autobiography. I also read a lot of women’s fiction and am not averse to a gripping page-turner.
Being Prime Minister tested my ability to manage sleep, eat well and decompress. I’ve never been one of those that can function on four hours sleep. Now I don’t work to the relentless pressure of being PM, I am more able to control rest and recuperation time, but as I often do speaking engagements I can’t fall into my natural rhythm of early nights and early mornings.
Do you have a dream dinner party guest list?
Nelson Mandela was the hero of my youth, and I cut political teeth and awareness of social injustice in the anti-Apartheid era, so he would top of my invite list. I have had the wonderful experience of meeting and spending time with some of the remarkable women who have forged the way in recent history, such as Madeleine Albright, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Hillary Clinton but of course they’d be at my table. Barack and Michelle Obama, too. And I’d love to have some of the great writers that I’ve enjoyed throughout my life, including Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf.
Would you share your guilty pleasure?
Red wine - anything from Australia, obviously, but South Australia in particular. I enjoy a Pinot Noir, rather than a heavy red. And a plate of cheese and crackers and great conversation.