The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1994Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech on the Opening of the New Security Service Building – 30 November 1994

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech at the opening of the new security service building in London on 30th November 1994.


I’m delighted to be here today to open Thames House.

It’s an imposing building. A far cry from the early days of the Service. In 1909, the Service did not have squash courts or a swimming pool. Stella tells me that the swimming pool has been filled in and used for storage, but I intend to check that out on my tour.

In 1909, MI5 had a tiny office in Victoria Street, which the head of the Secret Intelligence Service and the head of MI5 shared. And a total staff of two, one clerk and one retired police detective.

SIS and MI5 did not share an office long. As Maurice Hankey rather quaintly put it:

“it was found that their work had not much in common and they separated”

Now of course you and SIS are closer together again, this time in rather grander buildings on either side of the Thames.

Even in its early days MI5 rapidly realised the importance of technical surveillance. The first record is an application to the Treasury in 1920 for 70 shillings for the purchase of a camera. Quite a lot in those days but described as “indispensable for our work”.

From a 70 shilling camera to the technical wizzardy we see today. From one elderly retired detective to fully professional teams of experts. From a single clerk with a manuscript diary to today’s comprehensive registry. From its dingy office to Thames House, the Service has come a long way.

The modern Service plays a crucial role in maintaining security in Britain today. A role that is now more widely recognised thanks to greater openness.

A role that has expanded since, two years ago, the Service took over responsibility for leading the intelligence effort against mainland terrorism.

I would like to pay tribute today to what you have achieved against the IRA; and to the way the Service has worked with the police to bring this about. The progress that has been made towards peace owes much to what has been done, both in Northern Ireland and on the mainland, to frustrate the IRA’s efforts to achieve their aims by violence.

I see reports of the Service’s operations. Incredible bravery. Patience and persistence. Careful analysis. Skilful technical operations. Most of it never known to the general public. But all of it hugely valuable and much appreciated by those who do know.

The work of the Service does, of course, go very wide. International terrorism, espionage, proliferation, all of great importance. And what has been particularly impressive over recent years has been the Service’s flexibility in adapting to changing threats. Particularly of course those in the former Soviet Union.

This has owed much to Stella Rimington’s contribution. Her job is demanding. As Sir Findlater Stewart commented in 1945:

“The appointment of Director General is one of great responsibility, calling for unusual experience and a rare combination of qualities.

Still very true today.

But Sir Findlater spoiled the effect by continuing:

“Having got the right man for the job …”

Ah, Sir Findlater: how things have changed!

Stella has of course played a leading role in promoting greater openness about the work of the Service. For the Director General to give the Dimbleby Lecture is a remarkable development. But it is right. For far too long the image of the Service was damaged by needless secrecy, which encouraged the fantasists to believe every lurid tale and to neglect real achievements.

Next week another symbol of the secretive past will go: no longer will the notepaper be headed “Box 500”. Instead – and I dread to think how many committees must have laboured over this – the paper will be headed “The Security Service”.

Today, the Service is at last housed in one building. No longer will Stella have to trek across the middle of London for her meetings with me or with the Home Secretary.

It therefore gives me great pleasure to unveil this plaque and declare the building officially open.