As secret agents go, they are like chalk and cheese.
One is quiet, unathletic and highly intellectual; the other is a womanising action man rarely seen without a gun or a fast car.
But budding spies would do far better to take cold war spymaster George Smiley as a role model than James Bond, according to the head of MI6.
MI6 chief Alex Younger, known as ‘C’, said he would prefer George Smiley to James Bond
John Le Carré, centre, created the fictional spy George Smiley who battled his nemesis Karla
Smiley was memorably played by Alec Guinness, pictured, in a BBC adaptation
Intelligence chief Alex Younger, known as ‘C’, said he would take the ‘quiet courage and integrity’ of John Le Carre’s creation ‘over the brash antics of 007, any day’.
And he added that fictional portrayals of Britain’s security services could be ‘pretty wild’, saying: ‘We break the rules, certainly; we do not break the law.’
In his spy novels, Le Carre explores treachery at the heart of British intelligence, challenging Western assumptions about the Cold War by highlighting the moral ambiguities of the battle. The challenges faced by his hero Smiley – who prizes intellect over physical strength – as he tracks down a Soviet mole at the top of the secret service are in stark contrast to the glamourous adventures undertaken by Ian Fleming’s bond.
In a letter to the Economist, Mr Younger said: ‘It is certainly true that a country’s intelligence service can offer an unvarnished reflection of the values of the country it serves.
‘The Stasi told you all you needed to know about the East German regime. SIS, and our sister services, GCHQ and MI5, tell you a lot about modern Britain.’
Mr Younger said he would not want someone like Ian Fleming’s James Bond in MI6
George Smiley is the complete opposite of the globe-trotting secret agent James Bond
‘I should make it clear that, despite bridling at the implication of a moral equivalence between us and our opponents that runs through John le Carre’s novels, I’ll take the quiet courage and integrity of George Smiley over the brash antics of 007, any day.’ Mr Younger, a career spy who joined MI6 in 1991, added that Britain’s spies were not the ‘mavericks’ they are often portrayed as in fiction – although they sometimes break the rules.
‘We do things in defence of national security that would not be justified in pursuit of private interest,’ he said. ‘But only when they are judged by ministers to be necessary and proportionate. We break the rules, certainly; we do not break the law.
‘Alongside our values of courage, respect and integrity … it is creativity, innovation and sheer guile that give us the edge.’
He added: ‘My staff are representative of the British public, firmly rooted in the values of our liberal democracy, doing some extraordinary and highly effective work in the face of a set of forbidding modern threats.
‘Our fictional portrayal, by contrast, can be pretty wild, and often downright cynical. We are humans and we make mistakes, but I work on the principle that the more the public knew of what we did, the prouder they would be.’