A good number of years ago the branch of the Socialist Party I’m a member of was holding its meetings in a room in a pub on the edge of Swansea town centre. We would advertise our fortnightly Monday meetings via posters, leaflets and in the local daily paper. When I arrived at the pub early for one of the meetings and stood at the bar, the landlady informed me, quite innocently, that a detective had been there asking what we were doing. I thanked her for telling me and suggested that, if he came again, she might tell him that our meetings were open to everyone, nothing was hidden and he was perfectly free to find out by attending. She thanked me and we heard nothing more, but at the time it reminded me of conversations members sometimes had about being spied on, either by having their telephone tapped or by someone from the Special Branch attending meetings covertly or even infiltrating the Party by becoming members.
I’d always wondered about this, but on balance thought it was unlikely to be happening. After all, if even a small number of such people had attended our meetings or otherwise found out what we were about, surely they would quickly realise that we didn’t pose a threat to ‘national security’ in the sense that the Security Services understood it. While it’s true that we are ‘dissidents’, we have never supported one government or state against another and we have never advocated any kind of violence. Yet that incident couldn’t but shift my thinking a little and what now, many years later, has shifted it even more is a recently published book entitled Red List: MI5 and British Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century by David Caute (Verso, 2022, 404 pp.). It’s a book that draws on official MI5 documents released to the National Archive and so publicly available which provide startling insights into the enormous efforts (and massive resources) put into tracking the activities and affiliations of an extraordinarily wide range of people who, over most of the 20th century, were suspected of being sympathetic to or interested in regimes deemed to be enemies of the British state (largely the Soviet Union) or were seen as constituting a possible ‘threat to national security’.
Threat to national security?
The main thing that switched on the light of suspicion in the minds of the security men and women (mainly men) of MI5 (or Special Branch, as its police service was called) was any connection whatever to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) or to anyone associated with it. While it’s true that the Communist Party was in thrall to Moscow and in effect the British arm of the Soviet regime during most of the years of its existence and some of the individuals targeted by MI5 were members of the CPGB, many were not and some had only peripheral connections to it or to any of its members or sympathisers. But MI5 did not, as David Caute’s book shows, stop at the CPGB. It extended its investigations to any other organisations it considered potentially ‘subversive’, for example to small left-wing groups who were not actually supportive of the Stalinist Soviet regime and in fact were disciples of Stalin’s arch-enemy, Leon Trotsky. Their investigation also extended to trade unions, to anti-colonial national independence supporters, and, from the 1970s onwards, to the IRA. Given MI5’s apparent failure, as made clear in this book, to distinguish between different kinds of potential ‘subversives’ , it seems quite likely that not just those small Trotskyist groups but any group with the word ‘socialist’ in its name was being targeted, and perhaps still are today – even if, as the author points out, much more of their attention nowadays is likely to be focused on newly perceived threats to national security such as militant Islam and, maybe, a resurgent non-Soviet Russia.
But what of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the detective asking questions in that Swansea pub? Surely anyone attending a single meeting or reading just one Party pamphlet or issue of the Socialist Standard would have understood that we didn’t pose an immediate, violent, non-democratic threat to the British state but that our aim was to openly spread socialist ideas among workers with a view to a socialist society being established democratically through the ballot box once the majority had come to understand those ideas? Yes, but what emerges from the pages of this book is that neither the security system nor its operatives stood out for their brightness or intelligence. Despite countless and ongoing phone taps, mail interceptions, buggings, burglaries, physical surveillance and even infiltration by ‘moles’, the released papers investigated by David Caute show that they seemed to find it difficult to work out whether individuals or organisations constituted genuine, plausible threats to ‘national security’ or whether they just happened to be friends or associates of those who might have ‘subversion’ in their minds and might quite innocently have found themselves in particular places at particular times. So, as we learn, ‘the net cast was incredibly broad’ and ‘guilt by association was paramount’, even if that association was sometimes imagined rather than real. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the Socialist Party and its members, though they could not be sensibly categorised as any kind of immediate threat to national security, should be (and probably still are) lumped together with those who perhaps could be seen as some kind of threat – even if of course most of them weren’t.
Incompetence and bungling
The result of all the glaring incompetence recorded in this book (referred to by the writer with typically entertaining wry commentary as ‘the stumbling confusion of M15 minds’) is that most of the targeting of potential spies came to nothing, simply because they weren’t spies and never constituted any feasible threat to the British state, while the real spies, such as Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and Philby, operated for many years before their activities became known. The lenses of MI5 were clouded partly because it was staffed at the top by out-of-touch former military and colonial officers and its agents on the ground, the ‘Special Branch’ operatives, were, as already noted, simply not very bright. They often included manifestly irrelevant and sometimes unintentionally comic details in their reports. Surveillance of the home of poet C. Day Lewis, for example, produced such vital information as ‘seldom wears a hat, not altogether smart appearance in dress’, and the agent reporting from Harwich on the historian Christopher Hill returning from Russia wrote: ‘He has the appearance of a communist; but his baggage, which was searched by HM Customs, did not contain any subversive literature.’ Charlie Chaplin came under investigation but was deemed to be ‘a progressive or radical rather than communist’, even though it was widely known, as the book points out, that ‘Chaplin had long been an out-and-out fellow-traveller of Stalin’s Russia’. The contents of the papers examined here also reveal MI5 culture as highly bigoted and in particular, perhaps predictably, racist and anti-semitic. One memo quoted states that ‘the chief Bolshevik leaders are not Russians but Jews who carefully hide their real names’. Another report talks about a suspect’s home being visited by ‘a number of young men who have the appearance of Communist Jews’, while an uncle of the historian and Communist Party member Eric Hobsbawm is described as ‘sneering, half Jew in appearance, having a long nose’.
Intellectuals and others
Yet what we have in this study is only a small taste of everything MI5 has got up to over the years. That is firstly because the records made publicly available only cover people already deceased, and secondly because this study focuses only on ‘intellectuals’, (eg, writers, artists, scientists, historians, politicians, actors, musicians, lawyers), for the most part well-known ones (eg, John Berger, Benjamin Britten, Jacob Bronowski, Cecil Day-Lewis, Michael Foot, Eric Hobsbawm, Doris Lessing, Ewan McColl, George Orwell, J.B. Priestley, Paul Robeson, Stephen Spender, E.P Thompson). Yet, despite the 200+ suspect ‘intellectuals’ covered, many records relating to deceased individuals have, as the author tells us, not been released (without any reason being given) and there is significant redaction of some of those that have been. So who knows how much other bungling, how many other dead ends would be revealed if the totality of security records were available, especially if those also included people still alive? And who knows whether, if the net were cast wider than those the authors see as ‘intellectuals’, suspicions many other people have had about being spied on over the years would be confirmed? And who knows whether there would not be reference to the Socialist Party and any covert investigations carried out over the years on both the organisation and its members, living or dead? From what we find here, there very likely would.
It should be added that, despite the vast majority of this activity leading nowhere in particular and being a pale shadow of the McCarthyite witchhunt that took place in the US in the 1950s where intense persecution took place of anyone deemed to be or to have been in any way associated with ‘communism’, MI5 spying did nevertheless have negative consequences for some in the shape, for example, of difficulty in finding or keeping employment or being refused entry to or residence in Britain if you were a non-British subject. And in some cases, when spying was proved, prosecution did lead to prison sentences, such as the 10 years given to physicist Alan Nunn May (he served 6½).
All this took place and was sanctioned under both Conservative and Labour governments, with Caute’s book highlighting the particular emphasis put on this work by the immediate post-war Labour government under Clement Attlee, who in 1947 introduced a new more stringent vetting system. One of the results of this – perhaps ironic – was that a not insignificant number of Labour Party politicians, even leading ones such as Harold Wilson and Tony Benn, found their way on to the ‘red list’ and the author of this book has discovered that others still living (eg, Harriet Harman) have unreleased files against their names.
The BBC and democracy
The BBC was complicit too. David Caute dedicates a whole chapter, ‘The BBC Toes the Line’, to illustrating how, until recent times at least, the BBC was ‘up MI5’s armpit’, functioning as a servile collaborator of the Secret Services. It was, as he calls it, ‘a semi-covert department of state’, which even carried out its own extensive vetting procedures on those within it or seeking to enter it to check whether there was any sniff of ‘subversion’ about them. This led, for example, to the BBC cancelling a planned series of radio talks on atomic power scheduled to be given by a listed MI5 ‘suspect’, the celebrated scientist Jacob Bronowski.
Finally any security set up, any ‘spy industry’ involves a colossal squandering of resources, human and material, and, as David Caute’s book uncovers, MI5 was no exception. It should be added however that this kind of waste is an inevitable function of a social system that pits capitalist classes and governments of whatever kind (even those that may falsely call themselves ‘communist’, ‘socialist’ or ‘Marxist’) against one another in the battle for political and economic control of the world’s resources. But it also throws significant light on the severe limitations that the system, even in so called ‘liberal democracies’, inevitably imposes, via institutions like MI5, on freedom of speech and free exchange of ideas and thought. In the end capitalism, whether it takes the form of state control or a relatively unfettered market, needs state secrecy to assist the national interests of each country’s wealth holders in their never-ending quest for profit as they compete on the world market with those elsewhere who own and control the world’s wealth.