Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 30 October 2009

I meant to write about Christopher Andrew’s authorised centenary history of the security service, MI5, The Defence of the Realm, in my last column – but my copy of the book turned up late because of the postal strikes. And because I’m a busy man and it’s more than 1,000 pages (and that’s not counting the index), I’ve only now finished reading it.

Whatever, it’s still worth a column, because there’s a lot more to it than the first news stories and reviews suggested.

Which is not to knock David Leigh, who made it clear, in a cutting review in the Guardian, that Andrew’s denial of MI5’s plot against Harold Wilson as prime minister is radically at odds with the evidence Andrew himself supplies in the book that senior figures in the security service, most importantly Peter Wright, really did think Wilson was a Soviet stooge and acted to undermine him.

Nor is it to dismiss the critics of The Defence of the Realm who have said that it shamelessly traduces several people who conveniently cannot answer back – notably the late Jack Jones, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union from 1968 to 1976, whom Andrew claims to have been a Soviet agent, largely on the basis of the dubious testimony of the KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky.

Andrew’s is an official history – he even joined MI5 in order to write it – and he never misses an opportunity to portray the security service in the most favourable light. He has an unerring eye for headline-inducing allegations, and he reproduces them even when the evidence for their truth is anecdotal.

Nevertheless, The Defence of the Realm is an important and in many ways impressive piece of work, and it would be a mistake to write it off. Andrew has had unprecedented access to the security service archives, and there is a lot he has turned up that is fascinating.

What struck me most forcefully as I read the book was the sheer scale of MI5’s surveillance of what it called “domestic subversion” – otherwise known as the Communist Party of Great Britain and the various revolutionary groups, mainly Trotskyist, to its left.

For more than 40 years after 1945, keeping tabs on the far left was what the security service spent most of its time and energy upon. Although it was originally set up in 1909 as a small secret agency to identify and root out German spies in Britain – revolutionaries were the preserve of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch – during the 1920s the security service found itself increasingly involved in monitoring the activities of members of the Communist Party. The reason was simple: the CP was from its foundation in 1920 loyal to the Soviet regime in Russia and engaged in espionage (or at least some of its members were), and from the mid-1920s the CP was the organisation that most of Britain’s small band of revolutionaries joined.

By the early 1930s, MI5 had taken over Special Branch’s lead role in revolutionary-watching. It built up a comprehensive card index of all CP members and bugged the CP’s headquarters in Covent Garden. The rise of Hitler and then the second world war diverted the service’s attention from this crucial activity – but with the onset of the cold war in the 1940s “domestic subversion” once again became its primary focus. MI5 kept files on all communists, suspected communists and, increasingly from the late 1960s, members of Trotskyist groups: the International Socialists (later the Socialist Workers’ Party), the Socialist Labour League (later the Workers’ Revolutionary Party), the Militant Tendency. It infiltrated agents into the CP and the Trotskyist parties, bugged their offices, tapped their phones and intercepted their mail. Most controversially, it monitored organisations in which it believed “subversives” were active – the trade unions, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Labour Party. In the 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands of people were under MI5 surveillance at any time. It was only with the end of the cold war in 1989-91 that MI5 ceased to plough most of its energies into “domestic subversion” and concentrate instead on its other roles in counter-espionage and counter-terrorism.

Of course, we knew quite a lot of this before, thanks to whistle-blowers (Cathy Massiter, David Shayler) and, in recent years, selective releases of once-secret documents to the National Archives. No one who was active in left-wing politics during the cold war will be surprised that MI5 took a keen interest in “subversives”. All the same, the scope of the intelligence-gathering described by Andrew is really quite breathtaking. The surveillance society is nothing new.

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