After the 1963 defection to the Soviet Union of Kim Philby – the “third man” among the Cambridge spies, the first two of whom, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, had defected to Moscow in 1951, incontrovertible revelations of Britons spying for the Kremlin were few and far between. Indeed, apart from the fourth and fifth men of the Cambridge ring, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross, exposed in the late 1970s, there were only a dozen or so until after the Cold War had come to an end, most of them sordid blackmail cases, the highest-profile that of Geoffrey Prime, a paedophile working at the Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham imprisoned in 1982.
By contrast, unsubstantiated rumours that Britons had acted as Moscow’s agents were rife, most of them with their origins in the conspiracy theories of Peter Wright and other paranoid right-wing members of MI5 who were convinced that the Cambridge spies were just the tip of a giant subversive Soviet network at the heart of the British establishment. In the mid-1970s, these stories, fuelled by anti-Semitism, came to play a pernicious part in British politics, as Wright and his associates mounted a concerted smear campaign against leading figures in the Labour Party and the trade union movement they considered spies or “security risks”.
The most prominent of them was none other than Harold Wilson, Labour Prime Minister 1964-70 and 1974-76. Wilson had been President of the Board of Trade between 1947 and 1951, in which role he had taken over a controversial plan to sell jets to the Soviet Union (eventually scuppered on the insistence of the United States) and had generally been an enthusiast for developing trade with the eastern bloc. In 1951, he had resigned with Aneurin Bevan from Clement Attlee’s Labour Government in protest at Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell’s insistence on accepting US demands for increased military spending. From the early 1950s, he worked for Montague Meyer, a company importing Soviet timber, as an advisor. His job gave him the opportunity for frequent high-profile visits to the Soviet bloc and it introduced him to a circle of businessmen, many of them Jews, who were engaged in East-West trade.
Throughout the 1950s, Wilson kept up a campaign to relax restrictions on east-west trade, starting with a 1952 Tribune pamphlet, In Place of Dollars, and pushed a dovish position on the Cold War. He was the first prominent British parliamentarian to visit senior Moscow politicians after the death of Stalin in 1953. He met Khrushchev in Moscow in 1956, refused to join the chorus of disapproval at the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution and took a conciliatory line when the Berlin Wall went up. All this made Wilson a target for public Tory accusations that he was soft on communism and sotto voce gossip in the Security Service to the effect that, along with his Jewish friends, he was a closet communist or even a Soviet agent. In the early 1960s, it remained merely gossip. But after Wilson became Labour leader on Hugh Gaitskell’s death in early 1963, the story was given legs by the KGB defector Anatoly Golytsin, who, as well as exposing Philby, told MI5 that he had heard that the KGB had poisoned an un-named leading Western politician to get their man in as party leader. Wright and others took this to mean Gaitskell and Wilson – even though Gaitskell died a year after Golytsin defected. There followed 13 years of attempts to expose and undermine Wilson, despite there being no credible evidence against him.
Wright and his cronies investigated not only Wilson himself but a vast swathe of others as part of their attempt to nail the Labour leader – his friends and former business partners, his political associates in the Bevanite movement – as well as Labour MPs, Labour Party officials and senior trade unionists with pasts in or close to the Communist Party, current connections with communists or any kind of links with the Soviet bloc. Jews were particularly suspect.
Two of Wilson’s friends were of particular interest to MI5, the Labour-supporting businessmen Rudy Sternberg and Joseph Kagan, both Jews of central European origin. Sternberg arrived in Britain from Austria in 1937, and after the war built up a substantial petrochemicals and trading empire. He first came to public attention when he organised a British parliamentary delegation to the Leipzig trade fair in East Germany in 1961, just after the construction of the Berlin Wall, and was accused with some reason of buying up MPs to forward his commercial interests. He became personally friendly with Wilson, subsidised his office as leader of the opposition between 1970 and 1974 and was given a peerage in Wilson’s resignation honours list. Sternberg was monitored closely by MI5, which spread rumours to journalists about his supposed political unreliability but never proved anything. Nothing damning has emerged since, at least on that score.
Kagan, born in Lithuania, was not really an East-West trader. He survived the war in his native country, arriving in Britain in 1946, and made a fortune
in Huddersfield manufacturing waterproof coats. He, too, became a personal friend of Wilson and was constantly in and out of Downing Street during Wilson’s first term, contributing large sums to his office in opposition and getting the reward of a seat in the House of Lords in 1976. He was friendly for a period with a Soviet intelligence officer based at the London embassy, which massively excited MI5 in 1971 after a defecting KGB agent, Oleg Lyalin, relayed tales of Kagan’s boasting about his access
to Wilson. Nevertheless, intensive surveillance in the early 1970s revealed no proof of espionage. Although, many years later in 1980, Kagan was jailed for theft, there still isn’t any credible evidence that he was anything other than a dodgy businessman.
Of the MPs targeted as “security risks” by MI5 during the Wilson years, only one admitted taking money, from an agent of the Czechoslovak intelligence service (the StB), the obscure backbencher Will Owen, a former member of the Independent Labour Party and MP for Morpeth after a byelection in 1954, who was named by the StB defector Josef Frolik in 1969. Owen, who had been on Sternberg’s payroll and was himself an east-west trader, had been a long-time Czechoslovak embassy contact and was on a list compiled by the Gaitskellite Labour right-winger Patrick Gordon Walker in 1961 of “cryptos” that he supplied to MI5 (reproduced in Christopher Andrew’s official history of MI5, published in 2009). He admitted the StB payments when he was arrested and was tried in 1970 for espionage, though he said he had not passed on secrets and was acquitted for lack of evidence: Andrew says that the files show Owen, who died in 1981, was indeed an StB agent.
Frolik also claimed that the postmaster-general since 1967 and MP for Wednesbury, John Stonehouse, had been in the employ of Prague. He had no proof, however, and Stonehouse, who had made much of his anti-communism as a leading player in London Co-op movement politics before becoming a government minister, denied he had done anything untoward. In 1974, Stonehouse, facing ruinous debts, rather spoilt his reputation for straight-dealing. He faked his own suicide and eloped to Australia with a woman who was not his wife. Misidentified as the wanted British peer Lord Lucan by local police, he was arrested, deported and, after a high-profile trial back in Britain, jailed for fraud. According to Andrew, in 1980 another StB defector confirmed Stonehouse’s status as an agent; and in the 1990s an extensive StB file on Stonehouse was discovered in the Czech Republic that included complaints about the poor quality of information he supplied. Stonehouse died in 1988 after collapsing on a live television show.
The third Labour MP named by Frolik was an even more colourful character, Tom Driberg. From a Jewish family and a member of the Communist Party from adolescence, Driberg became a journalist after Oxford University, working as a gossip columnist for Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express under the by-line William Hickey. Flamboyantly and promiscuously homosexual – at a time when homosexuality was illegal – he was expelled from the CP in 1941 after the party discovered that he had been meeting Maxwell Knight, the head of MI5, to exchange stories, and won Maldon in a by-election the next year standing as a left-leaning independent in defiance of the wartime electoral truce among the coalition parties. He joined Labour in 1945, becoming one of the stars of the fellow-travelling left. After losing Maldon in 1955, he produced a biography of Beaverbrook, went to Moscow to interview Guy Burgess for a fawning but sensational biography, then returned to Parliament as MP for Barking in 1959. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he was a fixture on Labour’s National Executive Committee, an advocate of CND and dozens of left-wing causes. It is difficult to conceive of a more unlikely figure becoming a politician let alone a spy, yet he appears to have talked to everyone and taken money from anyone prepared to offer it, quite possibly under threat of exposure for homosexuality.
As well as keeping in with MI5, he is down as an agent for the KGB rather than the StB in documents copied by the former KGB archivist Vasiliy Mitrokhin, published as The Mitrokhin Archive in 1999. He was apparently persuaded to supply information to the Soviet spooks after being caught cottaging in Moscow while on his Burgess mission. The other Frolik name, Barnett Stross, MP for Hanley 1945-50 and Stoke-on-Trent Central 1950-66, was a Jewish doctor who was an enthusiast for British-Czechoslovak friendship, but he died in 1967 and so far nothing beyond Frolik’s claims have turned up anywhere.
Frolik’s list aside, five Labour MPs are known to have been identified by MI5 during the Wilson years as “security risks”: in alphabetical order, John Diamond, Bernard Floud, Judith Hart, Niall MacDermot and Stephen Swingler.
Diamond, Chief Secretary to the Treasury between 1964 and 1970, was a right-wing pro-European who later joined the SDP; MI5 told journalists that a photograph of him with two Yugoslav women in Venice in 1964 was a KGB entrapment attempt (it wasn’t).
Floud, a former communist who might have had connections with Soviet intelligence as a student in the 1930s, was driven to suicide in 1967 after he was told by Peter Wright that he would not get the security clearance required to become a minister. All the evidence is that he had broken decisively with the CP, of which he had been an open member in the 1940s, in 1952.
Hart was hauled in by Wilson in 1974 after being accused by MI5 of illicit communist connections: she had called CP headquarters to ask for information about communists imprisoned by General Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Chile. There is no evidence that she was involved in anything approaching espionage.
MacDermot decided to walk away from British politics in 1968 after MI5 decided on the basis of sheer prejudice that his half-Italian, half-Russian wife was a security threat and Wilson caved into its demands that he be denied security clearance.
Swingler was a mercurial former-communist identified as a pro-Soviet “lost sheep” by Labour’s general secretary Morgan Phillips in a list compiled in the 1940s, and had been the moving force behind the pressure group Victory for Socialism that was the principal organisation on the Labour left in the late 1950s and early 1960s – which included as members Ralph Miliband, Michael Foot, Ian Mikardo, Jo Richardson, Judith Hart and many others who later became prominent in Labour left circles.
wingler was denied promotion to the cabinet in 1968 after MI5 cast aspersions on his east European connections, even though, like Floud, he had broken with the CP in the early 1950s and had been at most a fellow-traveller ever since. He died in 1969.
Others that got the MI5 treatment include Wilson’s secretary, Marcia Williams; the Jewish businessmen Robert Maxwell and Sidney Bernstein; and the trade union leaders Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon. All were investigated and smeared by MI5 spreading unsubstantiated allegations to favoured journalists. In none of their cases has evidence turned up that can be said to implicate them in espionage.
Jones was named, after his death in 2009, by the former Soviet-British double-agent agent Oleg Gordievsky as having accepted payment for information in the mid-1960s and then again in the 1980s (when Jones was running the National Pensioners Convention). But Gordievsky’s reliability is questionable – in particular on anything that is alleged to have happened in the UK in the 1960s, when he was a KGB gofer in Copenhagen. No end of friends of Jones have come forward to say that the TGWU leader made a point of arguing with Soviet bloc officials when he met them and debriefed MI5 on the meetings.
There is certainly no more reason to accept Gordievsky’s word on Jones than there is on Michael Foot. In 1995, the Sunday Times quoted Gordievsky naming Foot as a KGB “agent of influence”. Foot was supposed to have taken serious money for Tribune from the Soviet embassy. In fact, what Foot had done was accept Soviet journalistic contacts’ contributions to the bill after sharing lunch at the Gay Hussar, the east-European restaurant in Soho that remains a favourite venue for the political class, and had put the money – which was never much – into the Tribune ”slush fund”, a venerable institution that lasted well into the 1980s and provided the float for the bar at the paper’s end-of-year party. Foot threatened to sue the Sunday Times for libel and won a hefty out-of-court settlement, an effective admission that Gordievsky’s claims would not stand up in court.
The Sunday Times also quoted Gordievsky naming Ian Mikardo as a “KGB target” (which means nothing more than that Soviet intelligence was inquisitive about the east-west trading business he ran for 20 years). Mikardo could do nothing because he had died in 1993, but contemporaries said that the idea of Mikardo compromising his politics for cash was ridiculous, and there is no evidence against him. Mikardo undoubtedly had delusions about the potential of Soviet socialism, but a more important part of his international politics was an unswerving enthusiasm for Israel that was profoundly at odds with Moscow’s anti-Zionism.
There have been plenty of other allegations published in recent years about supposed Soviet infiltration of Labour, ranging from the utterly idiotic – the Spectator’s presentation in 2009 of extracts from the diaries of a Soviet foreign policy adviser as proof that all the leading figures in the 1980s Labour Party were in cahoots with Moscow – to the more-or-less plausible.
Was Dick Clements, editor of Tribune from 1960 to 1982, the journalist identified by Mitrokhin as “Dan”, the KGB’s main agent of influence in 1960s London, as the Sunday Times claimed in 1999, responsible inter alia for a series of articles attacking Wilson’s policies from the left? It’s possible that Dick was indeed Dan, to the KGB at least. But the idea that Clements needed help, let alone instruction, from the KGB to criticise Wilson from the left is utterly laughable. Clements, who died in 2006, responded to the Sunday Times piece by suggesting that one of his Soviet embassy journalistic contacts might have been fiddling his expenses by pretending to hand over cash. There is no reason to disbelieve him.
And what about Ray Fletcher, a journalist who was a regular in Tribune in the 1950s and early 1960s, a columnist in The Times in the 1970s and Labour MP for Ilkeston from 1964 to 1983? The Mitrokhin Archive refers tantalisingly to his having been recruited by the KGB in 1962 but then dropped in 1964 after it discovered he was in touch with the Czechoslovak StB; and there is an even more gnomic reference in the same book to Polish intelligence suspicions that he had been co-operating with the CIA since the late 1950s. Fletcher himself said shortly before he died in 1991 that he had eastern bloc contacts who subsequently turned out to be intelligence agents (and claimed to have been the target of an attempted blackmail attempt by MI5 after he had a holiday affair with a woman in Hungary). Was he actually an agent, and if he was did it matter at all? We just don’t know, and the fact that in the early 1960s he wrote a pamphlet against Tory defence policy and Panglossian pieces about the eastern bloc for Tribune proves no more than his consistent pro-Europeanism or his columns for The Times in which he supported the rehabilitation of Nikolai Bukharin.
The case of another Labour backbencher, Bob Edwards, Labour MP for Biston 1955-74 and Wolverhampton South East 1974-87, seems at first sight more clear-cut. He was co-author of a 1961 exposé of CIA chief Allen Dulles that drew on Soviet source material, and Andrew’s official history of MI5 confidently names him as having worked for the KGB and having been rewarded for his efforts with a medal. Nevertheless, there’s still something odd about the story. Edwards was a veteran of the ILP and had led the ILP contingent that fought in the Spanish civil war with the POUM, which included George Orwell – hardly the background to be expected of a KGB informant. In the 1950s, as leader of the chemical workers’ union, he had been a member of the advisory council of the anti-communist trade union propaganda group Common Cause.
So what are we to make of all this? The most important lesson is that it is a good idea to be very sceptical about allegations of Labour espionage for the Soviets. Soviet bloc intelligence agencies counted as an “agent of influence”, “target” or “confidential contact” anyone who was prepared to talk to one of their placemen working under some cover or other. They had an obvious interest in exaggerating the success of their efforts to headquarters. MI5, particularly after the Cambridge spies and the Golitsyn defection, was all too ready to suspect anyone who had contact with eastern bloc officials in exactly the same terms. So was (and is) the Tory press.
At their most egregious, the stories of penetration of the Labour Party are little more than attempts to besmirch the reputations of the party and of socialist opponents of the cold war inside it who were at worst naïve and mistaken and at best incisive critics of received establishment wisdom. There’s also a nasty whiff of anti-Semitism about many of the allegations.
Of course, it would be foolish to dismiss every claim as a smear. The cases against Owen, Stonehouse and Driberg appear today to be solid, and those against Fletcher and Edwards are at least credible. Yet even if we accept that these five MPs all provided information to the Soviets or their stooges as agents, we have little idea what it comprised – and it was probably not very much. Only one of them, Stonehouse, was a minister with access to any sort of state secrets, and it’s by no means clear which if any of them he handed over. The others could only have provided information already in the public sphere and political gossip, and they weren’t serious political players. The trade union leaders and left-wing journalists accused of espionage were similarly out of any loop that mattered when it came to state secrets however stupid they might have been.
The truth is that the only British leftist credibly confirmed as a serious Soviet bloc spy since Anthony Blunt had nothing to do with the Labour Party. She was an open, card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Great Britain: Melita Norwood. A former secretary for the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, she was unmasked in 1999 by Mitrokhin as having been a supplier of documentation on atomic research to Moscow in the 1940s and a KGB agent until the 1970s. She turned out to be living a modest life as an octogenarian Morning Star supporter in a London suburb – the least likely secret agent imaginable.
This is an extract from Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British left by Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey (Aaaargh! Press, 2013), currently available as a Kindle ebook on Amazon for £3.50 (http://amzn.to/18ebl20) and soon to be published in print