Who Runs Britain?

Christopher Hitchens

  • The Enemy Within: MI5, Maxwell and the Scargill Affair by Seumas Milne
    Verso, 352 pp, £18.95, November 1994, ISBN 0 86091 461 5

In the Thirties Wal Hannington, the Communist organiser of the National Unemployed Workers Movement, was leaving a committee meeting when an unknown comrade came up and pressed a letter ‘to be read later’ into his hand. Hannington soon removed the envelope from his pocket, opened it idly, and was astonished to find himself summoned to a secret meeting where all kinds of mayhem and sedition were on the agenda. The note was couched in terms that suggested the discussion would come as no surprise to him. He threw the letter away. Very shortly afterwards, he was stopped by the police (‘Just a routine enquiry, sir’) and given a very thorough search indeed. The investigating officers seemed to be looking for something in particular, and moreover to be disappointed at not finding it.

Of course, you may object, this story is too elaborate. Too ‘conspiratorial’. If the rozzers want to do an old-fashioned fit-up, they can simply produce the letter from one of their own pockets, hand it to the suspect so as to get some fingerprints, and then say: ‘Well, well, well, what do we have here?’ But where, really is the fun in that? For one thing, it means that the victim of the plant knows everything. He is not compelled to wonder which of his colleagues and brothers is the fink or the nark. For another – and call me an old sentimentalist if you will – it runs the slight risk of offending the professional pride of one of the cops involved. A real framing must allow for conscience if it is to allow for deniability. And since deniability has deposed accountability as a principle of our unwritten constitution, elegance in framing has become an art as well as a science.

The first consideration – the sowing of distrust and suspicion – is of especial salience when dealing with workers and trade-unionists. The success of a hard-fought strike, particularly in times of unemployment and declining wages, depends on the chemistry of solidarity. People really will treat each other as brothers and sisters (how one can hear the contented chortles at that old rhetoric) if they can be brought to believe that an injury to one is an injury to all. But, as we have known ever since the Judas myth, if a band of brothers can be made to start asking who is the clever-clogs insider, then the crowing of the occasional cock will be the least of it. J. Edgar Hoover used to say that FBI informers on the left didn’t have to be everywhere, just as long as they were thought to be everywhere. Leo Huberman’s classic book, The Labour Spy Racket, detailed the brilliance of this insight as it applied to the union-busters and paid informants of the heroic period of American industrial organisation. The stool-pigeon and the provocateur act as a vicious solvent on the very notion of fraternity, which is why Jack London once famously wrote that it was only when the Creator had perfected the snake, the rat and the toad that he began work on designing the scab.

In an Edward Thompsonian echo, Seumas Milne reminds us of the British tradition of police espionage by quoting from the constitution of the London Corresponding Society, drawn up in 1795: ‘Extreme zeal is often a cloak of treachery.’ Since well before the time of Pitt, the authorities have been adept at suborning treachery, arranging for outrage and for outrages, commissioning forgers and blackmailers and recruiting degraded lumpen elements into politics.

It is the argument of Seumas Milne, in this important (perhaps very important) book, that the breaking of the coal-miners’ union over the past decade was the outcome of a concerted secret police campaign that deserves to be classed with the Cato Street ‘conspiracy’, the Zinoviev letter and the defamation/destabilisation of Parnell and Casement. Clever readers of a certain type may object that Arthur Scargill and Peter Heathfield made rods for their own backs, dug their own graves, committed various sins of hubris and all the rest of it. Milne himself takes an honest and open line in favour of the NUM’s all-out strategy for the defence of the coalfields and the union, which he regards as being virtually identical. But his unashamed – indeed almost uncritical – political stand has the same effect as all honest prose, in dispensing with needless ambiguities and in forcing attention on the chosen subject. He, at least, has no hidden agenda. And he possesses reportorial skills and tenacities which, if he can slow down his prose style just a trifle, will one day make him what he seems least to care about being – a famous and admired journalist.

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