- New cloak, Old dagger: How Britain’s Spies Came in from the Cold by Michael Smith
Gollancz, 338 pp, £20.00, November 1996, ISBN 0 575 06150 2
- Intelligence Power in Peace and War by Michael Herman
Cambridge, 436 pp, £50.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 521 56231 7
- UK Eyes Alpha by Mark Urban
Faber, 320 pp, £16.99, September 1996, ISBN 0 571 17689 5
Why are the British secret services so secret? The assumption is that they are so because they handle secret information. Yet there is no reason why an organisation entrusted with secret information should itself be secret. Most companies and large organisations generate material of great commercial sensitivity, but few of them would consider lodging it in a secret department with considerable autonomy. Why should the British government have decided to act differently? Why did it create a secret adjunct to the Civil Service in 1909, and why has it preserved it until the present day?
Vol. 20 No. 3 · 5 February 1998
A few of Nicholas Hiley’s points (LRB, 11 December 1997) about MI5’s interwar history are debatable. Hiley says that MI5 ‘recruited Maxwell Knight, later Director of Intelligence of the British Fascists’. John Hope, the historian who has done most to investigate Knight’s role in the British Fascists, has claimed that he was already the Fascists’ Director of Intelligence when he joined MI5 in the mid-Twenties. In fact, while there is solid evidence that for several years Knight was both a senior Fascist and an employee of MI5, beyond this the picture is less clear than Hope has suggested. On the other hand, the evidence that has so far emerged is not incompatible with Knight’s having become the Fascists’ Director of Intelligence at the same time as, or shortly after, he joined MI5. Hiley also says that Knight was recruited by MI5 ‘to head its counter-subversion unit’. However, Knight’s biographer, Anthony Masters, believes that Knight did not become MI5’s head of counter-subversion until the late Thirties, when he was appointed to run a newly-created unit which came to be called B5(b).
Hiley further writes that in 1927 MI5 sent ‘Joseph Ball, who had been conducting black propaganda against the Labour Party, to become Director of Publicity at Conservative Central Office’. What has been firmly established is that after Ball resigned from MI5 at the beginning of 1927 he became the first Tory spin doctor, deploying various dirty tricks against the Labour Party. The historians John Ferris and Uri Bar-Joseph have speculated that Ball may in fact have been working simultaneously for the Tory Party and MI5 since as far back as 1924. In any case he is a prime suspect in the leaking of the Zinoviev Letter, the attempt to damage the Labour Party’s chances in the 1924 election. As regards the statement that MI5 actually sent Ball to work at Tory Central Office, this sounds plausible, but to my knowledge nobody has ever claimed that it was the case.
It is clear that much remains unknown about the cases of Knight and Ball, which, as Hiley indicates, belong to a distinct pattern of right-wing bias in the organs of the secret state. Doubtless the archives of MI5 could fill in a lot of the blank spaces that remain in this story, but they are to be exempted from the proposed Freedom of Information law and MI5’s records policy is determined by considerations other than openness. As part of its continuing public relations offensive, MI5 recently released the first ever batch of material from its archives, covering the period 1909-19; this turned out to consist chiefly of censored versions of anodyne in-house histories. It is said that MI5 will be releasing material relating to the interwar period in late 1998 or in 1999. I have little expectation of finding the full truth about Max Knight and Joe Ball in these files.