Which is the more subversive: a group of senior people in the security services who are giving secrets to the enemy, or a group of senior people in the security services who are working systematically to bring down the elected government here? The question would worry most democrats, but for the authors of books about the security services it is no worry at all. To a man, they are absorbed with the first danger. The second danger, they protest, does not exist. Or rather, if it does exist, it is best not to mention it.
Security service bosses, they tell us, have been agents of the enemy. The first difficulty here is that enemies change. From 1940 to 1945, for instance, the enemy was Germany, Italy and (to a slightly lesser degree) Fascism. Russia (together with the Communism which that country purported to represent) was an ally. The small group of university-educated Communists, who thought that the best way to advance the cause of peace and socialism was to infiltrate the British security services in the interests of Russia, naturally did very well in those years. They did not even have to tell lies. They devoted themselves with energy and skill to undermining the enemy (Germany, Italy, Fascism) and building links between the British state and the Russian state. In those years they flew high over the more typical officers of British Intelligence at home and abroad, whose natural sympathies were right-wing, and who tended to side politically with Hitler and Mussolini rather than with anything which stank of Communism.
Surprisingly quickly, after the war, the enemy changed. Suddenly Germany and Italy were allies; Russia and Eastern Europe enemies. In the security services, the balance of power changed too. The old reactionaries came out of their caves, dusted themselves off and set out in hot pursuit of the Lefties who had had it so good for so long. In the McCarthyite atmosphere which spread across the Atlantic, and with the demise of the Labour Government, the Communist culprits were hunted down. Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fled to Russia in 1951; Kim Philby was finally exposed in 1963; Anthony Blunt in 1979. The first three took refuge in Russia. Blunt died in disgrace, deserted both by the Leftist friends of his youth and by the Royal Family and his colleagues in the Establishment, who had patronised him in his prime.
All through this period the Right grew in confidence and determination. The hunting of Communists in their own ranks became an obsession. Many top men in MI5 (always more paranoid than MI6, which had to deal with foreigners and therefore could not regard them all as one big rabble) became convinced that the Communist cancer had spread far higher even than the agents who had been exposed and deposed. ‘Soviet penetration of the security services’, it was suggested, had gone right to the top.
What was the evidence for this? The hardest and toughest piece of evidence is laid bare (for the millionth time) at the beginning of this latest book on the subject. In January 1963, a former SIS officer, Nicholas Elliott, was sent to Beirut to denounce Kim Philby to his face as a Russian agent. As soon as he did so, Philby confessed, and gave Elliott an extensive though not complete account of his work for the Russians. Elliott went on his way and Philby promptly cut and ran for Russia.
Nigel West, like many other spy-writers before him, is intrigued by this episode. Most significant of all, he believes, was a remark Philby is alleged to have made to Elliott on the latter’s arrival. This remark, described by West as ‘ambiguous’, was as follows: ‘I had not expected you so soon.’ Nigel West concludes: ‘Philby’s disappearance from Beirut, and his unexplained comment to Elliott, suggested that the KGB had been in control of the episode; and they had known of Elliott’s offer of immunity and had enabled Philby to prepare a cover story.’ Moreover, ‘the logical conclusion of this viewpoint was the existence of another highly-paid source within the small group of counter-intelligence experts privy to Elliott’s mission. The only question was the name of the culprit’ (my emphasis). This ‘logical conclusion’ set off the ‘molehunt’, which absorbed the time and effort of a substantial section of the security services for half a century.
The Philby incident, therefore, deserves a closer look. Kim Philby had endured several tough interrogations during the Fifties after the flight of Burgess and Maclean. He had fooled his rather dim-witted interrogators, and had convinced them of his loyalty. But he must have known that he could not last for ever. There was, for him, a constant danger that he would be unmasked. No doubt he had his instructions from the KGB that as soon as he was uncovered, he should confess to his activities on behalf of the Russians, and buy time for his flight to Russia.
That is exactly what happened, and what anyone with a grain of common sense might have expected to happen. One day Elliott arrived with the news that Philby’s role as a Russian agent was now so obvious that it was futile to deny it. Philby at once agreed, provided Elliott with an account of his work for the Russians, waited for Elliott to go on his way, and then fled to Russia. Nothing could have been more rational or predictable. Now consider the allegedly sinister remark of Philby to Elliott: ‘I did not expect you so soon.’ That could have meant that a plane had arrived early, or that a taxi had made rather good time from the airport. At its most sinister, it could have meant that Philby had been expecting, before long, to be denounced but had such a low regard for his colleagues in the security services that he had imagined it would take them rather longer than it did.
To most people who put two and two together and make four, the remark has no significance whatever. But to the wild men of MI5 it proved that Russian agents were sitting at the top of the British security services. From that moment started the long MI5 campaign to root out the traitors in their midst. The finger of suspicion was pointed at Sir Roger Hollis, the hard-working, conventionally-minded former head of MI5, and his deputy Graham Mitchell. Mitchell, Nigel West tells us, had, at some time in his career, ‘gained something of a reputation as a Leftist’. This was a remarkable achievement, since Mr Mitchell had spent a slice of his early life as an enthusiastic assistant at Conservative Central Office.
This book, like all the others, drags on through the interminable committees and inquiries which were set up to investigate Hollis and Mitchell and any other moles who might at any time have gained something of a reputation as Leftists. The two officers at the centre of this molehunt were Arthur Martin and Peter Wright. Wright was a brilliant scientist and a grammar-school patriot who always doubted the patriotism of his public-school superiors. He held extreme right-wing views. His devotion to rooting out Lefties at the top placed him at the head of the Fluency Committee, the team which investigated Hollis, and allowed him to move freely round MI5 and to establish contacts among officers who shared his views. Thus, by the mid-Seventies, Wright was in a position of great power inside the security services. His devotion to sniffing out the Left inside the service was matched only by a devotion to hounding the Left in society at large. He shared Mrs Thatcher’s view that socialists because they are socialists are traitors. In the early and middle Seventies, when the Left took vast strides forward in the industrial and political field, Wright and his supporters in the security services threw their considerable influence and energies into the domestic political fray. Caution was thrown aside in March 1974 after a minority Labour administration was elected in the middle of an unstoppable miners’ strike. In the interregnum between the two elections of that year, and in the months following Labour’s second victory in October, the Wright faction used all their information and their skills, not just to disorientate the Labour Government, but also to ensure that a new, ‘more resolute’ leadership was established over the Conservative Party. At its mildest, this campaign took the form of leaks to the media, ‘catching out’ ministers in lies which were prepared for them, feeding foreign journalists with fantastic notions of the ‘extremism’ of Labour ministers, leaking secret government plans so that they could be ‘neutralised’ before they were announced. It involved burglaries and break-ins at the homes of senior ministers (even the Prime Minister) and their staffs, and even, as has recently been revealed, inspiring ‘disorientating events’, the most important of which was the Protestant Workers’ strike in Northern Ireland in April 1974.
By 1976, the back of the Labour Government had been broken. Harold Wilson resigned, and begged his successor, James Callaghan, to carry out a full-scale investigation into what he felt had been the subversion of his office by the security services. Callaghan refused. Although Wilson continued with his allegations, the security services felt reprieved. Wright’s offensive had been successful. Not only was the Labour Government a pale shadow of what it had seemed in 1974. The Conservative Party now had a ‘resolute’ leadership. The whole political and industrial atmosphere was moving sharply to the right.
Peter Wright was still not satisfied, however. His indignation had outlived the causes of it. He was still furious: the men who had been his masters in the Fifties, Sixties and even Seventies had been Communist traitors. He wanted to go on burgling and bugging Labour ministers, to continue with his dirty tricks and his invasion of private lives. But he found all this much more difficult. His colleagues warned him off, told him to cool it. In a high sulk, he retired to start a stud farm in Tasmania and prepare his Great Indictment.
He was a thorn in the flesh of the security services, who watched him warily. They were no less right-wing than before, but they found they could get on well with Callaghan and, even more so, with his successor in Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher.
The Prime Minister’s declared intention was to destroy British socialism for ever, so what reason was there now to ‘disorientate’ the elected government? Of course the buggings and the burglaries continued, but this time against ‘legitimate targets’ – against enemies of the Government (Sara Keays perhaps, or Hilda Murrell) – not against the government itself. The security services could now bask in their respectability, which would be sadly compromised if any of the unfortunate behaviour of the Wright gang in the mid-Seventies were exposed. The only person who might expose them with any credibility was Wright himself, who was still sorting out the notes and secret documents for his Great Book.
How to spike Wright? That was the awkward problem which dogged the MI5 bosses. In late 1980, they came up with a solution. Peter Wright in Tasmania was astonished to get a letter from a former MI5 colleague, Lord Rothschild. The peer enclosed a first-class air ticket to London and begged Wright to use it.
Before long Wright found himself being introduced to Chapman Pincher, the celebrated spy writer from the Daily Express, who, Rothschild suggested, might be just the person to get Wright’s ideas across. Pincher agreed with Wright that Sir Roger Hollis, who had conveniently died, was a prime suspect as a Russian agent. Rothschild suggested that Wright hand over his material to Pincher, and that Pincher write a book. Wright agreed. Pincher travelled to Tasmania in October 1980, got all the material, returned to England, and signed a contract with Sidgwick and Jackson for a fantastic £60,000 advance (the envy of us Sidgwick authors ever since): £30,000 of it went straight to Wright.
The contract was signed in December and the book, with the glamorous title Their trade is treachery, was ready the following month. Hardly were the page proofs printed than they were being read by MI5, and its shadowy legal adviser Bernard Sheldon. As expected, the book was just the job for MI5. It concentrated almost entirely on Sir Roger Hollis, who, being dead, did not matter. It whipped up a nice anti-Communist froth. It did not demand a public inquiry.
MI5 were delighted. Bernard Sheldon persuaded a slightly hesitant Prime Minister and Home Secretary (the ever-persuadable William Whitelaw) that there was no need to prosecute the book under the Official Secrets Act, although it was brim-full of official secrets. The Government’s law officers were not even consulted. Mrs Thatcher formally cleared Sir Roger Hollis. And the main outcome as far as MI5 were concerned was that Wright’s sting had been drawn.
But had it? The irascible old maverick was not at all pleased when he read Pincher’s book. He felt, as he put it later, that he had been sold down the river (though for a good price). He had wanted the book to campaign for a full public inquiry into the pinkos who had ruled MI5, but Pincher’s book hadn’t even asked for an inquiry. Wright realised he had been duped. He had handed over the bulk of his material, but he hadn’t got what he wanted. He put it around that he would be writing his book anyway, and he would publish the whole lot, including all the bugging and the burglaries and the disorientation of the Wilson Government.
The ‘Pincher plan’, alas for MI5, had not worked. Now who would rid them of this impudent pest in Tasmania? Who would rubbish Wright, and in the process rubbish Pincher?
Step forward another ‘expert’ in the spy field, Mr Nigel West, who writes almost as dreadful prose as does his rival Pincher. Mr West is another right-winger, the son of a Tory MP, and now Tory candidate for the safe seat of Torbay. On page 128 of this latest book, Nigel West is quite frank about how his earlier book, A Matter of Trust, came to be written. It was, he discloses, ‘an unorthodox method’ of exposing the real mole-in-chief. This was not Sir Roger Hollis, after all – but his deputy, Graham Mitchell, the man from Conservative Central Office. Nigel West’s main source was the obsessive ‘molehunter’ Arthur Martin, probably the only MI5 officer more right-wing and more worried about Reds in High places than Peter Wright. Wright had furnished the material for Pincher’s book; Martin did the same for West’s book, and in the process poor Pincher (and Wright) got a bit of a hammering.
Pincher promptly wrote another book, entitled Too Secret Too Long, in which he restated the Wright thesis that Hollis was a spy. West now writes another one too, which restates Martin’s thesis that Mitchell was. Now that Mitchell, like Hollis, is dead, the thing can be said out loud, without fear of a libel writ.
Needless to say, the evidence that Mitchell was a spy is laughably thin. Mrs Thatcher has been obliged publicly to dispense with that allegation too. But the real purpose, from MI5’s point of view, of both West books was to discredit Pincher and Wright. For someone like me who has no time whatever for Chapman Pincher, it is pleasant enough to read about his inconsistencies and contradictions. Nigel West, like all sectarians, does not mince his words. Summing up Pincher’s relationship with Wright, West writes: ‘At long last, at the end of his career he had stumbled across a source that undermined all his previous observations about MI5 and its brilliant efficiency.’ Molehunt is the latest shot in a silly if profitable war between authors who would seem to be without the wit or resources to find and sift information themselves, and to have become dependent on their sources – and, more relevantly, on those who put their sources in touch with them. The result has been that although these authors, and others like them in the past, pretend to be independent observers of the security services, their books manage to leave out any reference to the most controversial activities of the security services in recent years: the disorientation of the Wilson Government and the hounding of dissenters. Book after book has poured off the presses, each one challenging the other in circulation terms: Their trade is treachery, A Matter of Trust, Too Secret Too Long, Molehunt – all of these are about the subversion of the security services, not one of them has a single word to say about subversion by the security services. That is why none of them has been prosecuted. It is also why the one book which does tell some of the real story is the only one against which the British Government has thrown the full weight of its legal powers.
The Government is prepared to risk any amount of humiliation in the Australian courts in a desperate fling to stop Wright’s book. As their tolerance of Pincher and West in the past has proved, this has nothing to do with any principle about the trustworthiness of MI5 officers. On the contrary, MI5 officers can say what they like, and get it published, provided MI5 and the Government like what they say. The very idea that a representative of the loony Right should be allowed to tell how his secret gang, armed with all the information and powers of the state, conspired in the humbling of a Labour government, and in the election of Mrs Margaret Thatcher as leader of the Conservative Party, is obviously unthinkable.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.