The Hollis Launch

John Vincent

  • Their trade is treachery by Chapman Pincher
    Sidgwick, 240 pp, £7.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 283 98781 2

First, what the book, which is dedicated ‘to the loyal members’ of British Intelligence, actually says. The foreword claims that since 1945 ‘the Russians have penetrated and exerted control over both MI 5 and the Secret Service.’ About a third of the book deals with Sir Roger Hollis, Director-General of MI 5 from 1956 to 1965, who fell under suspicion in the 1960s and early 1970s because of ‘two hundred examples of Soviet bloc penetrations’ of British Intelligence. Two other very senior officers also came under suspicion around 1966-7, but were completely cleared after arduous investigation, a conclusion fully endorsed by Lord Trend’s inquiry in 1974.

Successive chapters then deal with Hollis’s life at Oxford and in China until he entered MI 5 in 1938, with his career there until 1950, and with his unexpected promotion to director-general following the Commander Crabb affair. Then Pincher turns to Russian spies of the early 1960s, claiming in particular that Vassall was a cover to some extent for a much more senior spy, ‘a naval officer who later became an admiral’ and whom Hollis ‘refused to allow ... to be approached’. A digression considers the question whether Gaitskell was murdered by the KGB, by means of coffee and biscuits at the Russian Consulate.

Pincher then reassesses the Profumo case from the point of view of MI 5’s rather unaccountable failure to raise the alarm about Ivanov, the Russian friend of Miss Keeler who alone gave the affair political significance. Pincher hints that the Russian object was to affect the 1964 election. We then return to Chapter Two – the arrangement of the text is rather higgledy-piggledy – for an account of how Philby survived from 1951 until his defection was eventually arranged, perhaps on a tip from within MI 5, in 1963. Pincher portrays the failures of MI 5 in the 1950s and 1960s in such a way as to suggest that the setbacks can only be fully explained by treachery.

In Chapter Ten, Pincher tells how Hollis, who had retired in December 1965, was called to London to be interviewed in 1970. Pincher gives a circumstantial account of some of what passed. Hollis died in 1973, but in 1974 a second investigation of the case began under Lord Trend, a former Secretary to the Cabinet.

The second, much longer and much less discussed section of Pincher’s book aims to show that ‘there were others in similar positions’ to Blunt and Philby. (Pincher never actually says Hollis was a spy, only that suspicions were held by others.) Though highly miscellaneous, this section does not degenerate as it might into a witch-hunt. Indeed, Pincher is at pains to clear away suspicions unjustly entertained – for instance, in the cases of Basil Mann, Guy Liddell and Tomas Harris. There is a spirit of justice in Pincher, which comes out too in his treatment of Blunt, Burgess, Driberg, and a civil servant called John Cairncross. All these geese become swans in Pincher’s skilled hands. How unfair to suggest that they were small fry, dilettanti, wartime temporary agents or upper-class decadents. Blunt, in particular, he praises as an agent of a supreme professionalism and commitment, with Driberg, an alleged treble agent, winning a proxime accessit for stamina and for knowledge of human frailty, and Burgess wins commendation for skill in exploiting his outrageousness to escape suspicion. Pincher seems remarkably well-informed about Blunt – more so than about Hollis – and much material, especially about Blunt’s debriefing by MI 5, probably sees the light here for the first time.

Pincher’s information is highly miscellaneous. Chapters on Blunt’s exposure by an American, and on the escape of Burgess and Maclean are unexciting. Some of the detail may interest historians. There is mention of an MI 5 source-in-place in Mikoyan’s office in 1933-40, and of a double-cross system used by Stalin during the war. Pincher alleges penetration of the Cabinet Office, War Office and Home Office, but gives little supporting evidence. A respected Labour Parliamentarian, who committed suicide in reaction to bereavement, is too confidently named as a possible guilty man. George Blake is said to have given away the secret tunnel built by the West in Berlin to tap Russian telephones, and to have done so even before it was built, so that in 1954-7 Western Intelligence was groaning under a misinformation mountain. A named senior MI 5 man who died in 1975 is said to have worked first for the Nazis, then for the Russians. There are said to be ‘fat files on more than sixty Labour MPs and on a score or so of Labour peers’, and ‘one major trade-union leader of recent times was under regular surveillance by MI 5 ... Yet both Wilson and Heath forbade any interrogation.’

Pincher does not exaggerate the importance of the pre-war Cambridge connection, with one exception. That is John Cairncross, a non-smart Cambridge man of Scottish working-class background, who though detected in 1951 did not come to public notice until 1979. His work on a wartime desk in Rome is said by Pincher to have enabled the Russians ‘to secure a direct reading of the Allied plans concerning the future of Yugoslavia’. Cairncross, though in Pincher’s opinion wrongly dismissed by the press as small fry, was, however, not the Fifth Man of the Cambridge ‘Ring of Five’. This man, who is still alive, is described elliptically as a non-atomic defence scientist in a most sensitive position in the government service, a family man pretending to right-wing views, who after detection by telephone-tapping was allowed to retire early on full pension in the mid-1960s. His exploits, if any, sound unlikely to have us sitting on the edges of our chairs. Pincher, judicious as ever, ends by deflating the Cambridge mystique. ‘Blunt confirms what MI 5 already believed’ – that no Cambridge don ‘was involved in actual recruitment to the KGB’, the recruiters being Central European ‘illegal’ KGB men later recalled and shot by Stalin.

What are we to make of all this? Either Pincher should have said more than he does, at great risk of defamation, or he should have said much less, and not chanced his arm on matters he apparently cannot substantiate. His journalistic skill is not at fault, even if the book was hastily written and is sometimes clumsily arranged. Gold among the dross there probably is, but picking out the nuggets is an impossible task. Mrs Thatcher has confirmed the essentials, and denied some of the inessentials, of Pincher’s book. In particular, she claimed that Pincher was wrong about some of the conclusions drawn by Lord Trend, in a report of which Pincher did not claim to have direct knowledge. The interesting point, with respect, is not what Lord Trend eventually concluded, but that the former Secretary to the Cabinet spent much time examining whether a dead head of MI 5 who had retired nine years previously was a suspect. No smoke without fire, and no inquiries at Cabinet Secretary level without a conflagration – in this case a blazing row among colleagues in MI 5, with MI 6 joining in occasionally to help matters along.

One can only comment very generally on a book such as this, the second two-thirds of which can be filed away without comment as potentially significant Intelligence gossip. There is the question of Pincher’s timing. He began work in December, having previously been writing, with Lady Falkender, a book called The Infiltrators. Planned originally for April, the launch was brought forward so that it appeared in the Daily Mail for four successive days preceding the launch of the Social Democrats on 26 March. The new party was launched in the morning; that afternoon, Mrs Thatcher, in her best l’Etat c’est moi mood, gave a 12-minute speech which dominated the evening news. By contrast, Dr Owen’s launching speech was strictly limited in coverage. The following morning, the new party was not the main headline in any paper, and in three popular dailies did not make the front page at all. The present premier is less of a news manager than some of her predecessors, but for her at least it was a case of it being an ill wind that blows no one any good.

For the Russians, the main lesson is the amazing cohesion of British society. No journalist, however fanciful, has suggested any significant Russian penetration of MI 5 by anyone recruited into it since the 1930s. (This, moreover, despite the poor pay.) The Swiss, the Swedes, the West Germans might all envy us here. Pincher adds specific evidence about British successes against the Russians in the 1970s which convince him that all is now well. It is impossible to see this book as an obscure Russian disinformation exercise to upset the Americans. Pincher’s information about MI 5 penetration of the CPGB, on the other hand, makes one wonder how many real Communists there are.

For us, there are no grounds for complacency. So long as frailty, mortgages, disgruntlement and large bureaucracies exist, there will be chinks in the armoury. When jolly brigadiers come round and ask, ever so decently, about students who have applied for sensitive posts, they rightly want to know about drink, drugs and debts, and what they coyly call ‘things one wouldn’t want one’s aunt to know’, not about politics. Detection has usually depended on defectors: spies, it seems, do not get caught in the act with a microdot up their sleeve. If all has been quiet of late, it may have been simply because of a hiccup in the flow of major KGB defectors. Old ideologies may go, but new ones come. The Philby club of the 1960s at Cambridge was interesting, partly because it did not exist, partly because if it had done it would have been romantically anti-Philby in its politics. Pincher for his part ignores the question of CIA, Israeli and even Irish Republican penetration, and includes a puff for the wonderful co-operation between MI 5 and the Israeli secret service. Treason ne’er doth prosper, for if it does, it is called co-operation.

The manner of Hollis’s ‘clearance’ was perhaps more important than its matter. No less than four prime ministers chimed like cracked bells. Sir Harold Wilson helpfully said, after refreshing his memory from official papers, that Hollis’s pre-MI 5 ‘connections at University and elsewhere did give reasons for anxiety’. Mr Callaghan had previously said: ‘Blunt is merely one part of a highly complicated case that the Security Service has spent many years and many man-hours on seeking to unravel to find the truth. I do not think that the matter will ever be cleared up.’ Mrs Thatcher conspicuously did not pay tribute to Hollis as a dedicated, much-maligned public servant. Then there is the unfortunate parallel with Mr Macmillan’s 1955 statement that there was no evidence of Philby’s disloyalty. Pincher claims ‘to have discussed this issue recently with Mr Macmillan’, and to have found that Macmillan meant, not that Philby was not an agent, but that the evidence against him would not secure a conviction. Pincher has since claimed, stretching Mrs Thatcher’s language rather unfairly, that her statement that ‘no evidence was found that incriminated’ Hollis meant something of this sort. But the evidence of the four premiers certainly does not support a ‘much ado about nothing’ theory.

Now to the main issue. Whether Hollis was a spy or not is of chiefly human interest. Mr Pincher’s really important allegation, after all, is that by 1965 an MI 5/MI 6 joint committee had collected ‘over two hundred’ cases of Russian penetration of British Intelligence. The cases he cites are not all that convincing, and could in many cases be explained undramatically, simply by the KGB being on their toes. Nevertheless, even if all the examples are not on show, and some are suspect, it is clear that a Young Turk faction within MI 5 reacted to them, that, as Mrs Thatcher said, Hollis was among those that fitted some of the leads, that he was investigated after his retirement, and that, in Mrs Thatcher’s words, this 1970 investigation ‘did not conclusively prove his innocence’. The conclusion that he was not an agent ‘was challenged by a very few of those concerned’, and this led to a second inquiry by Lord Trend, who again concluded that Hollis was not an agent. Here what matters is not Lord Trend’s conclusions, but the palpable fact that feeling ran so high among some security officers as to secure a second investigation at the most senior level conceivable. Something very odd was going on in the security services, or rather something very normal – an office row, but an office row in a context where disagreements were bound to be seen as evidence of working for the other side. (An interesting parallel is with the great national galleries, where disagreement over a picture quickly turns to suspicions of working with the dealers.) The Patriot faction were not only burning with suspicion about their seniors between 1965 and 1974, but were also able to convince other very senior people outside the service that their suspicions had to be taken seriously. The evidence that is not in Pincher’s book, the evidence on which the Patriot Boys based their case, must have been much more convincing than anything Pincher cites, because we know that it was taken seriously by the higher reaches of government.

Pincher, or rather his informants, are badly astray on a central historical issue. He, and they, totally underestimate the extent to which the need to keep Anglo-American relations sweet dominated government priorities during Hollis’s period in office. Hollis was there, in a sense, to see that spies were not caught, to rebuild confidence after the Burgess and Maclean affair, and to create conditions in which Britain could keep privileged access to US military information. This political priority – pas trop de zèle – overrode the purely counter-espionage targets which filled the narrowly departmental vision of Hollis’s accusers. His accusers, in fact, themselves stand accused of rocking the Western alliance, for good motives or otherwise, by their crude belief that spies are all that matter. Hollis may also have been a fudger by nature, he may have hated chasing every trivial straw in the wind, he may have been over-promoted or lacked the mind for the job, he may even have been a spy: but on the whole the simplest explanation for his relaxed attitudes is that they suited the political imperatives of the day.

For public interest in spies is eminently unreasonable. Top people in Intelligence cannot see essential government papers, install protégés, mislay awkward files, fix the inflow of electronic intelligence, or even be bad or unlucky in their daily routine, without it looking odd and getting them into hot water. There are few places where a Russian agent can do less harm than in Intelligence, unless it is in the Communist Party. The question we should ask is not why we have had so many KGB men inside Intelligence, but why we have had so few outside it. Why have no really senior civil servants, bankers, industrialists, journalists, publishers (ideal for laundering payments to politicians), generals or party politicians been brought to book? It would be strange indeed if agents were to be found only in one walk of life, as is the apparent case in post-war Britain. But perhaps we are just amazingly cohesive.

At any rate, Mr Pincher is broadly right. There was a great MI 5 office row. It was almost certainly about failures in the 1950s and 1960s (Mrs Thatcher’s attempt to push the dates back to the 1940s smacks of judicious raison d’état). Either there was a mole, or there was not. If there was a mole, whether Hollis or somebody else, then he was detected, and that is that. A la guerre, comme à la guerre. Much more worrying, and much more discreditable to MI 5, is the possibility that there was no mole, and that a powerful group of officers were unable over ten years or more to distinguish between innocence and treachery on the part of perhaps three of their colleagues. This, by implication, is what Mrs Thatcher and Lord Trend were saying, and if they are right, one can only come to the gloomy conclusion that a silly Intelligence Service is a much greater liability to the country than any spy can be.

As a warning to Patriots who believe in the power of circumstantial evidence, let me show what can be done, even without large royalties, to set the clock of suspicion ticking. Here, as an exercise in the Pincheresque, is ‘the great Oxford Spy Ring’. We begin with Tom Driberg, the well-known Communist who later became Chairman of the Labour Party and, on Michael Foot’s special plea, a Labour peer. Driberg, an active undergraduate Communist at Oxford, was closely associated in politics with A.J.P. Taylor, who himself travelled in Russia in the 1920s, where he met the Bolshevik leader Kirov. During the war, Taylor was active in the Second Front Now movement, and was also a ‘peace’ agitator in the CND movement. Though critical of Marxism, Taylor was a passionate supporter of Soviet Russia, and still maintains personal ties with East Bloc countries. One of his pupils in the 1930s was Sir Maurice Oldfield, later head of MI 5. Friendly contacts are known to have existed between the two men as late as the 1960s. Another figure in the ‘ring’ was Lord Beaverbrook, who not only met Stalin during the war but gave powerful support to Soviet military strategy, as well as sponsoring powerful anti-Tory propaganda written by men like Driberg and Michael Foot. The latter, a unilateralist who lives in Hampstead within walking distance of a Russian trade mission, is known to have a high regard for Enoch Powell, who besides being at Trinity in the 1930s, magically shattered the power of the Conservative Party ...

Even if the above are true in detail as ‘facts’, they are nonsense taken as a whole. Intelligence work which consists, as it probably necessarily does, of extremely empirical fact-gathering, simply accumulating materials in the files and then hoping the files will somehow think for themselves, is a good example of the folly of empiricism when allowed to get out of hand. An Intelligence Service which lacks political judgment is more dangerous than one penetrated by the other side. That is the moral of the Hollis affair.