Wilsonia

Paul Foot

  • The Wilson Plot: The Intelligence Services and the Discrediting of a Prime Minister by David Leigh
    Heinemann, 271 pp, £12.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 434 41340 2
  • A Price too High by Peter Rawlinson
    Weidenfeld, 284 pp, £16.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 297 79431 0

Many years ago, I was one of many journalists who set sail with high hopes in search of an undiscovered country called Wilsonia. It beckoned from afar across mighty oceans of investigations and tip-offs. The lucky journalist to reach it first would be rewarded with arguably the greatest political scoop of our time: he or she would finally reveal why Harold Wilson, to the astonishment of the entire political and journalistic world, suddenly took himself off to obscurity.

Harold Wilson had dominated the political scene for 13 years before his resignation in March 1976. He had become leader of the Labour Party in 1963, won an election from an apparently hopeless position in 1964, consolidated that victory with a huge majority in 1966, lost an election in 1970, but won the next two, both in 1974, putting Labour back in office for another five years. His early period in Downing Street had been accompanied by a cheeky aggressiveness which infuriated Conservatives everywhere. He could not contain his enjoyment of high office. He revelled in his youth – he was only 48 when he became prime minister. He would boast that he could serve 15 years in Downing Street before reaching the age of his predecessor, Harold Macmillan, when he first went there. His enemies on left and right abused and hated him, but not one of them ever imagined that he would walk out of Downing Street without the slightest sign of a revolt against him in his own ranks or in the country. His own explanation – that he had had enough – was hollow talk beside the vainglorious boasting of former years. There must have been a reason, we thought as we set out on our exciting voyage, a reason underneath the surface – financial skullduggery perhaps, a sexual liaison, or something to do with espionage, the great best-seller.

One by one we all drifted back to shore unrewarded. My own voyage had taken me from the Wigan Alps to Bulgarian export/import statistics but had produced not a glimpse of Wilsonia. Many years later, inspired by the Spycatcher revelations, David Leigh of the Observer has set out on the journey once more. There is no one better qualified. All through the awful Eighties David Leigh has kept the flag of investigative journalism fluttering high. He has a stack of awards to show for a stack of inquiries which have earned him the highest accolade: the deep and undying hatred of the Prime Minister. If Leigh could not discover Wilsonia, no one could.

Well, he has not found it, or at least he has not found it in anything like the shape any of us imagined it, and having read this book, I am prepared to accept, like a reformed gold-digger on the Sierra Madre, that Wilsonia never existed: that there never was a simple, secret explanation for Wilson’s resignation. His own explanation was probably true – he had had enough. It is in answering the question why this sprightly 60-year-old had suddenly had enough that David Leigh’s book makes a powerful contribution. What we are left with at the end of the story as Leigh tells it is a sad and rather tired politician, with all the aggressiveness and cheek beaten out of him. Part of this was due to the cares of office, to the dreadful problems which seem to drop out of the sky on top of any Labour prime minister. Worst of all, however, was the suspicion, which preyed on Wilson more and more as the months went by, that he was being subverted, not by subversives, but by the men and women trained to ‘catch’ subversives.

Was MI5 plotting against Harold Wilson? If it was, there was nothing extraordinary about it. Every Labour government we have had has been plagued by plots and subversions from the security services which were meant to serve it. The 1924 Government was brought down by a letter, forged by the security services, urging the Labour Party to victory in the name of the Communist International. The ‘Zinoviev Letter’ was proclaimed as genuine by the Conservative Party and its press, and it was not exposed as an MI5 forgery until 1967.

In 1927, when Labour looked like getting into office again, the head of MI5’s investigation branch was taken on by the Conservative Party to run an ‘intelligence service of our own’. He used all his old contacts to subvert the Labour leaders, not just in opposition but also when they took office. The political leanings of the intelligence services at the time were expressed by the head of Naval Intelligence, Admiral Sir Barry Domville. The Admiral was an enthusiastic supporter of Benito Mussolini, and later of Adolf Hitler. Hitler, said Sir Barry, was ‘absolutely terrific; absolutely A1’. Sir Barry persisted in these views with such vigour that when Britain finally declared war on Germany in 1940, he was interned as an enemy agent.

MI5 returned to the attack when Attlee came to office with an enormous majority in 1945. In particular, they sought to undermine any attempt by the Labour Government to maintain trade links with the Russians. The young President of the Board of Trade, Harold Wilson, was committed to maintaining these links. His trips to Russia, and especially his plans to sell old aircraft to the Russians, were more than once sabotaged by MI5.

The young intelligence heroes of the time had mostly been in active service in colonial wars, notably in Palestine. Harry Wharton, Anthony Cavendish, Maurice Oldfield, the arch-racialist George Kennedy Young – all these were in MI5 or MI6 either during or after the war. All of them shared the deeply reactionary ideas which had traditionally inspired the secret service. This, of course, didn’t stop them fraternising enthusiastically with other MI5 or MI6 agents who secretly shared different views and had joined the secret services in order to subvert their purposes in the interests of Communist Russia. One of Kennedy Young’s actions as a member of MI6 was to send Kim Philby on his final mission to Beirut, whence he escaped to Russia.

By the time Harold Wilson was being elected leader of the Labour Party, two MI5 officers in particular had fallen under the spell of the imaginative CIA agent James Angleton. Angleton became convinced that Wilson was a Russian agent and he conveyed this certainty to Arthur Martin and Peter Wright. Arthur Martin took on board Angleton’s ‘certainty’ that Hugh Gaitskell, Wilson’s predecessor as leader of the Labour Party, had been poisoned by the Russians so that Wilson could take over the Labour leadership. This fantastic nonsense has been finally laid to rest in Philip Williams’s biography of Gaitskell.

Arthur Martin’s obsession was quickly passed on to his colleague Peter Wright. ‘Spycatcher’ Wright never once in his long and unglamorous career caught a spy. Instead, he and Martin pursued ‘suspects’ in the Labour Party. They hounded a depressed MP and former minister, Bernard Floud, to his death. They pursued an able junior minister Niall Macdermot out of office. They even circulated the fantastic notion that John Stonehouse, whose long career in the Co-operative Movement was dedicated to witch-hunting Communists, was a Communist agent. These three stories are told in detail here for the first time. David Leigh asserts that they were part of a pattern of intelligence behaviour which sought to smear the whole Labour Government, and especially its leader. To this end, he might well have made more of the extraordinary revelations on Channel 4 News of the former Ministry of Defence information officer, Colin Wallace. It is Wallace who has supplied the examples and explained how smears against Labour ministers were judiciously dropped in the paths of ‘likely’ journalists. Wright was, in the immortal words of his former colleague Neville Robinson, an ‘ignorant shit’. So it was perfectly possible for him and his colleagues to spread among gullible journalists the ‘fact’ that half the Cabinet were secret Communists, or that Healey and Benn had jointly written a pamphlet calling for more subversion in Ireland.

How was it possible for servants of the Government to subvert their own government in this way? The answer lies in the politics of the security services: politics which, by the very nature of such organisations, leaned towards the extreme right. Parliamentary democracy itself was too much democracy for these ultras. As Wright himself insisted on television, ‘I certainly didn’t and most people in MI5 didn’t have a duty to Parliament. They have a duty to the Queen.’ After Wilson’s resignation, the Director-General of MI5 Sir Michael Hanley told his assembled colleagues that if Michael Foot was elected leader of the Labour Party (and thus became prime minister), ‘I and every other officer in the service would have to consider our position.’ Every other officer in the service, Sir Michael could safely assume, would be likely to resign if a socialist was elected prime minister. Moreover, their most vital secrets were something they kept to themselves, only passing them on to our elected politicians in conditions of the most intense secrecy. When, in 1964, Anthony Blunt confessed to having been a Russian spy during the war, no Labour politician was told about it. Even when Harold Wilson became prime minister, he was kept in the dark. In the only interesting passage in his dreary defence of everything he ever did, Sir Peter Rawlinson reveals that as a mere Solicitor-General in the Tory Government he was consulted about the Blunt confession. Thus the law officers in a Tory government knew secrets of which a Labour prime minister was kept in ignorance.

That there was not so much a plot against Harold Wilson as a consistent campaign of vilification and smear against the Labour Government is well established in Leigh’s book, and corroborated by the evidence Colin Wallace has provided. Indeed, the smears spread to the Conservative Party, where the MI5 faction devoted their energies to spreading stories about Edward Heath and those who supported his leadership of the Conservative Party. As early as 1972, I myself, when working on Private Eye, got ‘information’ from more than one anonymous telephone caller about ‘photographs’ which were supposedly circulating showing Edward Heath in flagrante with young men – and other members of his government engaging in similar behaviour. It is difficult not to get excited when such phone calls are received: difficult not to spread the malicious rumours, and to share them with other left-wing journalists who were getting the same sort of calls with the same sort of information – every bit of it false. Even on the Socialist Worker, where I worked in the annus mirabilis 1974, I recall getting ‘information’ from people pretending to be socialists who knew not only about Wilson’s financial dealings but also about Heath’s.

There is a danger for journalists who specialise in exposing this ‘intelligence’ cabal. The danger emerges in some passages in David Leigh’s book in which Harold Wilson is portrayed as an utterly decent democrat desperately trying to bridge the gap between East and West, between rich and poor, only to be frustrated by the machinations of a right-wing gang in the security services.

This picture is prompted perhaps by nostalgia for the days when there was nothing out of the ordinary about the fact of there being a Labour government and a Labour prime minister. It is nevertheless a grotesque picture. Harold Wilson had many commendable qualities, but he was above all a devious pragmatist who again and again deserted the principles which he had declared at election times in favour of shabby compromise. He surrounded himself with businessmen who funded his private office, and who were almost exclusively rewarded for these ‘services’ with high honours. His connections with Israel and with businessmen who shared apparently contradictory interests in Eastern European countries and in Israel, were far too close and cosy for a properly democratic political leader. The land deals at Wigan, from which many of his closest advisers profited, were on any reckoning a scandal. Lord Kagan, Wilson’s close adviser and friend, went to prison for fraud. So did Wilson’s appointee as Postmaster-General, John Stonehouse. So, almost certainly, would his appointee as Army Minister, the crooked East End businessman Lord Brayley, had he lived to face the music. Wilson may have tried, as Leigh suggests, to act as honest broker with the Russians. On the other hand, he gave his unequivocal support to the American slaughter in Vietnam; to racialist immigration controls; to charges within the National Health Service; to statutory sanctions on trade unions – all of which he had opposed when fighting elections.

Nor was he a champion of the rights of Parliament against the security services. On the contrary, his obsession with the trappings of power on more than one occasion turned him into a dupe of the security services which were secretly campaigning against him. When it suited the security services, they used their hated prime minister mercilessly. During the 1966 seamen’s strike, they set out in front of him the result of their buggings and burglings of seamen’s houses in order for him to ‘prove’ to the House of Commons the ridiculous notion that the strike was a Communist plot. When they wanted to distract attention from the Protestant workers’ strike in Northern Ireland in 1974, they gave him papers to ‘prove’ an IRA offensive – a ‘Doomsday Plot’ – whereby half of Belfast would be burned to the ground. In fact, this plan had been hatched two years previously as a defensive reaction in the event of a Protestant pogrom. Wilson fell for the Doomsday scenario hook, line and sinker.

Shortly after he first became prime minister in 1964, Wilson called a press conference in the Cabinet Room. Striding excitedly around the room, he pointed out the ‘buttons’ which would summon to his command the chieftains of the kingdom: the generals, the captains of industry, the Civil Service mandarins, the Governor of the Bank of England, the security services. His belief that he was in control of all these departments of his state led him all the time to co-operate with them. Like Salvador Allende, who brought his assassins into his Cabinet in the interests of national unity, Wilson sought to collude with the very officials who were plotting against him. He much preferred to settle a matter with an important person in the Cabinet Room than to take the same matter openly to the people who elected him, or to their representatives. As he became convinced that these chieftains were plotting to subvert his government and sabot-age his political programme, he sank into despair and paralysis.