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.

Early in 1974, I went up to Grimethorpe colliery on a hunch. The Yorkshire area of the miners’ union had for decades been one of the safest baronies of the bovine, block-vote Labour Party right wing. But, in the aftershock of a local colliery disaster, a tough-minded and fluent union compensation agent named Arthur Scargill had made a bit of a name for himself. In union elections that were faintly premonitory of the coming confrontation with the Heath Government, he and a colleague named Owen Briscoe had swept the poll and begun to take over the district. After spending some quality time down the pit and taking the odd sounding at the club, I thought I realised that even the highly taciturn and conservative Yorkshire miners were ready for a change of pace. I made my way over to Barnsley, met Scargill in his office, was treated with disdain as a member of a prostituted profession but wrote nonetheless that something seismic was afoot in what had been a highly ossified union, and that there were treats in store for those who liked their politics militant. I claim this to be the first piece about the salience of Scargill, though Paul Routledge of the Times had, it turned out, done a decent report on the election results as they occurred. In a few months such claims were moot. Scargill led a mass picket of miners to the Saltley coke depot outside Birmingham, recruited the support of the local engineers’ union and saw the thick blue line of the forces of law and order snap and the cops scamper for higher ground.

The Saltley événements and their analogues put an end, at some remove, to the businessman’s government of Grocer Heath. By the end of the Seventies, I had seen the fruits of a Labour administration in the bare-faced Special Branch framing of two of my journalist colleagues (Crispin Aubrey and Duncan Campbell – two of the then-celebrated ‘ABC’ defendants) and had written several editorials about torture in Ulster when Roy Mason was Callaghan’s minister for the Province and a Yorkshire area-sponsored NUM Member of Parliament. Forgive me this free association; I’m getting to the point in a second. The Official Secrets Act persecution of the ABC defendants, which included warrant-free searches and seizures, the blackmailing of witnesses and the rigging of a High Court jury, exposed the complete dependence of the Labour Home Secretary Merlyn Rees on the ‘advice’ of comical yet sinister reactionaries in the security underworld – forces that had demonstrated many times that they did not care about election results and did not care for election results that returned non-Tory governments. Roy Mason’s slavish defence of the same forces, as they busied themselves in the Six Counties, was to lead to the defection of the civilian Irish nationalists from the Labour lobby in the crucial Parliamentary vote of no confidence in 1979. Thus old British Labourism perished for ever, not in the light (as Dangerfield wrote about the last stand of the old House of Lords) but in the creepy twilight of a rotten compromise.

Milne’s narrative makes me re-live my youth, because it demonstrates the fashion in which these events were imbricated and affiliated. I thought I had been watching events carefully, but nothing like as carefully, it turns out, as the general staff of the Conservative Party. The Tories used to be fond of saying that the idea of class struggle was old hat. Believe that, sir, and you’ll be ready to credit any damned thing. Even before Thatcher carried the vote of no confidence in Callaghan, she had commissioned her friend Nicholas Ridley to design a campaign of revenge on the mineworkers, and to ensure that all the arsenals and all the tactical designs were in place in advance. Nigel Lawson, who was later to cover himself with glory as Energy Secretary in this bannered campaign, wrote in his memoirs that preparation for it was ‘just like re-arming to face the threat of Hitler in the later Thirties’. That’s quite a jest, when you remember how active the Tory Party actually was in the cause of anti-Fascism. And it lends poignance to Harold Macmillan’s later lachrymose invocation of the splendour of the British mining communities, as they brass-banded off to war against the Kaiser and thus, presumably, earned the right of any survivor to a home fit for a hero. In 1914 Karl Liebknecht told the German labour movement that ‘the main enemy is at home.’ In our own time the British Tories came to the same conclusion by a different route. We may thank Lawson for making this connection in its most crass and insulting form.

The idea of the Great War as the template of the miners’ strike was not restricted to elderly sentimentalists like Macmillan. It became a favoured trope of the industrial correspondents, one of whom I remember telling me that such and such a pithead punch-up had been ‘the Sarajevo of the dispute’. It occurred to Neil Kinnock as a convenience too, because it enabled him to seem to stand with the rank and file while denouncing the supposed generals. ‘Lions led by donkeys’ – the remark of a French general about British cannon-fodder in Flanders – became the OK vernacular in which to discuss events. (The Donkeys, interestingly enough, was the title of a history of the Somme that formed the inspiration of Joan Littlewood’s Oh, What a Lovely War. Its author was Alan Clark. He at least did not pretend that Generals Haig and French, unlike Privates Scargill and Heathfield, were not responsible for a million dead.)

To all this invocation of high and evasive metaphor, Milne opposes one hard and fast, earthy injunction. It is, in effect, the same injunction that Deep Throat laid upon Woodward and Bernstein in that DC underground car-park. ‘Follow The Money.’ Nothing was more damaging, in the entire course of the strike, than the accusation that Arthur Scargill and his colleagues had solicited funny money from overseas, and put that funny money to funny purposes. In particular, the idea that Scargill and Peter Heathfield had paid off their own mortgages with dubious subventions from Colonel Gaddafi – a suggestion that made a brilliant lunge at several layers of the collective subconscious – was perfectly designed to split the union. If you are on strike pay, and you wonder about your family, and what keeps you going is the tradition of equal sacrifice, and you read in the Daily Mirror (friend of the working man) that your leaders are high on the hog – well, then, your anger and anxiety is well-programmed to find an alternative outlet. Perhaps in a sweetheart ‘democratic’ union prepared in advance by some Bulldog Drummond like David Hart.

I read Milne’s book with a faint blush of shame because, not having paid daily attention to the strike and not having much liked Scargill when I met him. I had not disbelieved everything I read about the union funds. Furthermore, some of the bylines on some of the stories had been known to me and not axiomatically distrusted. At one level, what he discloses could have been known by anybody. Scargill and Heathfield did not have mortgages, ergo these mortgages had not been paid off in Tripoli. Why did no newspaper bother with that trivial fact-check? But, correctly taking this failure as symptomatic or synechdochic of a larger one. Milne inquires how the original allegation came to be made. In detail that is impossible to summarise, he pursues a banking trail that demonstrates, beyond any doubt at all, that a series of dummy deposits and phoney receipts was created. The intent of this paperchase was to suggest that an embattled union, forced to protect its assets from state sequestration, had resorted to the terrorist and Communist financial demi-monde, and had awarded large kickbacks to its own leadership in the process.

In The Manchurian Candidate, if you recall, the poor sap who acts as front-man for the McCarthy inquisition breaks down at one point and asks for clearer instructions. On one day, he has alleged that there are 83 Communists in the State Department, and on another that there are 66. Can’t he be given a simple figure, and stick to it? With a pitying glance, Angela Lansbury (Mrs Thatcher to the life in those days, now that I think of it) tells him that he’s missed the whole point. People are no longer asking: ‘Are there Communists in the State Department?’ They are asking: ‘How many are there?’ So with the bewildering series of accusations against Scargill. Libyan money, Russian money, Czech money. Laundered through Ireland, through France, through Switzerland. Something was supposed to stick, and stick it did thanks to the assiduous repetitions of Captain Robert Maxwell and his ‘Labour paper’. But the actual money, as Milne shows, cannot have and did not come from Libya. And the timing of its deployment and discovery was so exquisitely calibrated as to require the intervention of someone with knowledge gained by surveillance, and resources only available to governments or corporations. Someone, also, who was capable of taking friendly journalists and proprietors on one side and feeding them a corking scoop. Someone, finally, who was capable of putting an agent into the NUM and keeping him there for some time before ordering him to mutate from agent to provocateur.

If the Tories had not prepared for a showdown as assiduously as they claim to have done, and if the Intelligence Services were not so leaky and boastful, and if Robert Maxwell’s empire of fraud and mendacity had not imploded when and how it did, there might be some benefit of the doubt involved here. But, as it happens, having carefully reconstructed the movements of Roger Windsor, the NUM’s chief turncoat, and of Mohammed Altaf Abbasi, the demi-monde’s chief bagman, Milne is able to state with complete forensic confidence that

It is self-evident that the Libyan money, still in dollars in Lloyds Bank on 3 December and deposited into a sterling account on 4 December, cannot have been the money Windsor produced from his safe on 29 October, some five weeks earlier. It cannot have been the money brought through customs by Altaf Abbasi – if indeed that ever happened. It cannot have been the money picked up by Windsor in Sheffield and Rotherham and stored in his larder for ten days in late November. And it cannot have been the money used to ‘repay’ the repairs on the NUM officials’ homes and Roger Windsor’s bridging loan. Nor is there the slightest possibility that, having deposited £163,000 in a Lloyds Bank account on 4 December, Abbasi could have withdrawn the same money immediately and rushed it over to Sheffield for Windsor to pass on £50,000 to Scargill ... The only rational explanation for what took place in the light of the new documentary evidence is that there must have been two sets of money.

Good intuitive and supportive evidence of this hypothesis is provided by the GCHQ employees who later contacted the Guardian to reveal that the British security services had tried to make a bogus and incriminating deposit in a Scargill-linked bank account several years after the strike was over. One of Mrs Thatcher’s few mistakes appears to have been her removal of legal trade-union rights from the honest toilers at GCHQ.

Things being what they are in the libel courts (which protected Maxwell to the end but which never afforded Arthur Scargill the majesty of the law) Milne treads very carefully on the tracks of Roger Windsor, who emerged mole-like from the heart of the NUM to tell the most alarming stories about the Scargill entourage, and who became the pet of the Daily Mirror, and who seems to have shown something like an excess of zeal in getting himself photographed with his arms around Colonel Gaddafi while allegedly on union business. My best advice to readers who want to know more about this man, who rose without trace and who seems to have sunk without trace, is to consult the remarks made under Parliamentary privilege by Tam Dalyell MP, which have so far survived all challenge and which are cited on pages 170-5 of this densely-documented book.

A name with which Roger Windsor’s has been ‘linked’, to use the coy formulation of Fleet Street, is that of Stella Rimington. Now resold to us all as the user-friendly face of a newly-feminised secret police, Ms Rimington’s career at MI5 has in fact been rather more hatchet-visaged than her handlers pretend. The MI5 defector Cathy Massiter spoke of Rimington’s earlier role in bending all the rules of surveillance in order to gratify her masters (and mistress) by going after CND. If Mr Dalyell’s inquiries are on the right track, she seems to have taken her interest in industrial relations along the same stellar career path. Of course, we do not know for absolutely certain. But that is not the fault of Milne or Dalyell. It is the responsibility of a Parliament that has begged to remain in ignorance, and that has voted unaudited sums for undisclosed security purposes, and that has permitted infringements on the privileges of its constituents and members that are far greater than any cod fax ever composed. A vast failure of nerve here on the part of the Labour leadership. Merlyn Rees and Peter Archer, former senior minister and law officer in Labour cabinets, now admit that they were kept in the dark about highly politicised cowboy activities run by both MI5 and MI6, and not infrequently directed at their own colleagues. The dodgy world of the Ulster ‘security forces’, which combines the Orange card with the black-bag operation, has acted like a hothouse for corner-cutting dirty-tricks types, death-squad penis-enviers and all the other banana republic heavies who were later turned against working men and women on the mainland. Sir Kenneth Newman was perhaps unintentionally revealing when he spoke of the Six Counties as the ‘laboratory’ of modern British police tactics.

So the disclosures made by Peter Wright, for whatever sordid motive, turn out to be a better guide to reality than the naive social-democratic belief in the impartiality of the permanent government. Nothing is more depressing, in Milne’s narrative, than the eagerness of Neil Kinnock and Norman Willis, even in opposition, to act as conduits for raw, untreated disinformation served up by the security élite with the help of their long-term asset Captain Maxwell. (And where was the Serious Fraud Office and all the other apparatus of financial scrutiny, so harshly and falsely deployed against the NUM, when Maxwell was riding high?) In the days when Labour’s HQ was Transport House, and the TUC’s was at Congress House, someone once remarked: ‘Transport House and Congress House! What simply marvellous names for brothels!’ Many a true word is spoken in jest.

It seems a long time ago that the Daily Mirror, under the stewardship of Cecil King, was at the centre of a loony 1968 conspiracy to install a junta under the benign leadership of Lord Mountbatten. But we only know about that episode through the grace and accident of certain people’s memoirs. What we need is to know how we are governed, and by whom, in real time. If Milne’s book receives a tithe of the attention it deserves, it will present the first serious test of the calibre of Tony Blair. In his well-received speech to the last Labour Party Conference, Mr Blair went out of his way to promise the restoration of union rights at GCHQ, and received much praise for his attacks on official secrecy and the unaccountable bureaucratic state. Here, then, is his opportunity. Can he demand less than a Parliamentary Select Committee, along the lines of Senator Frank Church’s hearings on the CIA, to investigate the abuse of power by the Intelligence Services? And can he state without looking a fool that he will, on his first day in Downing Street, receive the traditional off-the-record briefing from Stella Rimington? When the Tories first went to the trenches against their coal-mining fellow citizens in 1974, Edward Heath called an election on the slogan ‘Who runs Britain?’ I thought then, and I think now, that this was and is a very good and pertinent question.