‘Corbyn and the Commie Spy’ was the Sun’s front-page splash on 15 February: ‘Shock Claims in Secret File’, the strapline read, with a hammer and sickle at either end. The story was based on recently declassified documents in the Czech Security Forces Archive which record three meetings between Corbyn and a Czech diplomat. Two of the meetings, which occurred in 1986 and 1987, appear to have taken place over a cup of tea in the House of Commons; the third took place at Corbyn’s constituency office in Islington. The diplomat told Corbyn his name was Jan Dymic, but it turns out that he was an agent of the Czech security service and his real name was Jan Sarkocy.
The notes for the meeting in October 1987 make it sound anodyne enough. The topics discussed included ‘the national liberation movement’ and the situation in the Persian Gulf. Corbyn’s attitude was ‘negative towards USA, as well as the current politics of the Conservative government’. His attitude to the Eastern Bloc is said to be ‘positive’ and he is described as supportive of ‘the Soviet initiative towards peace’. Sarkocy concludes that ‘knowledge could not be utilised for the purpose of information as they [sic] were limited to general nature.’ Indeed.
To add a little intellectual ballast to its story the Sun quoted Professor Anthony Glees, who expressed astonishment at Corbyn’s naivety. Glees, described as an expert on the Cold War, was said to be connected with an outfit called the Oxford Intelligence Group. In fact, he is employed by the University of Buckingham. The next day, 16 February, the Sun, having tracked down and interviewed Sarkocy, went into overdrive: ‘Former Soviet [sic] spy makes shock claim that Jeremy Corbyn was our asset, he had been recruited and was a paid collaborator.’ Sarkocy was quoted as claiming that he had handed over cash in return for information and that his information was rated in Moscow as ‘number one’. Despite this, he had no contact with Corbyn during the last two years he spent in the UK (the Conservative government expelled him in 1989).
Svetlana Ptacnikova, head of the archive containing the files, contradicted Sarkocy. ‘Mr Corbyn was neither registered … as a collaborator,’ she said, ‘nor does this [supposition] stem from the archive documents.’ ‘If Corbyn had been an agent,’ she added, ‘his files would be under a different category.’ The tabloids were undeterred: ‘Corbyn was Cold War source says Czech spy’ was the Telegraph’s headline; ‘Corbyn the collaborator’ was the Mail’s, which also alleged that Corbyn had been ‘a paid informant’ and flattered Sarkocy as ‘a communist James Bond’. Inevitably, the Tories were by now enthusiastically clambering onto the bandwagon. First out of the traps was the brash young defence secretary, Gavin Williamson. The Sun’s report, he said, shows why Corbyn cannot be trusted: ‘Time and time again he has sided with those who want to destroy everything that is great about this country.’
On 18 February the story moved up a gear. The Telegraph led with ‘Czech Agent Claims that 15 Labour MPs Met Spies’; the Express ran a story demanding that ‘Corbyn’s Soviet [sic] spy links should be investigated by Parliament.’ Once again Glees, this time described as an ‘espionage expert’, was quoted prominently. Meanwhile, back in the Czech Republic, Sarkocy was beginning to enjoy his moment in the spotlight. He was so well informed, he told a Czech tabloid, that he ‘knew what Thatcher would have for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and what she would wear the next day’. He then claimed that the 1985 Live Aid concert had been funded by Czechoslovakia.
‘Anyone see a pattern forming?’ tweeted Miss T from @TeamTory4Liberty. Actually I do, though not the one Miss T had in mind. There is a long history of false claims by the Tories and their friends in the media and the intelligence agencies about alleged links between the Labour Party and the communist bloc: a history stretching back to the Zinoviev letter which helped to bring down the first Labour government. The letter, addressed to the British Communist Party and purporting to come from the head of the Comintern, called on communists to help mobilise ‘sympathetic forces’ in the Labour Party and organise ‘agitation propaganda’ in the armed forces. It was leaked to the Daily Mail four days before the 1924 general election, and the paper ran the story under the banner headline ‘Civil War Plot by Socialist Masters’. In 1999 an investigation by the Foreign Office’s chief historian concluded that the letter had been forged by MI6 and leaked to the Conservative Party.
It was repeatedly suggested during the Cold War that the Labour Party was crawling with Soviet agents, peaking with the claim, assiduously peddled for many years by elements in MI5, that Harold Wilson was or had been in the pay of the Soviets. In 1986 we learned from Spycatcher, the memoirs of a senior MI5 official Peter Wright, that a secret file on Wilson, labelled the Henry Worthington file was kept in the MI5 director general’s safe. For good measure Wright and his friends were also convinced that a former head of MI5, Sir Roger Hollis, was also a Soviet spy. In July 1995 the Sunday Times, pushing a story strikingly similar to the one about Corbyn, serialised a book by a KGB defector alleging that Michael Foot had been on the Soviet payroll when he was leader of the Labour Party in the early 1980s. Foot sued and received damages and an apology, although this hasn’t stopped the allegation being repeated since his death.
Back in the old days – perhaps it’s the same today – all the big embassies had political officers whose job was to keep tabs on the main political parties. Long before he succeeded Foot as leader of the Labour Party, the US Embassy spotted that Neil Kinnock was a rising star and a succession of political officers made it their business to get to know him and others on the Labour left. I, too, received occasional visits and sometimes an offer of lunch from the US diplomat whose job was to monitor the party and report back to Washington. In the early 1980s they were specially interested in Labour policy on nuclear weapons. The Russians and other Eastern Bloc countries had equivalent figures. No doubt they had Tory contacts, too, though we don’t hear much about them. Political officers would attend the party conferences, where they mingled with delegates in bars and cafés and at fringe events. Occasionally these contacts would be followed up, but it’s unlikely that any secrets changed hands since few, if any, backbench MPs had secrets to share.
A couple of incidents stick in my mind. In 1982 I published a novel called A Very British Coup, which begins with the election of a left-wing prime minister called Harry Perkins, whose programme includes the removal of the US nuclear bases. We marketed the book through an advert at the back of Tribune, the left-wing journal for which I worked part-time. The first cheque for £6.95 (the going rate for a hardback) came from the US Embassy. We duly dispatched the book and waited to see what would happen. Shortly afterwards I received an invitation to lunch with the ambassador’s deputy at the embassy. He sent his bullet-proof Cadillac to Tribune’s headquarters in Gray’s Inn Road to convey me to his house in Kensington. I’d assumed there would be a lot of people at the lunch, but there was just him, a colleague and me. ‘Why are you bothering with a minnow like me?’ I asked.
‘I reckon you are among the top one thousand opinion formers in the country,’ he replied.
‘Well, I must be about number 999,’ I said.
‘The other 999 have been here, too.’
Some time later, when I was editing Tribune, I wrote a scathing editorial about the sclerotic Soviet system and its decrepit leaders. I was contacted by a young Russian journalist who invited me to lunch. I assumed he wanted to sell me the official line, but he seemed entirely sympathetic and told me that everything was about to change because a new broom called Mikhail Gorbachev was on the way up. Some time later I saw the journalist’s name on a long list of alleged Russian spies expelled by the government. I Googled him the other day. He’s now a banker.
I can only remember one contact with a Russian diplomat. That was in the late 1980s, when Gorbachev was in power and I was in Parliament. I was heavily involved in the campaign to free the innocent people convicted of the Birmingham, Guildford and Woolwich bombings. The courts and the Home Office were proving particularly recalcitrant and I was looking for ways to cause them trouble. I wrote to Gorbachev, via the Russian Embassy, suggesting that the next time he found himself being lectured by Thatcher on human rights in the Soviet Union he might like to inquire about the innocent people in British prisons. Not long afterwards I received a visit from a Russian diplomat and a little later, on a stopover in Ireland while en route to Cuba, Gorbachev did indeed raise the Birmingham and Guildford cases. He was also reported to have mentioned them in talks with Thatcher. I have no idea whether my intervention had anything to do with it, but I’m happy to lay claim to it.
I don’t know Corbyn well, but I have been acquainted with him for more than thirty years. He is a modest figure, who has led a life according to his principles. He may well have been naive about some of the people he has met and platforms he has shared, but the idea that he is a communist agent is risible. I suppose we’re in for a lot of this as we get closer to another election. On polling day in 2017 an article appeared on the front page of the Telegraph warning that Corbyn’s election would be ‘profoundly dangerous … for the nation’. ‘In the past MI5 would actively have investigated him,’ the article continued. ‘He cannot be trusted with the fate of Britain.’ The author was Sir Richard Dearlove, a former head of MI6 and one of the men who got us into the Iraq catastrophe, an issue on which Corbyn’s judgment proved far superior to his. I had thought that the days when the intelligence and security services interfered in domestic politics were long over. Now I am not so sure.