Britain’s Security State’s Long History of Spying on Left-Wing Intellectuals

Britain’s police and secret service has spied on and infiltrated left-wing political organizations since the 19th century. A new book shows that their continued influence poses a serious threat to democracy.

MI6 headquarters on the River Thames in London, England. (Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images)

There has scarcely been a protest movement in modern British history in which the country’s security state has not sought to intervene. The London Corresponding Society — early advocates for universal male suffrage under the tutelage of Thomas Payne — was extensively surveilled and subsequently outlawed in the late 1700s. The Luddites were also under the expedient eye of the state throughout the early nineteenth century. It was, however, only after the 1819 Peterloo massacre, where a combination of private militias and the army killed fourteen protesters, severely damaging the reputation of the military, that Britain’s modern security state emerged.

A decade after Peterloo, the Metropolitan Police was founded, followed around half a century later by Special Branch. The branch, which sat within the Met, was initially designed to combat Irish republicanism, but would go on to become a driving force behind political policing across the UK. In response to growing demands for independence in the colonies, MI5 and MI6 were established in 1909. The two were initially grouped together under the Secret Service Bureau before splitting during the First World War.

Today, unsurprisingly, much remains unknown about the full extent of MI5’s operations, both at home and abroad. David Caute’s Red List seeks to plug this lacuna of the role that Britain’s security apparatus has played. Based on National Archive releases, Caute has pieced together an extensive history of MI5 surveillance across the twentieth century. His research shows that its operations targeted, but were not limited to, left-wing academics, journalists and lawyers, the Communist Party of Great Britain, and a number of prominent left-wing cultural figures.

Caute’s independence from the arms of the security state — he alludes to being spied on himself — makes the book superior to other comparable studies. Official histories such as Christopher Andrew’s centennial The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 are, by definition, compromised. Caute writes that Andrew’s book accepts that MI5 “scrupulously respected a clear dividing line between ‘national security’ and ‘party politics.’” A large part of the aim of Red List, achieved through an exhaustive marshaling of evidence, is to prove this statement and others like it farcical misrepresentations.

Commie Desperados

Suppressing any form of communist sentiment within the UK was a key directive of MI5’s early work. As Caute puts it, “communist subversion was the perceived Satan of MI5’s political theology.” Vernon Kell, the cofounding director of the Secret Service Bureau, viewed Bolshevism as “an infectious disease” destined to spread among the lower classes in the recessionary years that followed World War I. The motives and actions of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), founded in 1920, were therefore relentlessly surveilled and disrupted.

All correspondence to and from the CPGB’s headquarters in London was opened and read by Special Branch, and spies were routinely placed within the upper echelons of the party’s cadre. Although missing from Caute’s analysis, MI5’s surveillance of the CPGB is seen as the textbook example of a successful “deep swimmer” operation. Olga Gray spent six years infiltrating the CPGB, becoming “a piece of the furniture” at the party’s headquarters, and delivering information that directly led to the imprisonment of its members. The success of Gray as a deep swimmer — an agent that infiltrates the inner circles of a target group for a sustained period of time — would inform the security state’s approach to surveillance for decades to come.

Caute is clear, however, that the bar to warrant surveillance was an ever-shifting one. While UK operations were insignificant when compared to the scale of US McCarthyism, for the security state, “pale red tended to run . . . into deep red.” Any progressive cause was thus worthy of suspicion. “The Labour Party, the ILP [Independent Labour Party] and trade unions in general were viewed as dangerous vectors along the road to Moscow,” Caute tells us.

While any serious analysis of the Labour Party would hardly put it on the road to Moscow — anti-communism has always been a part of the party’s DNA — the relationship between the party and the security state has vacillated throughout history. It was, after all, Clement Attlee who began the tradition of asking MI5 to brief Number 10 of any potential security threats among ministers. Attlee’s government also introduced political vetting into the senior ranks of the civil service. In the 1960s, however, elements of the security state actively worked against Harold Wilson’s premiership.

The tentacles of the security state also spread elsewhere, across almost all of Britain’s cultural institutions, with the BBC coming under particular scrutiny. Caute refers to the broadcaster as a “semi-covert department of state” that helped promote anti-communist sentiment throughout the Cold War. The Information Research Department (IRD), which had initially been established as part of the Foreign Office, set up the Home Desk, in 1951, to generate “un-attributable domestic propaganda” to a UK audience.

The IRD even had a specific BBC operations desk, which provided material directly to the World Service. Despite decades-long denials, thousands of job roles at the BBC were subject to political vetting while MI5 and MI6 routinely edited content that was put out. Special Branch, for instance, willingly collaborated with the BBC on a 2002 documentary series entitled True Spies, which the head of the branch assured would show service member in a positive light.

Empire Comes Home

A recurrent undertone of Red List is the inextricable link between surveillance in the colonies and surveillance of subversion at home. Caute writes that MI5 had “an enduring commitment to empire.” Accordingly, the agency kept a close eye on activists and intellectuals, such as Paul Robeson, C. L. R. James, Thomas Lionel Hodgkin, Eric Hobsbawm, and G. D. H. Cole, who were sympathetic to national independence for Britain’s former colonies. This is ground that is comprehensively covered by Caute, although his encyclopedic list of those surveilled at times risks missing the forest for the trees. The overarching political economic, ideological, and geostrategic interests underlying the decisions of the British security state are not often examined.

Throughout the twentieth century, key figures in the security state either directly served in brutal colonial administrations or held overtly racist views. Guy Liddell, for example, moved into MI5 from the Met’s Special Branch in 1927. He would go on to control MI5 counterespionage throughout the Second World War, and he was favorite to become director general until the 1945 election of Clement Attlee.

Liddell ran an anti-Soviet program that initially collaborated with Nazi intelligence. His diary entries are a perfect example of the racism that sat at the heart of the security state. One representative entry from 1949 reads, “It was true that niggers coming here often went to the CP [Communist Party] . . . they found the Communists sympathetic because they . . . were all in favor of the niggers running their own show.” Liddell, on the other hand, had “no doubt in [his] mind that the West African natives are wholly unfitted for self-rule.” Also mentioned is David Petrie, head of MI5 from 1941 to 1946, who had previously monitored dissent against the British Raj while serving in the Delhi Intelligence Bureau.

Yet there are other key figures who fall outside the book’s scope. This is partly a consequence of Caute’s singular focus on MI5 at the expense of wider elements of the security state. The revolving door between the Special Branch, MI5, the Information Research Department, and elements of the British Army is alluded to yet never fully explored.

Connor Woodman, who has written extensively for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies on spycops and the security state, argues that, “when it comes to the secret state, one has to collect granules of information, put them together and a larger sculpture emerges.” For all its strengths, Red List struggles to turn the disparate pieces of information it has so competently assembled into a larger sculpture.

The Larger Sculpture

The techniques of the early security state continue to have very modern and consequential repercussions. Frank Kitson, whose military unit in Northern Ireland was responsible for the murders on Bloody Sunday, was also fond of embedding deep swimmers within the ranks of the IRA. Having initially served in colonial Kenya, Kitson collaborated extensively with Loyalist terrorist groups and “probably did more than any other individual to sour relations between the Catholic community and the security forces.”

Still feted as one of the West’s greatest counterinsurgency theorists, Kitson’s ideas form an integral part of the contemporary British counterterrorism apparatus. Rizwaan Sabir, who was arrested for suspected terrorism in 2008, has written extensively about how the deep and widespread policing of British Muslims has its origin in Kitson’s ideas around constant community surveillance. Leaked police documents on Prevent, a government anti-terrorism program, for instance, have shown how targets of police surveillance are not just suspected and future terrorists but all members of a specific community.

Many of these issues have received increased political and media attention due to the ongoing government inquiry into undercover policing (more popularly known as “spycops”). Established in 2015, the inquiry will look at the scope of British undercover policing since 1968. Critics of the program have already taken issue with its pro-police slant and its far too restrictive terms of reference. While the inquiry will supposedly “identify and assess the justification of undercover policing,” participants have become increasingly disillusioned with lengthy delays and are “not expecting” justice.

Some commentary on spycops has questioned the supposed “triviality” of the whole affair — hours, month, or years spent surveilling fringe political groups that pose no threat to the existing status quo. Yet Red List demonstrates that the function of the security state is to foreclose political possibilities before they pose any direct threat to the established order, often ruining countless lives in the process. Even in an era of catastrophic climate breakdown, Britain’s climate movement has been consistently undermined by undercover policing. The actions and scope of the security state, therefore, are far from trivial. Instead, they act as a serious impediment to political change at a time when it is needed most.