Britain's Watergate: MI5, Spycatcher, the Lavender List and the Dirty Tricks Campaign against Harold Wilson

MI5 IS Britain’s Secret Police. Every country has a Secret Police, but the British people are alone in the world in believing that they do not. MI5’s official remit is “counter intelligence” and during the Cold War they expanded their domestic espionage activities considerably on the pretext of countering the activities of the KGB and preventing “domestic subversion”. What constitutes subversion is defined by MI5 themselves, of course, and in practice this meant targeting the Labour Party or at least that part of the Labour Party that might be a threat to the City of London. Despite what ideologues might think, the main threat to the City of London does not come from Marxists, since the ideological roots of Marxism are tied very closely to British interests (Karl Marx hatched his abominable ideology in the British Library after all) and the end state of Marxism, a tightly disciplined, powerful oligarchy ruling over a population of docile serfs is pretty much how the British have always lived. George Orwell when he described INGSOC was only partially talking about a possible future; he was also talking about how things were done in the present albeit without the socialist dismal-chic.

In reality MI5 are better described as the British Mafia. They manage domestic elections, produce propaganda to keep the people passive, malleable and paying their taxes and protect the powerful financial interests and families that have been the real ruling power in the UK since the 17th Century. Its genesis was with Elizabeth I who surrounded herself with some very unappetising black magicians and torturers. John Dee, the sorcerer, was the original 007, for instance. Never in the four hundred years that British Intelligence has operated has there been any disclosure from inside the organisation nor has there been any investigation of their activities. The British people, because of their servile condition, never question this and indeed interpret it to mean that nothing bad is happening. In reality it means that MI5 is the most ruthless intelligence agency in the world, and the British media the most obedient in creating a screen or “false consciousness” in the public that there is nothing to see here. The less said about British politicians the better, since most of them would be unable to perform even rudimentary tasks in a regular job. Mostly they are little better than poor bit part actors or over-promoted mediocrities. They are a safe pair of hands as far as MI5 is concerned precisely because their very mediocrity precludes them from ever rocking the boat.

That was the state of affairs until Harold Wilson came along. Harold Wilson is to the untutored eye an unlikely figure to excite the animosity of MI5. He was not a firebrand or a demagogue; he was not a Communist in any way shape or form; he was not even a revolutionary or a rabble rouser. On paper, and to be honest also in person, Wilson was an unimaginative managerialist, more at home with statistical economic forecasts than with polemics against injustice. He never engaged in any of the media-beloved spectacles that trigger middle class anxiety about Bolshevik subversion. He was never found with a bullhorn in front of foreign embassies, chained to railings complaining about human rights, or courting the friendship of unsavoury foreign leaders. In many respects, Wilson looked too measured and intellectual to merit the kind of attention he received from Her Majesty’s Security Service. So a closer examination of MI5 and its activities is really required as indeed is a bucketful of salt when looking at all the media-certified “dangerous politicians” most of whom are clowns acting out pre-ordained roles in a political Punch and Judy show.

The first one to sound the alarm bell about MI5 was Harold Wilson himself who wrote an article in The Times alleging a plot to destabilise his government. This article was published barely a year after he left office. Typically Wilsonian in its moderation and use of suggestion and argument rather than indignation, it was unprecedented in British history. Never before or since has a Prime Minister openly stated that the system is rigged and democracy largely a fraud. But this was only the beginning.

For over a decade prior to Wilson’s departure many senior Labour Party politicians had complained about a “concerted campaign” of dirty tricks against the four Wilson administrations. Wilson, Lady Falkender and Tony Benn were all targeted aggressively and subject to repeated “mysterious burglaries” where valuables were left untouched but files and political papers rifled. Later, unattributed smears would appear in the national newspapers trying to blacken Wilson’s name. The smears were dispersed over many different titles over a long period of time so to the public’s eye it appeared that the stories were simply an organic emergence of a deeper darker side to Harold Wilson. But Wilson and Lady Falkender maintained that the smears were all coming from the same source.

Because the initial allegation had come from Wilson himself, a former Prime Minister, a Privy Councillor and a member of the House of Lords, this was not the sort of claim that could be quietly dropped. So Wilson’s successor, James Callaghan, was charged with examining the case for an inquiry. Callaghan decided that the claims were unfounded and the issue was, in typical British style quietly dropped. By 1979 a polarisation of British politics reached fruition with the Winter of Discontent and the Labour Party which in the post war period had been the “natural party of government” started to experience a series of what would turn out to be near fatal internal seismic shocks. In that confused political storm the claims about Harold Wilson were swept away and forgotten.

Forgotten that is until 1985 when Peter Wright a Former Assistant Director of MI5 penned Spycatcher: the candid autobiography of a former intelligence officer. Understand that in its entire history MI5 had never had anyone from the inside talking about their activities. Unlike the United States in the 1970s MI5 had no Parliamentary oversight, was not subject to any judicial review, did not discuss its activities, and its funding was largely done by blank cheque. It literally was a law unto itself. In theory it reported to the Home Secretary, in practice it is hard to assess reports if there is no way to find out from other sources whether you are being fed the whole story or merely misleading fragments.

The political landscape that greeted Wright’s book, however, was very different. The Labour Party was under its second ineffectual leader (Neil Kinnock after Michael Foot), the SDP had broken the Labour Party internally by splintering the bourgeois and intellectual right wing off from the moderates and hard left, and Margaret Thatcher’s open economic warfare against the industrial base had fundamentally weakened the position of the Trades Unions; abroad the Soviet Union was in an economic death spiral at home and a military quagmire in Afghanistan, while the United States was in a bullish and bellicose frame of mind.

So, the foundations for an investigation into MI5 were simply not there. Instead, the then Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher acted swiftly to ban the book on the grounds of national security. The Australians, who thankfully always enjoy poking fun at the British establishment, stepped into the breach and published the book there. What followed was one of the most bizarre but instructive demonstrations about how far Britain is from being a genuine liberal democracy. Unabashed at how embarrassing this was for Britain’s democratic credentials, the British power elite pursued a futile court case to get the book banned in Australia while books were shipped into the UK and sold along roadsides by private individuals. It’s not often that the British get off their knees and do something worthwhile through individual acts of subversion, but this has to be acknowledged as one of their finer moments.

Eventually because of the attention of overseas press, the sheer volume of copies coming into the UK, and the plain draconian absurdity of banning a book in the UK, the British courts accepted the fait accompli and allowed the book to be published. Later the European Court of Human Rights found the British government in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights in suppressing the book. With these events receding into the past MI5 themselves have reverted to the bald faced cheek of claiming that this was all in Harold Wilson’s head.

Yet. YET. Yet the British state did absolutely nothing about the most important allegations contained in Wright’s book. Namely that the British spy agency had acted to discredit and destabilise the elected government of the country. Those charges were never examined; at the time because the Labour Party had been out of office for so long, because its credibility was damaged so badly, and because New Labour had emerged, unashamed at its open toadying to the financial elite, the issue was dropped. The last individual to attempt to open up MI5’s files was George Galloway, who was impolitely blocked by the City of London Quislings of New Labour. With Harold Wilson dead it seemed like the issue would be buried for ever. But this is to underestimate the abyss of moral corruption represented by MI5 and the contempt they have for the intelligence and integrity of the British public. Because the fact is not only did they conduct a smear campaign against Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s, they never stopped smearing Harold Wilson and redoubled their efforts during the Trojan Horse governments of Tony Blair.