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Spies like us

In 1949, George Orwell claimed that the NS was a warren of communists and fellow-travellers. Yet up to the 1950s, it was anything goes; information, disinformation, propaganda black or grey — all in a day’s work for either Queen and country or Mo

It should come as no surprise to those who know about the New Statesman’s history that in the 1940s and 1950s a number of the staff “walked on both sides of the street”. They were reputed to be serving the communist cause while also reporting to the British secret services. In 1949 George Orwell gave the government’s Information Research Department a notorious blacklist of “cryptocommunists and fellow-travellers . . . who should not be trusted as propagandists”.

It included the NS editor, Kingsley Martin, and a future editor, Richard Crossman (although Orwell thought he was “too dishonest to be outright FT”), the revered columnist J B Priestley, Dorothy Woodman (another NS writer, who was Martin’s partner) and the assistant editor Norman Mackenzie, though he was qualified by a question mark.

Yet at the same time, according to Anthony Howard, who edited the NS from 1972-78, the staff’s “FTs” were also reporting to MI6: “The relationship between journalism and the Secret Intelligence Services has always been a grey one. It was probably most closely consummated in the offices of the left-wing New Statesman.”

The most inscrutable “double agent” was another assistant editor, Aylmer Vallance. He turned up at the “Staggers” offices at the outbreak of war in 1939 wearing the uniform of a lieutenant colonel in the War Office; yet he was also about to marry a member of the Communist Party who was close to its general secretary, Harry Pollitt, and others in its leadership. At the end of the war, Lieutenant Colonel Vallance slipped this unsigned editorial into the NSwhile it was at the printers, thereby avoiding the red pencil:

Its foundations [the new world order]  must be based firmly on recognition of the essential unity of the working people of all nations. Their needs and desires – work and security and a “dinner of herbs where love is” – are one and the same. The Captains and the Kings have made, between them, a century of greed, aggression, hatred and blood. They may now depart. (12 May 1945)

George VI and the Chief Captain (Churchill) had just received the ovation of the crowd at Buckingham Palace. Leonard Woolf, who was one of the directors of the NS and editing the paper that week, was furious: “It [the leader] is full of the slants, snides, sneers, and smears which Communists and Fellow Travellers habitually employ as means for building a perfect society,” he wrote.

During most of the war a dual allegiance cannot have mattered much. The enemy was fascism. The policy of the NS was the same as the government’s: to encourage uprisings in the occupied countries so that they might lead to the creation of democratic socialist states after the war. Let us “set Europe ablaze”, Churchill exhorted; hence Martin and Crossman wrote 100,000,000 Allies – If We Choose. Vallance called his son Tito. Basil Davidson (a favourite to succeed Martin as editor in the late 1950s) parachuted in to Yugoslavia to assist the communist partisans.

NS writers doubled up by working clandestinely as propagandists for the Political Warfare Executive. Ritchie Calder, the science correspondent, was a founder of PWE. Crossman, described as “a master of the art of psychological warfare” in the PWE official history, pulled off a coup by persuading Bomber Harris to broadcast on the BBC German Service telling the “enslaved peoples” to sabotage the Nazi transport systems. This was “grey” rather than “black” propaganda – the “big lie”.

A very successful example of the big lie was Soldatensender Calais. It was a fake radio service, purporting to come from German military radio stations in France but in fact broadcast into the Nazi empire from a powerful transmitter hidden on the South Downs. Gracie Fields sang “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World”, and so the transmitter was codenamed Aspidistra. NS writers contributed to Soldatensender Calais, which recorded off-air German domestic programmes, spliced into them highly convincing and destabilising propaganda, and broadcast them back. Information? Disinformation? Propaganda? It was all part of the journalistic stock-in-trade.

The NS had form. The very first editor, Clifford Sharp, had worked secretly for the Foreign Office Political Intelligence Department from 1918-19, writing strongly anti-Bolshevik reports. When these later appeared in the NS the content had changed to a condemnation of counter-revolutionary excesses, because Sharp had decided that the paper needed to move left to catch the postwar mood.

The Second World War was followed by the cold war and it became very nasty from the late 1940s. Dual allegiances to Britain and the Soviet Union were severely tested. Norman Mackenzie was the NS’s expert on communism. When he left for academia in 1962, the editor, John Freeman, wrote:

He has long been our expert on communist affairs on both sides of the Iron Curtain. His interpretation of the Soviet CP since Stalin has proved far more accurate in his prognosis than many of his more publicized rivals in the field.

This was because Mackenzie visited eastern Europe many times in the 1950s; there, his reputation as a “fellow-traveller” smoothed his path while his MI6 contacts led him to inside knowledge. An extraordinary instance of this is the highly confidential information Mackenzie was given on a pedalo at a Bulgarian Black Sea resort late in 1955. Khrushchev had just tipped off the Cominform at a secret meeting in Sofia about the extent of Stalin’s purges, fully four months before he stunned the communist world by revealing them at the notorious 20th Party Congress. Mackenzie’s Bulgarian contact had memorised much of Khrushchev’s disclosures and repeated the content to Mackenzie at their meeting. It was a great scoop – but nobody was interested. Neither MI6 nor the Foreign Office, not even Kingsley Martin, wanted to take any action. When Mackenzie read reports of Khrushchev’s speech the following February he recognised passages word for word.

Mackenzie had been, first, a member of the Marxist socialist Independent Labour Party and then, briefly, a Communist before he joined the Labour Party in 1943. He sometimes wrote for Telepress, a Soviet-backed news agency in Fleet Street. Leonard Woolf once described him as “the most dangerous man in the New Statesman”, which Mackenzie found “rather strange”. At the same time he had a succession of “minders” at MI6 dating from the early 1940s. As the war broke up and eastern Europe fell into the Soviet-occupied zone, so increasingly he travelled into communist Europe on an MI6 ticket, though he received no other payment. His special areas were Romania and Bulgaria.

On one occasion he was caught photographing the outside of a prison camp near Bucharest and was briefly imprisoned before being moved to a hotel, still under arrest.

Here, he heard the mellifluous sounds of David Oistrakh’s violin floating through his window. Soon afterwards he was handed two tickets by the security operatives – one was an air ticket to London, the other a ticket to an Oistrakh concert. Mackenzie said the whole episode was like “a fairy tale” but that can’t be how it appeared then. Many years later he met an old friend at a school reunion who sounded embarrassed: “I’ve been feeling guilty all these years. Didn’t I see you in chains on Bucharest station?”

Mackenzie confessed it was true and added that he had begun to worry when the plane transporting him out of Romania appeared to be heading towards the Soviet Union. “I gather you’re doing useful work in the Balkans,” said Kingsley Martin enigmatically when he returned to the office.

Anthony Howard, who began writing for the NS in 1956, recalled that after one press trip to eastern Europe he noticed a colleague reporting to MI6. “When I raised the matter with him, he got quite shirty and inquired whether I regarded myself as a patriot or not?” The trouble with walking on both sides of the street is that it’s often not clear which direction you’re walking in.

With Mackenzie there can be no doubt. In the spring of 1956, at Martin’s request, he travelled to Budapest to assist a former NS writer and BBC broadcaster, Pál Ignotus, who had just been released from jail following the Khrushchev disclosures. Ignotus had spent the war years in London but had decided to risk a return visit to the land of his birth in 1949, just after Hungary had become a communist state under the severely repressive Mátyás Rákosi.

Aylmer Vallance’s daughter remembers her father urging him not to go back; so did Mackenzie. They were right to do so, because Ignotus was then thrown into prison, tortured and locked in solitary confinement.

There is a coda to this story. On his release, Ignotus married Florence, the woman from the neighbouring cell, with whom he had exchanged months of increasingly romantic “tapping” messages without once seeing her. They decided to remain in Hungary but fled in November 1956 after the Soviet puppet János Kádár betrayed the ideals of the October Revolution.

The next year Mackenzie was one of the first journalists to detect vote-rigging in the Electrical Trades Union which fixed ETU elections for far-left candidates. As Freeman wrote: “It was entirely due to his foresight that the NS became committed to liberate ETU members from the communist caucus.”

Aylmer Vallance was more inscrutable. At the start of the war he was 47. He had joined the intelligence services in 1915, had played the “Great Game” in the Himalayas and had been sacked from the editorship of the News Chronicle over a sex scandal. He had spent many a weekend at a Scottish castle fly fishing, drinking heavily with his house party and then driving back down to London for a Monday editorial meeting. He looked like a Scottish laird and behaved more like a bon vivant than an earnest socialist. Yet he was a consummate journalist who turned out wellinformed copy on finance, fisheries and food, filling any gap at short notice where necessary when a few hundred words were required. He was on the staff of the NS from 1937.

His job at the War Office was to liaise with the press for news management. In this role, in December 1939, he wrote to the BBC and suggested that P G Wodehouse, or “Beachcomber”, should give evening talks to counteract Lord Haw-Haw’s “ingenious” propaganda broadcasts from Hamburg.

Staff on the New Statesman joked that his work at the War Office really was so secret that even he did not know what it was.

So, on which side of the street did Vallance walk? One verdict comes from C H Rolph, who ought to know because he joined the NS and worked as assistant editor with Vallance after 25 years as a serving police officer.

It seems likely enough that [in the 1940s] he was playing a fairly devious game, using the New Statesmanwith the knowledge of the Intelligence Department to plant useful items of pro-Allied propaganda, but also planting, under cover of the two-way prestige this gave him, “fellow-travelling” material about war theatres like Yugoslavia. This was a source of constant friction; and the commonly heard accusation that the New Statesman was a fellow-travelling paper was due not only to Kingsley’s ambivalence about Russia, but also to Aylmer’s stealthy insistence on putting in [to editorials], deliberately too late for censorship or amendment, extreme statements about eastern Europe.

Edward Hyams, who also worked for the NSduring this time and later wrote its official history, considered Vallance a political cynic: “His technical skill and inexhaustible goodwill were not supported by any faith in causes or, indeed, in the destiny of mankind.” Given the chance, Hyams said, Vallance would have turned the NSinto another Canard enchaîné– that is, an investigative journal best known for its satire and jokes. These two views are not contradictory.

Disappointingly, I have only a few circumstantial clues to add. Vallance resigned his army commission in 1945 but kept and used his title of lieutenant colonel until 1954. He travelled behind the Iron Curtain during this time and used Gateway Tours, a travel agency in Highgate, north London, rumoured to be a money-laundering front for MI6. On one occasion when his son, Tito, introduced himself at a London club, the response was: “Not Aylmer’s son? He was a damned fine intelligence agent.”

Nonetheless, while Vallance was working for Telepress, Hugh Gaitskell’s wife, Dora – a White Russian – considered the NS a nest of communist spies and described Vallance arrestingly as “Stalin dressed up as a nun”.

And finally, until the end of the 1940s he was married to Helen (née Gosse). Family scrapbooks show her with Olive Parsons, Eva Reckitt, Bill Rust and other “inner-circle” members of the Communist Party. Extraordinary that she was married to a lieutenant colonel in the intelligence services.

Visited frequently in his last months by John Freeman, Vallance died in 1955. In 1995 Freeman wrote to Tito: “My own friendship with him was close and very rewarding. And yet, looking back 40 years and more, I realise that I never really knew who he was or what he believed in.”

Hugh Purcell’s most recent book is “The Last English Revolutionary: Tom Wintringham” (Sussex Academic Press, £19.95) Read his profile of John Freeman at: newstatesman.com

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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