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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:

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

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Paul Mason: How the left should respond to Brexit

It's up to the labour movement to rescue the elite from the self-inflected wound of Brexit.

For the first time in a generation there is a tangible split between the Tory leadership and the business elite. Forget the 41 per cent poll rating, forget Theresa May’s claim to have moved towards “the centre”; the most important thing to emerge since the Tory conference is a deep revulsion, among wide sections of normally Conservative voters, at the xenophobia, nationalism and economic recklessness on display.

Rhetorically, May has achieved a lot. She quashed any possibility of a soft Brexit strategy. She ended 30 years of openness to migration. She scrapped the Tories’ commitment to balanced books by 2020 – though she neglected to replace this keystone policy with anything else. And she pledged to stop constitutional scrutiny over the Brexit process from Holyrood, Westminster or the courts.

Yet in reality she achieved nothing. May’s government is not in control of the crucial process that will define its fate – the Brexit negotiations. And on Scotland, she has triggered a sequence of events that could lead to the end of the UK within the next five years.

In the light of this, the left has to be refocused around the facts that have emerged since the referendum on 23 June. Britain will leave the EU – but it faces a choice between May’s hubristic nonsense and a strategy to salvage 30 years of engagement with the biggest market in the world. Scotland will hold its second referendum. Labour will be led through all this by a man who, for the first time in the party’s history, cannot be relied on to do the elite’s bidding.

Brexit, on its own, need not have caused a great shift in British politics. It is the new, visceral split between Tory xenophobia and the implicitly liberal and globalist culture in most boardrooms that makes this a turning point. It is a challenge for the left as big as the ones Labour faced in 1931, when the gold standard collapsed; or in 1940, when the reality of total war dawned. It represents a big opportunity – but only if we jolt our brains out of the old patterns, think beyond party allegiances, and react fast.

Let’s start with the facts around which May, Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd constructed their rhetorical body swerve at the Tory conference. Britain is £1.7trn in debt. Its budget deficit cannot be eradicated by 2020 because, even on the steroids of quantitative easing, growth is low, wages are stagnant and its trade situation deeply negative. Austerity, in short, did not work.

With sterling weakened, by next year we’ll begin to feel the pressure of imported inflation on real wages, re-creating the economic pain of 2011-12. On top of that, by attempting a “hard Brexit”, May has created damaging uncertainty for investment that no degree of short-term positivity can mitigate. Even if the range of outcomes only widens, investment will get delayed – and with May’s commitment to hard Brexit the range of outcomes will get significantly worse: 7.5 per cent lopped off GDP, according to a leaked Treasury assessment.

Civil servants believe Britain’s negotiating position is so weak that it will have to leverage its intelligence-providing services to Europe and concede “free movement of high-skilled workers”, just to persuade the French and the Germans to cut any kind of decent bilateral deal. Yet in the two years of brinkmanship that begin when Article 50 is triggered, the EU27 will have no reason whatsoever to concede favourable terms for bilateral trade. By adopting hard Brexit and hard xenophobia, Theresa May has scheduled a 24-month slow-motion car crash.

To orient the Labour Party, trade unions and the wider progressive movement, we need first to understand the scale of the break from normality. Labour already faced deep problems. First, without Scotland it cannot govern; yet many of its members in Scotland are so dislocated from the progressive Scottish national movement that the party is bereft of answers.

Next, the old relationship between the urban salariat and the ex-industrial working class has inverted. With a vastly expanded membership, Labour is the de facto party of the urban salariat. Its heartland is Remainia – the cities that voted to stay in Europe. Its electoral battlegrounds are now places such as Bury, Nuneaton, Corby and Portsmouth, where the “centre” (as measured by the Lib Dem vote) has collapsed, to be replaced by thousands of Green voters and thousands more voting Ukip.

This was the known problem on the eve of Brexit, though layers of Labour MPs and councillors refused to understand it or respond to it. The solution to it was, even at that point, obvious: Labour can only attract back a million Green voters and hundreds of thousands of Ukip voters in winnable marginals with a combination of social liberalism and economic radicalism.

The alternative, as outlined in the Blue Labour project of Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas, was an overt return to social conservatism. That cannot work, because it might win back some ex-Labour Ukip voters but could not inspire Labour’s new urban core to go on the doorstep and fight for it. On the contrary, it could easily inspire many of them to tear up their membership cards.

A new strategy – to combine social liberalism, multiculturalism and environmentalism with left-wing economic policies aimed at reviving the “communities left behind” – was, for me, always the heart of Corbynism. Jeremy Corbyn himself, whatever his personal strengths and weaknesses, was a placeholder for a political strategy.

Brexit, the attempted Labour coup and the Tory swing to hard Brexit have changed things all over again. And Labour’s leadership needs to move fast into the political space that has opened up. The starting point is to understand May’s administration as a regime of crisis. It is held together by rhetoric and a vacuum of press scrutiny, exacerbated by Labour’s civil war and the SNP’s perennial dithering over strategy to achieve Scottish independence. The crisis consists of the perils of hard Brexit combined with a tangible split between the old party of capital and capital itself. The elite – the bankers, senior managers, the super-rich and the ­upper middle class – do not want Brexit. Nor does a significant proportion of Middle Britain’s managerial and investing classes.




All this presents Labour with a series of achievable goals – as an opposition in Westminster, in London, as the likely winner in many of the forthcoming mayoral battles, and at Holyrood. The first aim should be: not just oppose hard Brexit, but prevent it. This entails the Labour front bench committing to an attempt to remain inside the European Economic Area.

The wariness – shared by some on the Corbyn side, as well as the Labour right – is born of the assumption that if you commit to the single market, you must accept free movement of labour. The party’s new spokesman on Brexit, Keir Starmer, expressed perfectly what is wrong with this approach: first it’s a negotiation, not a finished relationship; second, you start from the economics, not the migration issue.

Leaving the single market will be a macroeconomic disaster, compounded by a social catastrophe, in which all the European protections – of citizens’ rights, labour rights, consumer and environmental standards – will get ripped up. That’s why the Labour front bench must commit to staying inside the single market, while seeking a deal on free movement that gives Britain time and space to restructure its labour market.

John McDonnell’s “red lines”, produced hurriedly in the days after Brexit, embody this principle – but not explicitly. McDonnell has said Labour would vote against any Brexit deal that did not involve some form of single-market access, and preserve the City’s passporting arrangement, where banks are authorised to trade across an entire area without having to be incorporated separately in each country. Freedom of movement is not included in the red lines.

May, meanwhile, insists there will be no parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiating stance, or of the outcome. This position cannot stand, and overthrowing it provides a big, early target for Labour and the other opposition parties. They should use their constitutional influence – not only in Westminster but at Holyrood, Cardiff and the mayor-run cities, to bust open the Conservatives’ secrecy operation.

By declaring – formally, in a written pact – that they will refuse to ratify a Brexit deal based on World Trade Organisation tariffs, the progressive parties can destroy May’s negotiating position in Brussels overnight. Let the Conservative press accuse us of being “citizens of the world”, undermining the national interest. They will dig their own political grave even faster.

In parallel, Labour needs to lead – intellectually, morally and practically – the fight for a coherent, pro-globalist form of Brexit. In order for this to embody the spirit of the referendum, it would have to include some repatriation of sovereignty, as well as a significant, temporary retreat from freedom of movement. That means – and my colleagues on the left need to accept this – that the British people, in effect, will have changed Labour’s position on immigration from below, by plebiscite.

In response, Labour needs to design a proposal that permits and encourages high beneficial migration, discourages and mitigates the impact of low-wage migration and – forgotten in the rush to “tinder box” rhetoric by the Blairites – puts refugees at the front of the queue, not the back. At its heart must be the assurance, already given to three million EU-born workers, that they will not be used as any kind of bargaining chip and their position here is inviolable.

Finally Labour needs to get real about Scotland. The recent loss of the council by-election in Garscadden, with a 20 per cent swing to the SNP, signals that the party risks losing Glasgow City Council next year.

It is a problem beyond Corbyn’s control: his key supporters inside Scottish Labour are long-standing and principled left-wing opponents of nationalism. Which would be fine if tens of thousands of left-wing social democrats were not enthused by a new, radical cultural narrative of national identity. Corbyn’s natural allies – the thousands of leftists who took part in the Radical Independence Campaign – are trapped outside the party, sitting inside the Scottish Greens, Rise or the left of the SNP.

The interim solution is for Scottish Labour to adopt the position argued by its deputy leader, Alex Rowley: embrace “home rule” – a rejigged devo-max proposal – and support a second independence referendum. Then throw open the doors to radical left-wing supporters of independence. If, for that to happen, there has to be a change of leadership (replacing Kezia Dugdale), then it’s better to do it before losing your last bastion in local government.

The speed with which Labour’s challenge has evolved is a signal that this is no ordinary situation. To understand how dangerous it would be to cling to the old logic, you have only to extrapolate the current polls into an electoral ground war plan. Sticking to the old rules, Labour HQ should – right now – be planning a defensive campaign to avoid losing 60 seats to May. Instead, it can and must lay a plan to promote her administration’s chaotic demise. It should have the ambition to govern – either on its own, or with the support of the SNP at Westminster.

To achieve this, it must confront the ultimate demon: Labour must show willing to make an alliance with the globalist section of the elite. Tony Blair’s equivocation about a return to politics, the constant noise about a new centrist party, and signs of a Lib Dem revival in local by-elections are all straws in the wind. If significant sections of the middle class decide they cannot live with Tory xenophobia, the liberal centre will revive.

The best thing for Labour to do now is to claim as much of the high ground before that. It must become the party of progressive Brexit. The worst thing would be to start worrying about “losing the traditional working class”.

The “traditional working class” knows all too well how virulent Ukip xenophobia is: Labour and trade union members spend hours at the pub and in the workplace and on the doorstep arguing against it.

All over Britain, the labour movement is a line, drawn through working-class communities, which says that migrants are not to blame for poor housing, education, low pay and dislocated communities. For the first time in a generation Labour has a leader prepared to say who is to blame: the neoliberal elite and their addiction to privatisation, austerity and low wages.

It was the elite’s insouciance over the negative impacts of EU migration on the lowest-skilled, together with their determination to suppress class politics inside Labour, that helped get us into this mess. An alliance with some of them, to achieve soft Brexit, democratic scrutiny and to defeat xenophobic solutions, must be conditional.

We, the labour movement, will dig the British ruling class out of a self-made hole, just as we did in May 1940. The price is: no return to the philosophy of poverty and inequality; a strategic new deal, one that puts state ownership, redistribution and social justice at the heart of post-Brexit consensus.

That is the way forward. If Labour politicians can bring themselves to explain it clearly, cajole the party apparatus out of its epic sulk and make a brave new offer to Scotland – it can work. But time is important. We are up against a corrosive nationalist bigotry that now echoes direct from the front page of the Daily Mail to Downing Street. Every day it goes unchallenged it will seep deeper into Britain’s political pores.

Paul Mason is the author of “PostCapitalism: a Guide to Our Future” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge