Spies like us

In 1949, George Orwell claimed that the <em>NS</em> 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

Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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