Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
19 November 2001

How MI5 watched the left’s riff-raff

Newly released files reveal damning details of British intelligence, reports Robert Taylor

By Robert Taylor

His left-wing opinions may have been well known, but Sir Stafford Cripps, Christian gentleman barrister and later Labour chancellor of the exchequer, seemed an unlikely subversive. Even MI5 was forced to admit in the 1930s that “he was never a Communist Party member or even sympathetic in the strictest sense”. Yet Britain’s intelligence services built up a dossier on the venerable statesman because they were alarmed by his “supporters”, whom they saw as “more politically dangerous than the riff-raff of which the party rank and file is largely composed”.

Snooty comments on the “riff-raff” of the left pepper the batch of intelligence files just released at the Public Record Office. It is unclear how many more files remain for exposure (so far 1,120 MI5 files are open to scrutiny) but this latest batch – the eighth and largest to be released – fully vindicates those radicals who claim that the 20th-century British state erected a substantial and intricate system of surveillance aimed mainly at the left.

Most of the newly revealed files are on private individuals – and many are on left-wingers who hardly counted as men of power or subversion. H N Brailsford, the eminent historian and journalist, was the subject of detailed surveillance, mainly because of his opposition to military conscription during the First World War. It was noted that his “articles are doubly dangerous as they contained a substance of truth and he did not make the mistake, made by his pacifist friends, of overstating his case”. As late as 1943, poor old Brailsford was being condemned by some in the military as a “renegade Englishman”, a charge MI5 was sensible enough to contest.

Morgan Phillips Price, Moscow correspondent of the Manchester Guardian at the time of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, also attracted close attention from the service. Today the Public Record Office says “there is no evidence to suggest he was ever fully a member of the Communist Party”, yet this did not stop M15 from building up three bulky files on his activities. In 1918, C P Scott, the Guardian‘s editor, sacked Price, writing in a letter (a copy of which is in the intelligence material) that “it doesn’t do, as our correspondent, to be carrying on Bolshevik propaganda”. An MI5 officer added: “Your taking up PP’s Bolshevik activities with Mr Scott appears to have borne fruit.” Price’s bank statements were examined and his accountant contacted in a flurry of intelligence-gathering on the journalist, described as “a man of extreme views, possessing an intense hatred of Great Britain”. Even when he went on to respectability as a Labour MP for the Forest of Dean and justice of the peace, his file was kept open until 1946 and he was accused of funding the Communist Party in Gloucestershire.

Intelligence operations against the left grew in intensity during the Great War and the introduction of military conscription. The newly formed National Council for Civil Liberties was a particular object of secret surveillance, meriting five files up to 1934. “Are the people worth taking up?” asks one MI5 enthusiast. “The pro-German, anti-war party such as Norman Angell and R MacDonald [future Labour prime minister] and co. There may be German money behind this.” “No,” comes the sensible reply, “unless [there is] more tangible evidence.”

Select and enter your email address Your new guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture each weekend - from the New Statesman. A quick and essential guide to domestic politics from the New Statesman's Westminster team. A weekly newsletter helping you understand the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email. Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

British Communist Party members came under the closest surveillance of all, especially between the wars. The files reveal widespread phone-tapping of leading comrades – Victor Montagu, Shapurji Saklatvala and the industrial organiser George Allison, among others – the interception and copying of their mail, and persistent shadowing of their movements. MI5 made no similar effort to cover the extremists of the right: it was Stalin’s Soviet Union, not Nazi Germany, that intelligence saw as the likelier enemy in war – at least until 1939.

Content from our partners
How placemaking can drive productivity in cities – with PwC
The UK needs SMEs to reach net zero
To truly tackle regional disparities, we need a new type of devolution

What is also revealing is a 1935 memorandum laying down the service’s attitude to the party. Some wanted to have “every individual communist in this country properly taped up [to M15 headquarters] with an additional undefined number of sympathisers and associates”. This idea was rejected on grounds of cost-effectiveness. Still, there were 3,000 “security points” covering communists. Lists of comrades were pruned and sent to local chief constables for use in time of national emergency. Leaders were targeted, “because from them (via Moscow) must emanate the orders and instructions to act”.

Files released also reveal the casual anti-Semitism of military intelligence. Trotsky is not only described as a Jew but as a man “with one or two of the virtues and many of the vices” of that race. The preponderance of Jews in the Bolshevik leadership is commented on as well.

It was not until 1939 that the right started to interest the service, particularly the Tory MP and anti-Semite Archibald Ramsay and his Right Club. Ramsay was interned a year later when discovered to be involved with an Italian count and Tyler Kent, a cipher clerk at the US embassy in London, in gathering sensitive material on Churchill and Roosevelt.

Thankfully the service was not short of unintended humour. One report in 1937 suggests Stalin wanted to hire a killer to assassinate General Franco during the Spanish civil war. He favoured a “young Englishman, a journalist of good family, an idealist and fanatical anti-Nazi”. Somebody in M15 on an unspecified date scrawls in the margin, “Philby?”.