Intelligence services specialise in deception. So when MI5 decides to mark the centenary of its foundation with an “authorised history” it is sensible to take it with a pinch of salt.
The Defence of the Realm by Christopher Andrews offers some intriguing details of MI5 operations, including revelations that it spied on trade union and CND leaders with the backing of ministers.
It also discusses MI5’s role in countering industrial militancy during the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, though Andrews attributes this to goading by politicians.
However, it also denies some of the most damning stories to have emerged about MI5’s role in British politics.
In particular, the account dismisses revelations by Peter Wright, author of Spycatcher, of MI5 plots against Harold Wilson’s Labour administration.
Wright, a former MI5 officer, revealed that the agency considered Wilson a “Soviet agent”, had tried to prevent his election in 1974, and later considered an attempt to oust him from office.
According to another former MI5 agent, James Miller, MI5 promoted the Ulster Workers Council strike of 1974 in order to destabilise his incoming administration.
A former MI5 senior information officer, Colin Wallace, who was framed for murder in 1980, made similar claims.
He alleged that MI5 had engaged in a conspiracy known as Operation Clockwork Orange, designed to smear senior politicians, including Wilson.
Wallace was initially dismissed as a “Walter Mitty-style” fantasist, but as journalist Paul Foot discovered, he was often able to document his claims.
In 1990, the Tory government acknowledged the truth of many of Wallace’s claims, and in 1996 his murder conviction was quashed.
Despite acknowledging that there was a file kept on Wilson, Andrews dismisses the idea that there was any kind of conspiracy against him.
The trouble with this dismissal is that the author, as befits an “authorised” history, has to rely on official records in rebutting the account of numerous witnesses.
This raises the question of how reliable MI5’s official records are.
When it comes to the Miners’ Strike, Andrews attributes MI5’s attempts to undermine the miners’ NUM union to Margaret Thatcher’s government zealously egging them on.
MI5’s own account has always stressed that it only targeted those deemed subversive, even if that included the NUM’s three national leaders.
However, the extent of these activities, some of which are disclosed in Seumas Milne’s book The Enemy Within, suggest that MI5 was more than capable of taking its own initiative.
The security services bugged the leading activists and fed the information they gleaned to the police and more shadowy organisations.
A lawful industrial dispute was illegally undermined by those who say their job is to uphold the rule of law.
Nonetheless, despite the fact that Andrews plainly lacks access to the relevant information, he confidently asserts that “it is clear” that MI5 “was determined that the Service’s role during the strike should not go beyond the terms of its charter”.
In what sense this could be “clear” given that MI5 shrouds its activities in secrecy is anyone’s guess.
But then, the very idea that such a history, relying on the security services themselves as its primary source of information, would provide a complete and impartial view of MI5’s role in British politics is laughable.
Richard Seymour runs the Lenin's Tomb blog » www.leninology.blogspot.com