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MI5, the Cold War, and the Rule of Law$

Keith Ewing, Joan Mahoney, and Andrew Moretta

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780198818625

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198818625.001.0001

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Democracy under Surveillance

Democracy under Surveillance

(p.130) 6 Democracy under Surveillance
MI5, the Cold War, and the Rule of Law

Ewing Mahoney

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on MPs, about whom concerns are rightly raised when questions turn to who is a legitimate surveillance target. While it might be hard to argue that MPs should always be protected from surveillance, the circumstances in which such action might be authorized ought nevertheless to be quite exceptional. The chapter then assesses the reasons why an MP might have been under surveillance; the different forms that surveillance might take; and the role of the Prime Minister in encouraging or forbidding surveillance of particular MPs. Although there is some evidence of letter opening and phone tapping, much of the material collected about targeted MPs came principally from collateral sources. The close surveillance of the Communist Party in particular helped to keep watch on the two Communist Party MPs elected after the war, and also helped to nourish many other KV files, including those of prominent Labour MPs, by no means all of which have been released.

Keywords:   MPs, surveillance targets, surveillance, Prime Minister, letter opening, phone tapping, Communist Party, KV files, Labour MPs, Communist Party MPs

I. Introduction

In chapter four we considered the use of surveillance powers against a wide range of organizations and individuals. The other group to stand out are MPs, about whom concerns are rightly raised when questions turn to who is a legitimate surveillance target. MPs enjoy a special place in a parliamentary democracy, received constitutional wisdom suggesting that they have responsibilities to their electors, to their party, and to the country as a whole.1 In discharging these responsibilities, MPs provide advice to constituents who have disputes with government departments; they provide political opposition to government, which they have a responsibility to hold to account; and, of course, they form the government, with constitutional practice requiring ministers to be recruited from Parliament. It would be hardly consistent with the performance of these duties if for uncertain purposes a State agency should snoop and pry on MPs to find out the advice they are giving, the steps they are taking to oppose the government, and the policies they are developing while in government.

As we saw in Chapter 3, the Attlee Directive introduced a number of key principles, including the direct responsibility of MI5 to the Prime Minister, the obligation to confine its activities to those necessary for the defence of the realm, and to avoid intervention in matters of a party-political character. But neither the Attlee Directive nor the Maxwell Fyfe Directive thereafter said anything about the legitimate targets of MI5’s surveillance, and notably made no direct reference to MPs. This raises questions about whether MI5 should concern itself with the actions of MPs. Should MPs be protected from surveillance by the Security Service, or should they be treated in the same way as any other citizen, regardless of the constitutional role they perform? While it might be hard to argue that MPs should always be protected from surveillance (such as where there is suspicion of having committed a serious offence), the circumstances in which such action might be authorized ought nevertheless to be quite exceptional.

The difficulties raised by the foregoing questions are compounded by the fact that the Security Service acted under political direction, and it was the Prime Minister, and subsequently the Home Secretary, on whom lay the unenviable duty (p.131) to attempt to ensure that the Service must not concern itself with party-political matters. But apart from the Attlee and the Maxwell Fyfe Directives, parliamentary privilege provided the only other possible restraint, though it appears to have been accepted since 1735 that ‘it is a high infringement of the privileges’ of MPs for their letters to be ‘open[ed] or looked into’, without the authority of a warrant signed by a Secretary of State.2 These terms of a House of Commons resolution were subsequently interpreted to be ‘a clear recognition by the House of the right of the Secretary of State to intercept Members’ postal packets by the use of an express warrant’.3 In the absence of any question having arisen about phone tapping, it was thought ‘probable that the rulings concerning letters would extend by analogy to telephones’.4

So far as MPs are concerned, MI5 and its political masters otherwise had pretty much a free hand. In this chapter, we consider some of the evidence from the KV files as to how that hand was played. In the course of doing so, we examine the reasons why an MP might have been under surveillance (usually ‘subversion’—essentially a suspected connection of some kind with the Communist Party); the different forms that surveillance might take; and the role of the Prime Minister in encouraging or forbidding surveillance of particular MPs. Although there is some evidence of letter opening and phone tapping, much of the material collected about targeted MPs came principally from collateral sources. The close surveillance of the Communist Party in particular helped to keep watch on the two Communist Party MPs elected after the war, and also helped to nourish many other KV files, including those of prominent Labour MPs, by no means all of which have been released.5

II. Phil Piratin MP

At the general election in 1935, William Gallacher was the first MP to be elected on an exclusively Communist Party platform, winning West Fife from Labour, a seat (p.132) he held until 1950.6 Following the general election in 1945, Gallacher was joined by Phil Piratin, with Harry Pollitt just missing out in South Wales. As the experience of Phil Piratin in this Part shows, Communist Party MPs were subject to intense levels of surveillance, their parliamentary candidature being an excuse for more rather than less surveillance: there was little respect by MI5 for the office the MPs held, or the choices made by their constituents. Although there is no evidence of HOWs being issued to intercept their communications, the HOWs in place in relation to the Party allowed MI5 to pick up a lot of information about the Party’s MPs, as did the hidden microphones in King Street. It is also the case that surveillance was used for wholly destructive political purposes, and could not conceivably be said to be limited to the defence of the realm.

1. Special Branch and Elections

It started with the election campaign, with Communist candidates subject to very close surveillance by Special Branch, with detailed Special Branch reports being written in the aftermath of each constituency campaign.7 These were all deposited in the candidates’ MI5 files, as well as in their Special Branch files. In the case of Phil Piratin, a notable entry is a Special Branch report of an election meeting he addressed on 1 June 1945 as prospective parliamentary candidate. The officer present was clearly unimpressed, commenting that Piratin’s speech contained ‘nothing new or novel in the annals of communist addresses’, and ‘the same time worn phrases were given from the rostrum’.8 In a file entry a few weeks later, an intercepted phone conversation between two Party activists (Roland Berger and Alf Maizels) records one (Berger) asking the other (Maizels) if he had ‘any stuff on Frankel’, Frankel being the incumbent Labour member for Mile End, the constituency being contested by Piratin.9

After the election, a tightly typed seven-page account of Piratin’s campaign was produced by Special Branch. The report highlighted various strengths of Piratin’s candidature and a number of weaknesses of the Labour incumbent. These strengths related to Piratin’s prodigious work in Stepney, where he was well known, and the efficient campaign waged by the local Party which ensured that Piratin’s message was widely promoted. Full details were also reported of his proposer and (p.133) seconder, as well as his assentors, and the identity of prominent supporters (such as Professors Levy and Haldane) who spoke at his rallies. It was also thought necessary to include in the report the details of the printer of Piratin’s election address, said to be Porteous Ltd (TU), whose chief printer was ‘a close friend and keen supporter’ of Piratin. Finally, the report noted that Piratin had established a close association with the local press, the East London News, which had been ‘more than generous’ in giving space to Piratin’s letters and Communist Party propaganda generally.10

Piratin lost his seat in 1950. So far as the election on 23 February 1950 is concerned, a detailed Special Branch report in Piratin’s MI5 file records that his campaign started as early as 27 October 1949 with a meeting of the Stepney YCL Youth Brigade.11 From that date onwards, the Youth Brigade was involved ‘almost daily’ in an active canvass of the district in favour of Piratin, concentrating mainly in the vicinities of the Limehouse and Watney Street markets and in Petticoat Lane, with Piratin being represented as the candidate for peace. Three individuals were named in the report as being the main organizers of the campaign. In addition, a series of election meetings addressed by Piratin was kicked off by a meeting at Stepney Public Library on 18 January 1950, with three other venues identified (St George’s Town Hall and two schools), along with the organizer of the meetings, who was said to be the newly appointed organizer of the Stepney Communist Party. According to Special Branch, there were no developments of special interest at these election meetings.

In addition, the report gave an account of Piratin’s election literature, with a summary of its content and an account of a pamphlet outlining Communist Party policy. As with the meetings, the literature was said to contain ‘nothing of particular note’. What was significant, however, was the concluding paragraph of the report, in which it was said that:

During the course of the Stepney Communist Party election campaign about thirty motor cars were officially registered as being in use on behalf of the communist candidate. Enquiries are in hand regarding the registered owners of these vehicles and a further report will be submitted in due course.

As it is, the report had already identified the name and address of Piratin’s election agent, as well as his eight ‘assenters’ (along with what appear to be their Special Branch file reference numbers), and eighteen representatives to act as scrutineers, in this case along with their addresses and what appear to be their Special Branch (p.134) file reference numbers. Only in three cases was it not possible to identify the individual from Special Branch records. Quite a haul.

2. Parliamentary Privilege

Once into the House of Commons, the Communist Party MPs were not to be treated with the same respect as the others, or accorded the same courtesies as other members, several of whom revealed themselves as keen combatants in the class war. The latter included the fifth Earl of Winterton, who had served in the House of Commons since 1904 as the Conservative member for Horsham. He had briefly served ignominiously in the Chamberlain government, and in that latter capacity had led the British delegation to the Evian Conference, established to consider the plight of the Jewish refugees in 1938. If his exchange with Phil Piratin in the House of Commons on 12 December 1946 is any guide, he may not have been the best man for that particular job (depending, of course, on the true intentions of participating governments). Although it is quite likely that Piratin was very irritating to non-Communists, on this occasion he interrupted a speech by Brigadier Rayner in a debate on the Indian Constitution, with the following consequences:

(p.135) A week later, Phil Piratin made a personal statement in the House of Commons about his ‘nationality’, which he thought had recently been called into question.13 Referring to the debate on India, Piratin pointed out that he had been described as a ‘foreign Communist’, and subsequently ‘a Communist of foreign descent’. In order that there may be no misunderstanding either to his nationality or allegiance, Piratin rose to make it clear that:

I am a British subject by birth. My father was a Russian. He found refuge in this country, as many before him had done with gratitude, after fleeing from Tsarist persecution in his own country. While it is true, therefore, that I am of foreign descent, that description would apply to many British-born subjects in some degree. For my part, I would merely emphasise that I am a British subject and that I have never considered myself as having any other allegiance.

This was followed by an unseemly row between Winterton and the Speaker, in which the Leader of the Opposition shamelessly intervened on behalf of the oafish Lord. Piratin was by now a spectator, but within an hour of this farce he found himself involved in an altercation in the tea-room with the journalist Thomas Lucy, in which blows were struck, and in the course of which the member for Mile End claimed that anti-semitic views had been expressed by his allegedly racist adversary:

When people want to be offensive, as I have found, to Jewish people . . . the expression is often used ‘You people’. The words ‘You people’ in themselves really have no meaning at all, but when those words are used in an offensive tone, and so on, that is what is implied there . . . I would like a happy conclusion to this investigation, and therefore I am prepared to say this: that if any Member of the Committee asks me, did he at any time say to me ‘You Jew’, I would have to answer ‘No, I cannot (p.136) recall that’. But he kept on making sneering remarks about ‘You people’ and ‘I am better’, and so on and so on.14

Piratin made these latter claims in the course of oral evidence to a Committee of Privileges that had been established to examine the incident in the tea-room after a complaint had been that there had been a breach of privilege.15 The Committee upheld the complaint, finding that the blow struck by Piratin—an amateur boxer in his youth—was a gross contempt of the House, bound to lower the House in the estimation of the public.16 While Lucy escaped censure for this incident, he was called to heel for another matter later that day that was sufficiently insulting as also to constitute a contempt of the House.17 But apart from the fact that the Committee’s report makes no reference to the context within which the altercations took place (the unrepentant abuse by Winterton),18 the Committee (whose members included the Leader of the Opposition) failed completely to address the anti-semitic remarks allegedly made by Lucy. Despite being alluded to consistently by Piratin in the course of his evidence,19 not only were these remarks ignored by the Committee, but the verbatim report of its proceedings show that Piratin was prevented from pursuing the issue, having asked the Committee why they had failed to raise it with Lucy when he appeared before them.20

The report of the Committee of Privileges was debated in the house on 10 February 1947, the debate being opened by Arthur Greenwood, the Lord Privy Seal. Referring to the war, Greenwood continued by saying that:

The country saved its democratic institutions, and especially the Mother of Parliaments, but democracy can live healthily only if people show tolerance to one another. The success of a democratic State depends as much on the conduct of its citizens as on the soundness of its principles. It is sad that, after the House of Commons had vindicated itself and when it had been nourished and re-invigorated by a large number of new hon. Members, whose duty it is to cherish (p.137) the honour and dignity of the House, that a Member of this Assembly, and a member of the Press Gallery should have been guilty of high breach of Privilege.21

Stirring words, even if they do seem a bit over the top for what Churchill referred to as a ‘scuffle in the cafeteria’.22 But it was not unruly behaviour in the tea-room that was the problem revealed by this incident so much as the casual racism of the time, which is encountered also in the Special Branch reports of Piratin’s political meetings, where on one occasion it was apparently necessary for the police officer to report that a meeting of the Stepney Communist Party he attended had ‘an average attendance of 500, mostly Jewish’.23 Nevertheless the House accepted the report of the Committee of Privileges, and—to the evident anger of William Gallacher—placed on record ‘its high displeasure with [Lucy’s and Piratin’s] conduct and its determination to proceed with the utmost severity against future offenders in like cases’.24

3. Surveillance as an MP

Apart from the surveillance of Communist Party electoral candidates, Communist Party members were also subject to surveillance while serving as MPs. This took several forms, including a police presence at a wide range of meetings they addressed outside the House of Commons. One example from Piratin’s file is a meeting at Mile End Baths, organized by the Stepney branch of the Communist Party on 27 January 1946. Addressed by Piratin, the meeting was on the subject of Poland—The Truth, Piratin having recently visited Poland as a part of a parliamentary delegation with seven other MPs. These were the days before television, and the audience of around 500 was on a scale that modern-day backbenchers could only dream, whatever party to which they happened to belong, all the more impressive for the fact that admission was by ticket only at a cost of 1/- or 2/- each. After reporting a few introductory remarks by Jack Gaster and Sam Aaronovitch (both with their Special Branch file numbers), the Special Branch officer reported that Piratin ‘rose to much applause’, before delivering an ‘extremely disjointed’ speech.

Other meetings attended by Special Branch and recorded in MI5 files included a Communist Party meeting at Ilford Town Hall later in 1946 on international relations. This ‘quiet and orderly’ meeting was addressed by Phil Piratin on the subject of ‘Communist Policy on Foreign Affairs’, the essential principles of which are (p.138) helpfully and admirably set out in the report. The ‘five points’ to distinguish the foreign policy of a ‘socialist government’ were said by Piratin to be as follows:

(1) co-operation with the Soviet Union; (2) removal of reaction and fascism everywhere; (3) co-operation with all countries governed by socialist and working class movements; (4) freedom and justice for the colonial peoples; (5) the raising of the standard of living everywhere.25

Thus tailed in his own constituency, Piratin was also followed when he travelled to other parts of the country to address public meetings. His MI5 Personal File includes the report of Detective Sergeant G. F. Roper of the Devon Constabulary, who attended a Communist meeting at the Village Hall, Dartington along with his wife and two other friends, who no doubt enjoyed a good night out in the company of forty or so other people in the middle of February 1949. The report contains an account of a speech made by Piratin in support of Mrs Leila Seyd, wife of the Secretary of the Totnes Communist Party, who was seeking election in forthcoming local government elections.

But it was not only his Party work outside Parliament that was monitored by the State. Surveillance of the Communist Party also enabled the Security Service to find out about Piratin’s parliamentary work, including his relations with his parliamentary colleagues and their parliamentary strategy; the relationship between the two Communist MPs and Party HQ; and also the matters Piratin raised with ministers. MI5’s interception of correspondence from King Street picked up a letter about Piratin’s views on the Health Bill,26 significant because he was able subsequently to get onto the Standing Committee considering the Bill in the Commons. No doubt there was little that was unpredictable. The interception of phone calls in and out of King Street (where he appears to have spent some of his time while an MP) picked up messages to and from the Private Secretary to the President of the Board of Trade,27 and to the personal secretary of the Foreign Secretary, the latter being about a matter Piratin proposed to raise in the House about the execution of Communist Party members in Iraq, described controversially as ‘even sharper than anything Hitler had done’.28 There is no evidence on his file of Piratin’s personal constituency case-work being monitored, but the surveillance of the CPGB did pick up telephone messages from MPs other than Gallacher,29 and the identity (p.139) of advisers to Piratin on parliamentary matters (such as Michael Shapiro, who was asked to give weekly briefings on the Cotton Buying Bill).30

Otherwise, we find that the surveillance of the Communist Party picked up a telephone call between Piratin and Hymie Fagan, a Party official, dealing with the report of the Committee of Privileges discussed in section 2 above. For whatever purpose it served, the Security Service knew what Piratin privately thought of the report, what the Party thought of it, and how they all planned to deal with it. For what it was worth, it also gave some insight into the legal advice that the Party had received on the matter from Jack Gaster. The transcript of the call reads as follows:

4. Bankruptcy and Disqualification

Phil Piratin’s parliamentary career came to an ignoble end, partly as a result of the surveillance to which he had been subject as the Communist member for Mile End. Chief Superintendent Satterthwaite of the Hackney Police brought legal proceedings for slander following remarks made in October 1949 at (p.140) Communist meetings in the East End, the case being heard in June 1950, after Piratin had lost his seat in the 23 February 1950 election.32 Speaking from a loudspeaker van at open-air street meetings, Piratin was claimed to have said at one meeting that:

Police protection in the East End is given to Fascists, and when the police take any action against Fascist thugs it is because they are forced to do so by public opinion. I don’t blame the ordinary policeman; he carries out the instructions of his superiors. One in particular is chief of police for Hackney, Satterthwaite. He is detested by his men and is one of the worst enemies of the working class. He should have been kicked out of the police years ago.33

Similar remarks were expressed at a subsequent meeting, where Piratin was claimed to have said that:

There is one man who is not fit to be in charge of policemen. That man is Superintendent Satterthwaite, of Hackney. He is a friend of the Fascists and is hated and despised on all sides, even by his own men. I have asked the Home Secretary several times to have him removed from his job. I am still trying and will mention his name at every street corner until I do.34

Superintendent Satterthwaite had clearly upset Piratin, perhaps because of his well-known role in policing Communist protests against Fascist marches in the East End and elsewhere after the war. There is mention of Satterthwaite in Dave Renton’s Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, where he is referred to in one study as a ‘first class anti-Semite who would have done a good job at Belsen’.35 According to press reports of the subsequent legal action, however, Superintendent Satterthwaite said in evidence that ‘police were at the meeting’ and ‘noted it all down’. That is almost certainly the case, and it is almost certainly the case that they would have noted it down very fully, though we cannot be confident that Piratin’s remarks were noted as accurately as they were extensively. Piratin’s defence was that while he had spoken some of the words complained of, ‘the ones he admits having spoken were ones that were more or less harmless or not so damaging’. According to Mr Justice Sellars on the second day of the trial, the allegations about Satterthwaite being hated and despised by his men were the words with the ‘greatest sting’. Piratin again denied ‘saying anything like it that could be misunderstood’, (p.141) and that he was saying that people were beginning to hate the police, but that they should not misdirect their hatred, which was as a result of the policy of the government. Denying also that he used the term ‘Fascist thug’ (an expression he ‘hardly ever’ used), Piratin admitted to saying something like, ‘I do not blame the ordinary policeman. He carries out the instructions of his superiors, one of whom is the chief of police of Hackney.’

The court believed the policeman, Satterthwaite being awarded £1,500 in damages plus costs, following the conclusion of the trial on 8 June 1950. It would have been possible, of course, for the damages and costs to be paid by the Party. However, a Special Branch report dated 6 September 1950 suggests that the Party had decided not to do so. Referring to Piratin, the Special Branch report continues:

after he lost his court action some weeks ago, many prominent communists felt that his libellous remarks concerning police officers were, to say the least, most imprudent, and in view of the electric state of international affairs, very damaging to the British Communist Party. Furthermore, many communists commented adversely on the expectation that the damages of £1500 awarded against him would be met from Party funds. It was considered that as he was a comparatively new member and not one of the ‘old brigade’, he should have been more discreet, especially as he held a position of importance as an MP.36

The report concludes by saying that now that it was generally known that the Party was not paying Piratin’s damages, ‘his prestige in communist circles has fallen even lower’.

Although the Daily Worker had on several occasions been on the wrong end of libel writs,37 this is thought to have been the first time the police had used slander against Communist Party activists and the first time defamation had been used against Communist Party activists in this way for things said or done at a political meeting. It was certainly the first time in living memory that slander had been used by a police officer against someone who had been a Member of Parliament at the time of the alleged defamation. Without financial means of his own, Piratin thus faced bankruptcy, the bankruptcy proceedings being initiated by the Chief Superintendent he was found to have slandered.38 This meant that Piratin was compelled to stand down as a candidate at the forthcoming general election,39 a (p.142) bankrupt being disqualified from membership of the House of Commons.40 But this was not the only disability he suffered, as revealed by the Daily Telegraph, the latter not only reporting on a visit by Piratin to Sheffield on Party business, but also inaccurately stating that his room on the fourth floor of the Grand Hotel ‘will cost him £1 14s 8d a day with all meals. Extras and tips are not included.’41 Although making clear that the bill was the Party’s responsibility, Piratin was nevertheless embarrassed by the revelation, but also powerless to do anything about it despite the inaccurate content, as the following exchange from an intercepted phone call to solicitor Jack Gaster makes clear:

(p.143) III. D. N. Pritt MP

Denis Nowell Pritt, was elected as a Labour MP for Hammersmith North in 1935 and became a member of the Party’s NEC. He was expelled from the Party in 1940 because of his pro-Soviet views and stood successfully as an Independent Labour candidate in 1945, continuing to serve Hammersmith North until his defeat at the general election in 1950. Despite Attlee’s suspicions, the best guess is that Pritt was not and never had been a member of the Communist Party, though he had visited the Soviet Union, and took a leadership role in many of the friendship organizations. His devotion was unequivocal and his closeness to the Communist Party beyond question. It is thus unsurprising that Pritt was subject to the most intense surveillance by MI5, probably more intensive than the Communist Party MPs, with whom he was suspected to have been in ideological collaboration, though there was very little else that they would have had in common.

1. Wartime Surveillance

Pritt was the subject of close surveillance on a periodic basis, including the opening of his mail, the evidence suggesting that this started during the war. When his wife visited Egypt in 1940, his letters to her were intercepted in Egypt and the copies sent back to Roger Hollis at MI5’s wartime headquarters at Blenheim Palace. There is no evidence that we have seen of a HOW having been either applied for or granted. It appears that information on Pritt provided by GRU officer Walter Krivitsky, who had defected at the end of 1937 eventually to be given asylum in the USA, had provoked Security Service interest in Pritt beyond the routine monitoring of his extra-parliamentary political activities and speeches. Krivitsky had been interviewed in England by MI5 during January–February 1940.43 A list of Soviet agents was produced, and Pritt was on the list, though despite these dramatic allegations, it appears that domestic telephone and letter interception were not seriously contemplated until later in 1940.

A note on Pritt’s file from Miss Ogilvie to Roger Hollis, dated 20 December 1940, included Pritt’s addresses and telephone numbers.44 Hollis had added a handwritten comment, dated 12 January 1941: ‘Spoke DSS, who decided that it would not be advisable to apply for either a telephone check or a letter check on Pritt.’45 It is not clear why it was thought not to be advisable, though Pritt’s position as (p.144) an MP would no doubt make such surveillance risky; that said, at least one other MP (Captain Ramsay, discussed below) was subject to much worse treatment.46 However in July 1941, after Pritt had been ‘bombed out’, Hollis wrote to Colonel Allan at the GPO asking about changed postal and telephone arrangements for Pritt’s chambers.47 This suggests that an interception arrangement was ultimately put in place, although there is no HOW on the file, or any evidence of an application for one. And despite the obvious unease, an intercept nevertheless appears to have been placed on Pritt’s House of Commons mail on 20 March 1942, though again there is no mention of a HOW.

Instead, there is mention of ‘the special watch instituted for MI5 on the 20 March’. Rather than the usual exchanges with the GPO, there is a note to a Mr Pilkington (an MI5 officer attached to Shillito’s F2(c), who evidently directed the ‘Special Examiners’), stating that Pritt:

has just been added to the Security List, but I have considered it desirable to confine this name to the sorters list only. I have asked that any letters intercepted are transferred to Special Examiners, and I should be glad if you would submit to MI5 either full comments or copies of the correspondence.48

On 4 April 1942, a Miss Moore advised Pilkington that:

other than two letters delivered on the 21st and 22nd Pritt had received no other mail. Since that day we have not seen one single letter to or from him, can it be that, as has happened before, he has been put on a special direct sorting list for another department?’

At the bottom of the note Pilkington has scrawled ‘Of course it may only be an Easter recess!’49 It seems that these special measures may have related not only to mail addressed to Pritt at the House of Commons, but also to mail sent by him from the House of Commons.

(p.145) It is not clear under what legal authority this interception took place. It was clearly not done under the normal procedures, though there may have been wartime powers that ensured that it had a measure of legal authority.50 Nor is it clear that any such interception could be justified. In a note to Miss Ogilvie, Pilkington had reported on 4 October 1941:

As requested I have considered this case but am unable to find any suggestion that Pritt is, or has been engaged in espionage. It is true that Krivitsky said that he believed Pritt to be ‘one of the chief recruiting agents for Soviet underground organisations in the United Kingdom’, but this, I think, should be treated with some reserve in view of Krivitsky’s admittedly limited knowledge of Communist Party affairs here. I do not think, therefore, that there is sufficient evidence to justify enquiries by my section into Pritt’s activities.51

This reflected the Service attitude towards Krivitisky. Dick White, who had interviewed the Russian, had been unimpressed and ‘discounted’ the NKVD officer: ‘I didn’t wholly trust Krivitsky. He wasn’t using his real name and he wasn’t a general.’ Which begs the question: why the surveillance in the first place?

(p.146) 2. Post-War Surveillance

There is no evidence that we have seen of Pritt’s letters being opened or his phone tapped while he served as an MP in the immediate post-war era. He was nevertheless closely watched at this time provided by Special Branch reports from the airports he used on his many travels. Access to legal advice he gave to the Communist Party was obtained—on one occasion whether the Connolly Association in Ireland should sue for libel over a publication in Dublin (by means of an undisclosed Special Branch source). And his election or appointment to various positions in various organizations already referred to was closely monitored (again, usually by means of Special Branch reports). Security Service surveillance of the Communist Party (by means of listening devices at King Street, on one occasion picking up a meeting of the Political Committee) was also able to monitor Pollitt’s irritation that Pritt would neither rejoin the Labour Party (though it seems that an application had been rejected by the Labour Party NEC), or declare himself for the Communist Party. In Pollitt’s view, ‘Pritt must do one of two things—either come out openly for the CP or go back into the LP.’ He did neither.53

An interesting feature of the post-war period, however, was the willingness of MI5 to share information about Pritt with other intelligence agencies, uninhibited in doing so, it seems, by the lack of any legal power or by the existence of any legal restraint (notably the Official Secrets Act 1911). But although uninhibited by law, MI5 was clearly aware of the risks involved in sharing such sensitive information, which was typically given in response to a request from an overseas intelligence agency, because Pritt had been asked to provide legal representation in the country in question. Thus, following Pritt’s agreement to assist in the defence of the (p.147) Canadian MP Fred Rose,54 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police requested information ‘concerning [Pritt’s] antecedents and present activities’ from MI5. This was provided, though Pritt’s Security Service file contains a guarded covering letter by Roger Hollis:

you will, I am sure, treat the information sent to you herewith as for your personal use only as it would be a considerable embarrassment to us if it were known that we were transmitting information about a man holding a position such as that of Mr Pritt.

An indication of the kind of information provided is revealed following a similar request from the South African police, which was passed on with a similar health warning.55 A brief biography was sent telling the South Africans that Pritt—an MP, it is to be recalled—was under surveillance as a ‘prominent Communist sympathiser and champion of the Soviet Union’.56 He was also connected with several organizations which, ‘whilst nominally independent’, were said to be ‘controlled or exploited’ by the Communist Party. These included the NCCL, the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR, the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, the British Soviet Society, the League for Democracy in Greece, and the Student Labour Federation. Attention was drawn to several books and pamphlets authored by Pritt praising the Soviet Union, which he visited in 1946, also visiting Czechoslovakia and Romania in 1948. Reference was made to his wife, who was said to share his views and activities, being prominently connected with International Women’s Day.57

Apart from thus continuing to watch, accumulate information, and share information about him during his period in Parliament, Pritt was also subject to surveillance while a candidate at the 1950 election (at which he was defeated). Pritt’s file contains his election literature (in which he revealed himself a supporter of Queens Park Rangers Football Club), and a Special Branch report dated 3 March 1950, in which it is noted that he unsuccessfully defended his seat in Hammersmith (North). The report gives details of the address of Pritt’s (p.148) committee rooms, as well as the identity (and address and age) of his agent. The latter was Malcom Purdie (PF402/44/154), said to be ‘well known to Special Branch as a member of the executive committee of the National Council for Civil Liberties’, who had also ‘come to notice as a member of the London District Committee of the Communist Party’. There was also a list of those who had proposed and by this time seconded Pritt’s nomination, as well as eight ‘attestors’, two of whom had PF numbers.

3. Re-Examination

Krivitsky’s allegations against Pritt were re-examined on 29 April 1949 for a purpose not recorded.58 The details were again extracted from the registry on the 10 and 12 October 1951.59 By this time, Pritt was no longer an MP (having lost his seat in the February 1950 general election), and the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean had sent MI5 into a frantic search for the Soviet spies.60 Also by this time, Krivitsky’s allegations had been given renewed credence when it was realized that in 1940 he had provided sufficient information about a Soviet spy in the Foreign Office for it to have become clear with the benefit of hindsight that he had been referring to Donald Maclean.61 This most recent investigation developed into something more than merely routine, with Pritt’s file indicating very considerable renewed interest during 1951–2. Notably, numerous documents have been removed from that section of the file, and the minute sheets have been weeded with particular care.

Nevertheless, some remaining documents indicate that MI5’s ‘penetration agents’ had been reporting on Pritt and his wife, and phrases used in relation to the sources, together with the nature of some of the information, suggest that MI5 may have installed ‘SF’ in their telephone, allowing the Service to eavesdrop on domestic conversations when the phone was on the hook.62 A ‘B1A source report’ of information that ‘has been obtained under very delicate circumstances’ indicated an intimate knowledge of the goings on at Decoy Cottage, the aptly named home of Mr and Mrs Pritt located provocatively on the Aldermaston perimeter:


Mrs Pritt is at the moment very worried and in a state of high nervous tension in connection with Pritt’s health, and also his political activities. It appears that Pritt is a diabetic, but he obstinately refuses to follow his doctor’s advice. He eats all the wrong things and is, curiously enough, ‘a secret eater.’ It is perhaps not uninteresting to note that, at times, Mrs Pritt is not above going the pace in the drink line. Mrs Pritt is also obsessed with the fear that Pritt will get himself in serious trouble and get himself arrested; and it is thought that her fears are not entirely based on a wife’s anxiety for her husband’s welfare, but are the outcome of her inordinate conceit, which is so marked as almost to constitute an abnormality.63

MI5 were very interested in the Pritts’ domestic help—Mr and Mrs West:

It is believed that the man West has applied for a post as a fireman at the new atomic station. It is known that in conversation Pritt has remarked that he, West, would be unlikely to get such a job if it came out that he was employed by the Pritts. Mrs Pritt’s comment was, “Oh, but he is not employed by us”—laughter.64

The use of SF in relation to the Pritts might help to explain Percy Sillitoe’s response to the Chief Constable of Berkshire in an exchange of correspondence in 1949. The Chief Constable wrote a somewhat censorious—and revealing—letter to Sillitoe, referring to ‘circulars’ sent by MI5 the previous year:

in which you outlined your arrangements for the recording of information concerning the Communist Party and your ultimate aim of keeping accurate records of all members of that Party. I now enclose a list of those persons who have been the subject of an enquiry in connection with Communism and for whom no Photostat copy records have been received. In the past officers from this Force have made enquiries about a number of people at the request of your Department, and often it was an isolated enquiry which revealed little of a concrete nature, but I have maintained these records as being persons connected with the Party. I feel, that in a number of cases, these records could very well be allowed to lapse but, before doing so, I should like to know if you are in possession of any information concerning any of them which would justify their inclusion in such a list.65

It was some five months later before Sillitoe managed a reply, though if SF had been installed, the last thing MI5 would have needed or wanted would have been a local copper bumbling onto the scene at Decoy Cottage. Sillitoe replied, somewhat (p.150) disingenuously, to suggest that Pritt, who had been on the list referred to by the Chief Constable, was of no interest to MI5:

In the list of persons which you sent to us in your letter . . . dated 30th January you included D N Pritt, Decoy Cottage, Aldermaston. D N Pritt is the present Member of Parliament for Hammersmith North. He makes no secret of his sympathy with certain Communist aspirations but he is not and has not been known to be a member of the Communist Party. It is not necessary for you to maintain any special record of him or to embark on any investigation.66

It cannot be said with certainty when SF were installed or for how long, and in particular whether this was done before the re-examination in either 1949 or 1951. In the end, however, there was nothing against Pritt, to whom we return in Chapter 7.

IV. Geoffrey Bing MP

In terms of MI5’s mandate (defence of the realm, as threatened by subversion and espionage), what we have here is a situation in which progressive MPs were the subject of fairly intrusive MI5 and Special Branch surveillance on two grounds. In Piratin’s case, he was the subject of routine surveillance of his electoral and political activities (which included his parliamentary work, though there is no evidence that this was specifically targeted). The file of Piratin’s comrade, Willie Gallacher, reveals much the same, without the added spice of the privileges complaint, Gallacher a shrewder, wiser, and more experienced character. In Pritt’s case we see the same, but with the added spice of surveillance for the purposes of an espionage investigation as well. Indeed, such an investigation was undertaken at least twice, at least once when Pritt was an MP. But what about Labour Party MPs, with the PLP intake of 1945 including a number of progressive figures on the Left? Beginning with the case of Geoffrey Bing, if anything here we find the levels of surveillance even more intense, as not only MI5 but also the Prime Minister were keen to find out which members of the PLP if any had Communist Party connections, and what they were doing to develop these connections.

1. Generating Information by Surveillance

We have already encountered Geoffrey Bing in Chapter 5 above, and the steps taken in an attempt to derail him after he ceased being an MP. But what about (p.151) the time between 1945 and 1955 when he served as Labour MP for Hornchurch? Bing—who was a barrister—had been of interest to MI5 since his association with the NCCL came to their attention in 1935. He had thereafter been involved with a number of other noble causes, not least his support for the Spanish Republic. His file—released in February 2014—reveals that throughout the Second World War, various attempts to ‘do his bit’ had been stalled by the intervention of the Security Service. As a consequence, Bing spent a great deal of the war testing parachutes—fortunately, they all worked reasonably well. Soon after eventually being allowed to see active service he was badly wounded while fighting in Germany.

A document in Bing’s file, dated 1 February 1945, and much annotated with the pencilled exclamation marks of MI5 officers, records a meeting of the CPGB Political Committee held at King Street, overheard by MI5’s hidden microphones, recorded and transcribed by section B4B.67 Present at the meeting was a stellar cast of twentieth-century British Communists: Raj Palme-Dutt, Johnny Campbell, Peter Kerrigan, Emile Burns, William Gallacher, Ted Bramley, Bill Rust, and Jimmy Shields. They discussed parliamentary candidates for the forthcoming general election, primarily the candidatures of Bing and John Platts-Mills, the barrister and friend of Bing, who was soon to be returned as MP for Tottenham in the 1945 election. The report reveals Platts-Mills to be a Party member, and records that Kerrigan read out extracts from a letter Bing had sent to King Street along with his Party subscription. The report continues:

Kerrigan . . . reminded the comrades that Harry Pollitt was very against Party members getting themselves adopted as undercover members of the Labour Party . . . Bill Rust thought it would be very difficult to stop him and he did not see what it had to do with the Party. Bing should be allowed to stand for the Labour Party if he wanted to. Kerrigan replied that it was to do with them, as he is a Party member and paid his subscription to the Party.

A meeting of the Political Committee convened shortly after the July 1945 general election was also eavesdropped and transcribed by B4B, and remains in Bing’s file. During the meeting, Kerrigan was asked by Emile Burns how many MPs would be ‘working for the Communist Party’. It seems that Burns was not thinking about Gallacher and Piratin. MI5’s file records that:

Dutt gave a polite little laugh, as though he had made a good joke, but Peter replied in a firm and rather cross voice, that there would only be two. There was a pause, and then Peter repeated aggressively, ‘Nobody more than these two.’

(p.152) It is assumed here that Kerrigan was referring to Gallacher and Piratin. Questions were raised in further discussion about four Labour MPs—Platts-Mills, Bing, Lever, and Solley. Notably, it was claimed by Kerrigan that Platts-Mills, Bing, and Solley were no longer Party members and that he did not know Lever.68

Bing was subsequently appointed by Attlee to be an assistant whip in the Commons, though he did not last long, resigning on 15 November 1946, ostensibly having chosen to spend more time dealing with the housing and transport problems in his constituency. It is not known for certain whether at this stage Attlee knew of Bing’s links with the Communist Party, though, as is discussed below, it is known that Sillitoe told Attlee at some time before 22 November 1946 that Bing was a Communist Party member, at the same time as he named four other members of the PLP.69 It is not clear, however, whether this was accurate information in Bing’s case, with a note from Graham Mitchell tending to corroborate Peter Kerrigan’s comment above. According to Mitchell, ‘Bing is known to have been a subscribing member as late as the beginning of 1945’,70 that is to say before the general election. The question, of course, is this: why did it matter (particularly at that time)?

2. Foreign Office Inquiries

Having acquired this and other information about Bing, the question for MI5 was with whom it should be shared, and on what grounds. The Attlee Directive refers to MI5 being authorized to carry out inquiries on behalf of government departments (para. 5), but refers also rather more opaquely to the ‘well-established convention whereby Ministers do not concern themselves with the detailed information which may be obtained by the Security Service in particular cases, but are furnished with such information only as may be necessary for the determination of any issue on which their guidance is sought’ (para. 6). In what circumstances, if any, were ministers other than the Prime Minister entitled to be supplied with information obtained by MI5 about ministerial and parliamentary colleagues? These were provisions that were to be tested by Hector McNeil MP, then a Minister of State at the Foreign Office, later to become Secretary of State for Scotland in Attlee’s brief second administration.

Guy Liddell’s Diary reports a conversation that took place on 4 November 1946 between Liddell and the chief of SIS, apparently prompted by the concern that an assistant whip was a security risk (presumably Bing). The Diary entry in question, (p.153) no doubt released by MI5 as a contribution to a better understanding of the Labour movement, records that Liddell:

told ‘C’ that . . . MacNeal [sic.] had asked for information about Bing the Labour Whip. We were not prepared to give this information and were suggesting that MacNeal should apply to the Prime Minister. If he presses us to hand over the information, I shall be forced to see the PM.71

Unfortunately, that particular entry has been heavily redacted, this being the only paragraph of the entry in question to have been released to the National Archives. It appears, however, that the Foreign Office was looking for evidence that while working for a ‘section of the War Office which handled the dropping of British agents over France’, Bing had ‘passed on certain top secret plans to the Communist Party Executive’.

Roger Hollis made a note on the minute sheet of Bing’s file on 7 November:

DDG [Liddell] instructed me to see Mr Halford (Foreign Office) and tell him we did not feel we could supply the information about Bing direct to Mr McNeil. I did this, saying that there were three possible ways of handling the matter:

  1. 1) That we should arrange to forget it.

  2. 2) That we should explain to Mr McNeil that this information we could not give to him, but would have to give it to the Prime Minister only; and

  3. 3) That we should consult the Prime Minister without first telling Mr McNeil what we were about to do.

The Foreign Office civil servants told Hollis that McNeil was not likely to forget about the matter, and they would ‘try to persuade him that the right course was for him to report such matters direct to the Prime Minister and not ask for information from the Security Service’.72

However, Bing’s file indicates that although the Foreign Office’s specific concerns about Bing were groundless, MI5 nevertheless told McNeil that they possessed a ‘large file’ relating to Bing’s activities—all grist to the Westminster rumour mill. McNeil would, however, have been better advised to look elsewhere for evidence of espionage or subversion. Not only was he a close friend of Guy Burgess, but McNeil had also employed him as his personal assistant.73 Such was Burgess’ closeness to McNeil (a Foreign Office Minister, it is to be recalled), that he evidently:


had the complete run of the inner sanctum. If he needed the minister’s keys he asked for them. If he wanted access to classified files, he secured the necessary authorization without question by saying that his minister wanted such and such at once. Since, to the growing chagrin of such ministerial colleagues as Aneurin Bevan, the Foreign Secretary [Ernest Bevin] and his junior minister [McNeil] seemed obsessed with the growing Soviet threat to the Western world, much of the material on the files was of considerable interest to the Soviet masters of Burgess in London.74

Burgess had been working in the War Office in the late 1930s, and had worked for the SOE until he had returned to the BBC in 1941. Any stories Burgess might have chosen to tell McNeil about air drops to France being betrayed would at least have had the virtue of being believable.

3. War Office Inquiries

Hollis was clearly unhappy with passing on information about one ‘minister’ (Bing) to another (McNeil), insisting that his responsibility was to the Prime Minister alone. But it seems nevertheless that MI5 were prepared to convey more detail to ministers than was necessary, with the Foreign Office not the only beneficiaries of MI5 information. In a Diary entry for the 18 November 1946, three days after Bing’s resignation as Assistant Whip, Liddell recorded that he went over to see Frederick Bellenger, the newly appointed Secretary of State for War. Bellenger told him that he:

had a note from the PM containing a suggestion that Bing had abused his position during the war in giving away military information to Communists, and whether, in fact, Bing was a member of the Party?

That the rumour should have resurfaced in this manner might be seen to lend weight to the argument that Bing had been obliged to resign over his links to the Communist Party. However, Bing was one of the twenty-one ‘rebel MPs’ who in April 1948 were threatened with expulsion from the Labour Party for opposing Party policy, his independent spirit alone likely to render his position as assistant whip untenable by all concerned.75 Liddell went on:


I said that I was a little surprised that the PM had not, in fact referred this matter to us direct, in view of a somewhat similar case that we had on a previous occasion, where he more or less directed that he wanted to deal with matters of this kind personally . . . however Bellenger had a letter from the PM . . . I felt I was authorised to go ahead . . . I told him I would consult our files and come and see him again. I thought it wise to tell him personally, because it seemed to me that the case involved certain principles on which we should like to be quite clear. Did, for example, the PM expect us to volunteer information of this kind. If so, was it to be done to the Minister responsible or to the Prime Minister himself? I explained that our aim and object was to remain entirely non-party in all these matters and to avoid any suggestion that the department was a Gestapo.76

In Bing’s file, Liddell noted that:

It had always been the policy of our office to keep entirely clear of politics, and this particular case seemed to be a border line one. We might be open to the criticism that we were using our records for the purpose of conducting a heresy hunt within the Labour Party, although it seemed to me in this instance that we were covered by the fact that Bing, until a few days ago, had been one of the Whips, and in that sense a person who was given certain access to Government information.77

Shortly thereafter, Liddell was able to tell Bellenger that there was no ‘indication’ there was any truth in the allegations about Bing, while adding that ‘it was proved beyond reasonable doubt that he was actually a member of the CP . . . perhaps a slight shock to Bellenger’. That evening Liddell met Attlee, told him of his dealings with Bellenger, and sought advice on the action to be taken about MPs ‘belonging to subversive movements, and in the case of MPs who had close contacts with subversive movements’. Attlee replied that ‘he alone should be informed in every case where we had positive information . . . whether that member was a member of the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, or any other Party’. According to Liddell, this reflected Attlee’s view that ‘he had a responsibility to the House and country to see that such members did not get into positions where they might constitute a danger to the State’. It also reflected the terms of the Attlee Directive of April 1946, which placed considerable emphasis on keeping ‘the Prime Minister constantly informed of subversive activities likely to endanger the security of the State’. In cases of doubt, ‘the Director General was instructed to refer to the Prime Minister’. As we have (p.156) seen, Attlee later described the constitutional position succinctly: ‘MI5 . . . is under the direct control of the Prime Minister.’78

The relationship between Attlee and Liddell was to produce an unwelcome surprise for the Prime Minister. At a meeting sometime in November (but before the 20th), Liddell gave Attlee the names of five MPs who were members of ‘subversive organisations’:

I thereupon gave him the names of Platts-Mills, Hutchinson, Leah Manning and Mrs Braddock. He was not surprised to hear about Hutchinson, and had already taken it for granted that Platts-Mills was a CP member. He was, however, considerably shaken to hear of Leah Manning and Mrs Braddock. He then volunteered the information to me that he thought Dodds was a CP member; that Swingler probably was, and that D N Pritt almost certainly was. I said that only in the cases of Bing, Platts-Mills, Hutchinson, Leah Manning and Mrs Braddock had we positive proof.79

That said, it is not clear how accurate was this information. The same file entry (22 November 1946) has a note added by Graham Mitchell (dated 21 May 1947) responding to a request from Liddell for the names of those Labour MPs for whom ‘we could say with assurance that they are members of the Communist Party’. Those of whom there is no reasonable doubt were said to be Platts-Mills, Bing, and Swingler, even though the evidence against (i) Platts-Mills was simply that an unnamed Party member had said in November that he was still in the Party; (ii) Bing was that he was a member as late as the beginning of 1945; and (iii) Swingler that he was a member as late as June 1943 and had done nothing since to suggest that he had ceased being a member!80

4. Surveillance and Parliamentary Business

Aside from Communist Party surveillance and the assertion of Prime Ministerial authority under the Attlee Directive, the Bing case is important also (p.157) for revealing MI5 surveillance of Bing’s parliamentary activities. This is perhaps even more significant. Returning to Bellenger, as Secretary of State for War he had been asked parliamentary questions by Bing about the political vetting of army education personnel. Bing had been unhappy with the answers, and planned to make an attack on both Bellenger and MI5 during the Commons debate on the army estimates. It was thought that Bing would be alleging that the Service was incompetent and as a consequence was prone to wasting money. In ‘Austerity Britain’, these were dangerous accusations for a Service which, the Cold War as yet undeclared, was considered by some to be unaffordable. For Bing, this was an opportunity for revenge, having fallen foul of the vetting system during the war, initially obstructed at every turn in his attempts to join a fighting unit.81

Bing’s file contains a document provocatively entitled ‘Attack on MI5’. Dated 6 March 1947, the memo was addressed to Dick White, then Director of ‘B’ Division and warned of the imminent parliamentary attack on the Security Service by Bing. It was to be an ‘open and concerted attack on MI5, with detailed evidence from MI5’s ex-victims, some of them now MPs’. The author of the warning was Maxwell Knight, who had infiltrated various progressive organizations as Director of Intelligence for the British Fascisti during the 1920s,82 and continued with this ‘penetration’ work following his recruitment by MI5 in 1930. As such, Maxwell Knight features in MI5 files on Dudley Collard, D. N. Pritt, Neil Lawson, and of course Bing. He also ran a number of informers for MI5, one of whom—agent M/7—was identified in 2017 as barrister Vivian Hancock-Nunn.83 Revealing a failure to protect MI5’s sources, the identity of agent M/7 has been left on the back of a circular sent to him by the Haldane Society, which he had evidently then passed to MI5. The circular related to Bar Council elections—Pritt was one of the candidates, so MI5 added it to Pritt’s file (though it is also in other files). Postmarked 28 June 1946, the document was addressed to V. W. Hancock-Nunn, South Lodge, Headingly, Sussex.84

Returning to the ‘Attack on MI5’, Knight implicated MPs Charles Smith, Donald Bruce, and—remarkably—Christopher Mayhew, as being among the plotters, while offering ‘a reasonable prospect of our being able to get further (p.158) and more detailed inside information on this’,85 which begs the question where the information was coming from. In the meantime, no attack materialized during the army estimates debate and Knight predicted instead an attack on the Service during the forthcoming conscription debate,86 and reported that agent M/8 had heard that Bing’s proposed intervention was to be linked to the NCCL’s campaign against the vetting of civil servants. Needless to say, no attack was mounted in either debate. Coming close to revealing that M/8 was an MP, Knight claimed that his agent:

gives it as his personal opinion that, what with the pressure of really important Parliamentary business, and the increasing seriousness of the economic position which tends to draw out nearly every debate in the House, the Bing group is in danger of missing the boat completely. He will let us know the moment he gets anything more definite.’87

All of Knight’s ludicrous predictions went to Dick White, and then on to Liddell and Sillitoe.

So here we have MI5 monitoring parliamentary business, and having a ring- side seat about matters relating to its accountability. They were fed the names of witnesses on whose testimony the MPs would rely and the nature of the complaints likely to be made, as well as the identity, character, and tactics of those who had planned to raise them. Notable also in this file is the transcript of an intercepted telephone call from Peter Klugmann (whose phone (Museum 0191) was obviously tapped) to Bing’s extension in the House of Parliament. Although this is the only example we have found, it is presumably not the only time that calls to MPs were intercepted in this way.88 Quite how this can be defended under MI5’s Charter is hard to understand, unless criticism of MI5 is itself evidence of subversion or espionage. Also important, of course, is the identity of Maxwell Knight’s source M/8, who figures prominently in file entries at this point. It has been known for some time that Tom Driberg MP was M/8, journalist Chapman Pincher exposing him as Maxwell Knight’s agent in Their Trade is Treachery,89 this confirmed by Knight’s wartime assistant in B5B, Joan Miller,90 in a controversial book that MI5 had tried to ban. Clear evidence, if evidence was still needed, that it was not only the Communist Party that was subject to MI5 surveillance; so too was the PLP.

(p.159) V. Wilfrid Vernon MP

The Bing file is significant for a number of reasons, not least for revealing that MI5 had infiltrated the governing party. Also important, however, was Attlee’s tight grip on surveillance and the desire to ensure that information was not shared with anyone but him, though there is no evidence to suggest that Attlee discouraged this information-gathering activity of MI5. But like Piratin (and Gallacher), Bing was the subject of surveillance, ostensibly for reasons of subversion. There was, however, also an example of a Labour MP suspected of espionage, which was handled very differently from the wartime handling of Pritt. This was the case of Major Wilfred Vernon, elected as Labour MP for Dulwich in 1945. He had also been convicted before the war under the Official Secrets Acts 1911–20, a fact that had re-emerged during the January 1948 interrogation of Ernest David Weiss, a German-born British citizen who confessed to having recruited Vernon, and Vernon’s colleague, Frederick Meredith. Both had been employed at the RAE Farnborough, and both had provided the Soviets with information on aircraft design.

1. Revelation of Espionage

Following Weiss’ revelations, MI5 thought it necessary to consult Attlee, mindful no doubt of the adjuration that the Prime Minister should be ‘constantly informed of subversive activities likely to endanger the security of the state’, though here the concern was more with espionage than subversion. According to a note on Vernon’s file:

Recommendations for Future Action . . . That having regard to the fact that Wilfred Foulston Vernon is now (although he was not at the material time) a member of Parliament, a statement of Weiss’ testimony against him should be laid before the PM and that the latter should be invited to decide what, if any, action should be taken with regard to him. That the Prime Minister should be further invited to decide whether, if he considers that Vernon should be directly approached, it would not be desirable for this approach to be made by a member of the Government.91

It was decided that Meredith, a brilliant Dublin-born scientist, long known to have been a Communist, would be approached at the same time it was judged appropriate to interview Vernon.92

(p.160) Vernon evidently no longer posed any threat to the State. The account Sillitoe presented to Attlee acknowledged that there was no evidence that Vernon’s espionage had continued after 1937, describing the material and information he had supplied to the Soviets as ‘low grade’.93 Vernon’s dismissal from Farnborough, following his conviction for a relatively minor offence under the Official Secrets Acts 1911–20, had been something of a cause célèbre in the 1930s, and the subject of a NCCL pamphlet.94 After a burglary by a group of Fascists at Vernon’s home, a number of official documents were retrieved by the police, following the arrest of the burglars. When he subsequently attended Kingston Police Station to get his papers back, Vernon was charged with ‘retaining information’ and ‘not taking proper care of information’ under the Official Secrets Acts 1911–20.95 He was convicted and fined £50.96

After Weiss’ confession to MI5 in 1948, B2’s J. H. Marriott recorded that on being shown a note on Vernon’s involvement in espionage (some ten months after Weiss had made his statement), Attlee ‘was shocked at its contents which came as a complete surprise. He appeared to have no idea of Vernon’s previous record.’97 Two weeks later, in another note for the record, Marriott stated that:

The DG told me yesterday that he did not think that the PM would wish to take any action with regard to Vernon. In these circumstances the DG has decided it will not be possible to interrogate Meredith.98

Shortly thereafter, however, further information on Meredith came to light, it being revealed that ‘the DG saw the PM this morning and showed him the note on Meredith’s case . . . The PM agreed that in the circumstances we should proceed to interrogate Meredith, and he asked to be informed of the result’.99

By 1948, Meredith was an important scientist at Smiths’ Instruments, and it had been proposed to use him on a project ‘of exceptional importance and secrecy in connection with Guided Weapons’. If he were to be permitted to work on the weapons it would be necessary to speak to Meredith in order ‘to explore his (p.161) political attitude and reliability and to discover the nature of his relations, if any, with the Communist Party. Such an interrogation would include confrontation of Meredith with our knowledge of his pre-war espionage activities.’ Essentially it was thought that if MI5 let Meredith know they were aware he had spied for the Soviets in the past, he would not be foolish enough to do it again. The difficulty was that ‘there would be a possibility of Meredith imparting this information to Vernon’,100 and there were concerns about what Vernon’s reaction would be. The Ministry of Supply, meanwhile, took the view that ‘Meredith is of such outstanding ability in the field of aircraft stabilisation and control that from the technical point of view there is no one in this country whom the Department would be more anxious to employ.’101

2. Protection from Investigation

MI5’s ‘Jim’ Skardon was despatched to Cheltenham to speak to Meredith. There, the latter confirmed Weiss’ story and remarkably in his initial interview with Skardon, described Vernon as ‘the most Christ-like person he had ever known’, ‘begging’ Skardon to ‘be gentle with him’ should he be subject to interrogation.102 However, Vernon was not interrogated by MI5 while he remained an MP, even though Attlee was unlikely to have felt in any way indebted to him—in April 1948, Vernon, with twenty other MPs, had been threatened by the NEC with expulsion from the Labour Party, for ‘organised opposition to party policy’. Apart from an understandable caution about interrogating a Member of Parliament, there is no obvious legal reason why Vernon should have been protected in this way for, as we have pointed out, there is no privilege attaching to an MP which would have insulated him from full MI5 investigation and eventual prosecution should this have been merited. Contrary to the claims of historian Andrew Roberts, Vernon did not enjoy any ‘immunity from prosecution’.103

It is true that parliamentary privilege gives MPs freedom from arrest.104 But the scope of this privilege was quite limited, as had been revealed in the case of the Fascist Captain ‘Jock’ Ramsey, the Tory MP for Peebles, who was the subject of indefinite detention under the notorious wartime Regulation 18B as a result of his outspoken views, which appeared sympathetic to the Nazis.105 Having (p.162) unsuccessfully appealed against his detention, Ramsay claimed that the detention was a breach of parliamentary privilege, a claim rejected by the House of Commons Committee of Privileges, which concluded that while ‘it is plain that arrest in civil proceedings is a breach of privilege’, ‘arrest on an indictable offence is not’.106 Nor was executive detention under wartime powers. Vernon’s alleged activities not only fell within the orbit of the Attlee Directive, as relating to espionage, but more importantly within the scope of the Official Secrets Acts 1911–20. There was no reason why claims of espionage against him could not have been fully investigated.

The reasons for ‘protecting’ Vernon were thus almost certainly political and diplomatic rather than legal, though we should not overlook the likelihood that Vernon was no longer thought to have been involved in espionage activity, given Sillitoe’s report that there was no evidence of Vernon’s espionage activity having continued after his conviction in 1937. Roberts’ view is that another reason why nothing was done is that the Labour government was concerned not to prejudice Anglo-American relations,107 a view which seems more plausible. Any prosecution would have been at best pointless, and at worst damaging to the national interest.108 Nevertheless, the political protection from prosecution extended to Vernon appeared to apply also to surveillance, the file suggesting that there was no surveillance while he was an MP. It was not until after he lost his seat in 1951 that warrants were obtained to intercept Vernon’s mail and tap his phone, as the investigations into his activities were revived.109

Vernon was interviewed by MI5’s ‘Jim’ Skardon in February 1952 (after Labour had left government), Skardon pointing out that ‘WEISS and MEREDITH were both at liberty in spite of our knowledge’, and that ‘the authorities were not anxious to embark on a prosecution. We desired to fill in the gaps in our knowledge . . . so that we might arm ourselves against present enemies of the Service.’110 Vernon confessed to ‘active and paid espionage’. Skardon visited him again in March, after which Skardon concluded that ‘It is quite certain that Vernon is extremely embarrassed at being found out as a spy . . . I doubt whether any great profit will ensue from further interrogation.’ However, this relaxed attitude was questioned (p.163) by counter-espionage officer C. A. G. Simkins (B2A), after it was discovered that Vernon was standing for the London County Council, and was said to be interested in returning to the Commons. Describing Vernon as having been ‘virtually uncooperative’, Simkins argued forcefully that:

There can be no excuse for the Security Service to allow VERNON to pursue a public and political career unhindered by some attempt to have his position assessed by the authorities of his political party. Mr Attlee was made aware of the facts when he was Prime Minister and we now have VERNON’s confession to active and paid espionage. I submit that it would be proper at least for the present Prime Minister to decide whether or not as an act of duty if not ordinary courtesy this fact should be made known to Mr Attlee.

3. Resumption of Investigation

In April 1952, Vernon was elected to the London County Council. Yet Simkins had changed his mind, very likely having been influenced by his colleague Evelyn McBarnet, who as the voice of sanity in counter-espionage had argued that now Vernon had admitted his guilt, ‘unless or until we obtain any new information bearing on his past espionage activities, I think it is unlikely that we shall get any further admissions by interrogation’.111 Simkins now advised Dick White that:

As Mr Attlee is no longer in office, it is probably unnecessary to mention the latest chapter in this case to anyone outside the Security Service, but before the file is put away, you may want to raise this point with the DG.112

Sillitoe did speak to Attlee (now Leader of the Opposition) about Vernon, it would appear with the intention of preventing Vernon standing as a Labour MP. In the last minute sheet entry on the file (followed by a redaction blanking out the remainder of the page),113 Sillitoe recorded in an extraordinary hand-written scrawl that he had met with Attlee to discuss Vernon, and did not intend to trouble Maxwell Fyfe with the matter: ‘I saw Mr Attlee this morning. He was very appreciative. I do not propose telling the H S.’114

(p.164) So, what are we to make of the Vernon case? That he was protected because he was an MP? Perhaps, though as we have seen, it is because they were MPs that others were subject to surveillance. Certainly, Sillitoe believed that he required Prime Ministerial permission to interview Vernon when he was an MP. That he was protected from surveillance to avoid diplomatic embarrassment? Perhaps, though fear of diplomatic embarrassment would at best have been a reason to conceal the fruits of the surveillance, rather than a reason for not doing the surveillance in the first place. That he was not suspected of any wrongdoing? Perhaps, but why then the intense interest after he lost his seat? Whatever the reason for restraint in the Vernon case while he was an MP, there was no such restraint after he left Parliament. At this point, however, the evidence reveals much about the autonomy of MI5 and the lax oversight under the new Conservative government which empowered Sillitoe to feel free to share information with Attlee without even informing Maxwell Fyfe.

Following Skardon’s visit to Vernon in February 1952, the MI5 man had recorded that Vernon ‘is prepared to make a full statement but expressed his intention of consulting Frederick William Meredith (PF 42,780) his associate in espionage’.115 A fresh telecheck by MI5 was supplemented by one for mail interception, and it was revealed that Meredith had invited Vernon to Cheltenham. MI5 was keen to identify any others who may have been involved with the pair, and particularly in identifying a man known to the Service as Harry II, the man who gave orders to Weiss, who in turn had recruited Vernon. The next step was to get a telephone HOW for Meredith:

As a direct aid to discovering the content of Vernon and Meredith’s discussions we are anxious to know when Vernon intends to stay with Meredith. I therefore apply for a Home Office Warrant telecheck on Cleeve Hill 178.116

The need to establish the date of the visit was listed on the application to Mr Saffery at the GPO, along with a telling reference to the need to find where Meredith kept his telephone: ‘We know that Vernon intends to spend a week-end with Meredith and we are anxious to discover the location of Meredith’s telephone in his house, and this may well be disclosed by this operation.’117 It is obvious that they intended to set up an eavesdropping arrangement in Meredith’s house, using the ‘SF’ system discussed in Chapter 8 below.118

(p.165) In Meredith’s file it is notable that most letters from the Ministry of Supply, and all of those from the Gloucestershire Police reporting on Meredith’s activities have been removed.119 It is apparent too that a number of documents from around the time of the proposed meeting between the two ex-spies have also been removed from the file, and that most of those which remain have been heavily redacted: MI5 do not want us to know about the bugging of private houses, and, very likely, the role of the police in monitoring the activities of Meredith and his wife. The original B4B ‘briefing sheet’, recording the details of the Meredith telephone-tapping arrangements, has been replaced with a photocopy, and the place on the form where the SF arrangements are likely to have been recorded have been blanked out, suggesting that SF was installed. The ‘weeder’ has also removed the second purpose of the telecheck—to find what room the telephone was in. The sheet reads:

We are anxious to discover two things by this telecheck: 1. The date upon which Vernon intends to spend the weekend with Meredith.

It appears that the SF, if it was installed, produced no information of any value. Despite MI5’s efforts, Simkins later conceded that ‘we . . . do not know what passed between them . . . I think it is unlikely that we can extract anymore information from VERNON about his espionage.’120 The HOWs on Vernon were suspended.

VI. Conclusion

The surveillance of MPs gives rise to difficult constitutional questions. On the one hand, democratic propriety requires MPs and other elected officials to be in a protected category in relation to State surveillance, though as is widely acknowledged, MPs should enjoy no immunity from investigation when there are grounds to believe that they may have committed an offence. As we have seen, this latter principle is recognized by parliamentary privilege, which was reinforced in 1956, when the surveillance of MPs was raised in the House by Francis Noel-Baker (then a Labour MP). Noel-Baker complained to the Speaker that letters he had sent to (p.166) British subjects in the Seychelles had been ‘interfered with’.121 According to the Speaker in a ruling subsequently relied on to inform the conclusions of the Birkett Committee, established in the following year to conduct a general examination into the interception of communications (for reasons wholly unrelated to the surveillance of MPs):

The law on that subject, as I understand, is that letters can be detained and opened by a warrant of a Secretary of State. There is a long series of Acts on this subject, the principal one being that passed in 1912. The fact that Act was passed by this House, and that there is no exception for letters addressed either to or from Members of Parliament shows that there can be no question of privilege involved in that.122

But also important, of course, is MI5’s mandate, the Attlee Directive making clear that while part of its task is counter-subversion insofar as it affects the defence of the realm, MI5 is to have ‘no connection whatsoever with any matters of a Party political character and that they must be scrupulous to avoid any action which could be so misconstrued’ (para. 4). On that basis, it is difficult to justify the surveillance of the electoral activity of candidates or the political and parliamentary work of parliamentarians, unless standing for election and working as an MP can by some perverted logic be deemed to be subversive. It is clear from the files that one purpose of such surveillance was to secure information about Communist candidates’ supporters in order to nourish the Registry; to monitor the parliamentary activities of progressive MPs of different parties in order to be informed of their position on live questions (with an opportunity then to take pre-emptive action as required); and in Piratin’s case to monitor the extra-parliamentary activities of an MP with a view to destroying his career. With that in mind, there is no evidence of police officers attending the meetings of Tory MPs to record what they said and feed MI5 files.

Yet perhaps the most striking feature of the four cases discussed in this chapter is what they tell us about the role of the Prime Minister, to whom much of the information was fed back. What is particularly interesting is the extent to which information about Labour MPs in particular made its way to Attlee, in a manner that tested the principle that MI5 should not engage in matters of a party-political character. In the case of both Bing and Vernon, information was supplied to keep them out of office, in Bing’s case despite the fact that there was no evidence against him, and in Vernon’s case despite the fact that there was no evidence that he was any longer a security threat. The Vernon case is especially shocking for the fact that in (p.167) clear breach of protocol Sillitoe saw the Leader of the Opposition behind the back of the Home Secretary, with a view to preventing his selection as a parliamentary candidate. There is a sense too that while information was being supplied to Attlee in his capacity as Prime Minister, it was being received by Attlee as Leader of the Labour Party, and used for the purposes of a party hostile to Communists, rather than a government with wider responsibilities. MI5 was in effect a political police force, deciding who could hold political positions.

This is not to deny that where there is credible evidence that an MP has been involved in espionage it is right that the matter should be investigated. If Krivitsky was credible and gave credible information about Pritt, then it is right that Pritt should have been investigated. As we have seen, however, there were doubts about Krivitsky’s credibility, and nothing was ever found. In the case of Vernon (who did not appear to have any direct Communist Party connections), there was evidence and ultimately a confession, though no subsequent prosecution. Yet Attlee prohibited any examination of Vernon for the lifetime of the Parliament, exposing himself to the charge that he did so in the interests of his party in government, which would be seriously embarrassed were there to be any publicity about Vernon’s activities. He did so without knowing what information any questioning of Vernon might yield and without knowing whether he was still engaged in espionage. If nothing else, this was a case that exposed serious shortcomings with the Attlee Directive. It is all very well for the buck to stop with the Prime Minister. But what happens if the Prime Minister is paralysed by the information received?


(1) See the classic discussion in Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants v Osborne [1910] AC 87, esp. per Lord Shaw of Dunfermline.

(2) The text of the resolution is reproduced in the Report of the Committee of Privy Councillors appointed to inquire into the Interception of Communications (Chair: Lord Birkett), Cmnd 283, 1957, para. 124.

(3) ibid., para. 125.

(4) ibid., para. 127.

(5) According to MI5, between 1909 and the early 1970s in excess of 175,000 files considered to no longer be of any relevance to the defence of the realm were destroyed, and since the end of the Cold War an estimated 200,000, mostly ones ‘opened for counter-subversion reasons’ have been destroyed (www.mi5.gov.uk/managing-information). Nevertheless, after the 1940 fire at Wormwood Scrubs (a temporary wartime home for MI5), when numerous files were lost and damaged, ‘Duplicate copies of all files and indexes were routinely made on microfilm, and stored in a specially protected MI5 warehouse in Cheltenham to prevent the catastrophe of Wormwood Scrubs occurring again’: P. Wright, Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer (Toronto, 1987), p. 37). It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the post-war incineration of paper files was not followed by the destruction of the microfilmed copies.

(6) The first Communists (Shipurji Saklatvala and Walter Newbold) were elected as Labour Party candidates in 1922, but following the proscription of the Communist Party by Labour, this ceased to be a possible route to Parliament.

(7) It is to be noted that it was not only parliamentary elections that were subject to Special Branch surveillance. The same was true of local authority elections.

(8) TNA, KV 2/2033 (Metropolitan Police, Special Branch Report, 1 June 1945).

(9) TNA, KV 2/2033 (Minute of Outgoing Phone Call from Roland Berger to Alf Maizels, 17 June 1946). As it happens, in one year the indolent Frankel had made no speeches, asked four questions (of which two were stooge questions), one supplementary question, and five words of interjection.

(10) TNA, KV 2/2033 (Metropolitan Police, Special Branch Report, 3 August 1945).

(11) TNA, KV 2/2033 (Metropolitan Police, Special Branch Report, Stepney Branch Communist Party Parliamentary Election February 1950, 27 February 1950).

(12) HC Debs, 12 December 1946, cols 1415–16.

(13) ibid., cols 2191–16.

(14) HC Committee of Privileges, HC 353 (1946–7), 15 January 1947, Q 93–4. Earlier in the course of his evidence, Piratin claimed that Lucy had said that, ‘You people are too sensitive’, and that, ‘You people must learn to behave like Englishmen’, and that, ‘I am a Welshman and I can fight, not like you people’: ibid., Q 72.

(15) HC Debs, 19 December 1946, col. 2323. On this occasion, in view of the apologies from the two men involved, Morrison, as Leader of the House, had proposed to let the matter lie without a reference to the Committee of Privileges; Churchill insisted otherwise.

(16) HC Committee of Privileges, 3 February 1947.

(17) ibid. The police reports on the incident can be read in TNA, MEPO 3/2625.

(18) Winterton appeared to acknowledge his part in the drama, asking the Speaker on 19 December 1946 whether ‘in view of certain circumstances’ he could be ‘excused from adjudicating on this particular matter’ (HC Debs, 19 December 1946, col. 2329).

(19) See initially, HC Debs, 19 December 1946: ‘He not only insulted me, but he also insulted my race’ (col. 2324).

(20) HC Committee of Privileges, 15 January 1947.

(21) HC Debs, 10 February 1947, cols 42–43.

(22) ibid., col. 43.

(23) TNA, KV 2/2033 (Metropolitan Police, Special Branch Report, 1 August 1945).

(24) HC Debs, 10 February 1947, col. 62.

(25) TNA, KV 2/2033 (Metropolitan Police, Special Branch Report, 30 July 1946).

(26) TNA, KV 2/2033 (Cross-Reference to Intercepted Letter from National Health Advisory Committee of Communist Party, 10 April 1946).

(27) TNA, KV 2/2033 (Minute of Incoming Phone Call to Phil Piratin from Private Secretary to the President of the Board of Trade, 19 April 1949).

(28) TNA, KV 2/2033 (Transcript of Outgoing Phone Call by Phil Piratin to Bevin’s Secretary, 30 June 1947).

(29) TNA, KV 2/2033 (Transcript of Incoming Phone Call from Leslie Solley MP to Phil Piratin, 18 September 1947). Piratin was in Committee and Solley spoke to Hymie Fagan instead.

(30) TNA, KV 2/2033 (Transcript of Outgoing Phone Call by ‘Murphy’ to Michael Shapiro, 6 March 1947).

(31) TNA, KV 2/2033 (Transcript of Incoming Phone Call by Phil Piratin to Hymie Fagan, 6 February 1947). In the same file, there is also a transcript of an incoming phone call by Jack Gaster to Harry Pollitt, 20 January 1947, which appears to be on the same subject, discussing possible witnesses.

(32) This account is based on a press reports in the Evening Standard, 6 and 7 June 1950, a copy of which is to be found in Piratin’s MI5 file.

(33) Evening Standard, 6 June 1950.

(34) ibid.

(35) D. Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s (London, 2000), p. 104.

(36) TNA, KV 2/2033 (Metropolitan Police, Special Branch Report, 6 September 1950).

(37) See e.g. p. 172 below.

(38) The Times, 5 December 1950, Daily Worker, 13 January 1951.

(39) Daily Telegraph, 2 November 1950. This information about Piratin not being the Stepney Branch Party candidate was known to the Metropolitan Police Special Branch (TNA, KV 2/2033, Metropolitan Police, Special Branch Report, 6 September 1950), before it was reported in the press. It was also known to the Special Branch on 23 October 1950 that Piratin had been replaced by Ted Bramley as Party candidate, Bramley being a reluctant replacement, (i) because he did not have a car; and (ii) because he did not have any money. He was promised a car for the election and that Stepney would foot the bill for his campaign: TNA, KV 2/2033 (Minute of a Source Report re Ted Bramley, 23 October 1950).

(40) E. C. S. Wade and G. G. Phillips, Constitutional Law (6th edn, London, by E. C. S. Wade, 1960), p. 103.

(41) Daily Telegraph, 2 November 1950.

(42) TNA, KV 2/2033 (Transcript of Outgoing Phone Call by Phil Piratin to Jack Gaster, 8 November 1950). Piratin did, however, secure a minor victory. A public examination of his affairs took place as part of the bankruptcy proceedings on 12 January 1951. The Official Receiver was aware that his wife had a successful clothing business and suggested that ‘she should pay part of this’, to which Piratin replied that ‘she had absolutely refused to do so’, claiming that ‘She holds very, very strong views on the matter’: Daily Worker, 13 January 1951. Piratin had earlier claimed that he had no assets other than the suit of clothes he stood up in. He was now employed as a Party worker, for which he received a wage of £5 15s weekly (plus a travel allowance and expenses). Although he received £1,000 annually while an MP, he had to use this to pay office and secretarial expenses, leaving him with a weekly income of £6 10s: The Times, 5 December 1950.

(43) Pritt was expelled from the Labour Party in March 1940, ostensibly for his support of the Soviet invasion of Finland.

(44) TNA, KV 2/1063. Hollis was then head of B4 (to become F2 under the Petrie re-organization). See Appendix.

(45) TNA, KV 2/1063. DSS: Director Security Service, Jasper Harker. Harker became DDG when Petrie was appointed DG in April 1941.

(46) It is to be noted, however, that Mrs Pritt is recorded in a Security Service report dated 16 May 1951 as having stated that in 1941 Pritt was in immediate danger of being prosecuted under the Defence Regulations. Pritt had been warned to moderate his utterances by an Intelligence Service friend, a warning that was said to have had some effect (TNA, KV 2/1065). The author of that report was evidently unaware that in June 1941 MI5, principally Hollis, had contemplated instigating a prosecution for spreading alarm and despondency and making ‘him a laughing stock among his fellows’ (TNA, KV 2/1064). It is almost certainly this episode that Mrs Pritt was referring to. Pritt had allegedly told a barrister (Sir Patrick Hastings) that the Churchill government was negotiating peace terms with the Germans, word got to ‘Buster’ Milmo, who then reported back to MI5. On Milmo, see pp. 102–3 above.

(47) TNA, KV 2/1064 (Hollis to Col. Allan, 5 July 1941). Allan replied in longhand at the bottom of Hollis’ letter (8 July 1941).

(48) TNA, KV 2/1064 (Alan Grogan to Pilkington, 19 March 1942).

(49) TNA, KV 2/1064 (Miss Moore to Pilkington 4 April 1942).

(50) This did not mean that MI5 had been give carte blanche: HOWs still had to be applied for. However, the procedure allowed for the interception of all mail entering the country from abroad or sent abroad, and permitted the suspension of the usual six-monthly review by the Home Office of existing HOWs. Crucially, it permitted Petrie to issue the following ‘Director General’s Circular’ on HOWs:

In urgent cases it is sometimes necessary to put on a letter or telephone check immediately, and in such cases the General Post Office are prepared to act on a telephone request in advance of the receipt of a Home Office Warrant. Such requests should only be made on the authority of the head of a Division or, in his absence, the head of the section concerned; the authority should be noted on the file and the HOW must be submitted for signature without delay (TNA, KV 4/222, 13 August 1941).

It appears that this flexible approach was maintained after the war.

(51) TNA, KV 2/1064 (Minute sheet note, Pilkington to Ogilvie, 4 October 1941).

(52) D. N. Pritt, Autobiography of DN Pritt, Part Two, Brasshats and Bureaucrats (London, 1966), pp. 50–1.

(53) Pollitt was also heard to say that he thought that Pritt ‘didn’t really want to join the CP and his wife didn’t want him to’, and that he was pretending that he wanted to join (TNA, KV 2/1064, 16 August 1944).

(54) Fred Rose was a Communist MP revealed to be a Soviet spy by Gouzenko. See Chapter 10 below.

(55) ‘You will appreciate that Pritt is a person of some eminence both as a lawyer and a politician in this country. We should therefore be grateful if you would refer to us if you propose to make this information the grounds for any action’: TNA, KV 2/1065 (Letter from Sillitoe to Commissioner of South African Police, 2 June 1949). See also, p. 121 below.

(56) ibid. Both the documents sent to South Africa are recorded in the minute sheet of KV2/1064, rather than KV2/1065.

(57) Similar details were provided for the FBI in 1950, following the approach to Pritt by the members of the Communist Party of America, who asked him to represent them in their appeal to the Supreme Court. Additional organizations Pritt was reported to be associated with included the BPC and the British–Romanian Friendship Society, while it was also reported that he had visited the Soviet Union again in 1950, and that in recent months he had been in touch with the Soviet Ambassador, as well as other Soviet diplomats and officials in London.

(58) TNA, KV 2/1064.

(59) TNA, KV 2/1065.

(60) Wright (n 5), pp. 122, 222.

(61) Even Dick White took a fresh interest, and Krivisky’s information was crucial in convincing White of Harold ‘Kim’ Philby’s guilt in 1951.

(62) For instance, there are references on 14 and 15 May 1946 to ‘a most secret and delicate source’, indicating that Mrs Pritt had been in contact with the Russian Embassy to discuss travel arrangements: (TNA, KV 2/1064). Although this may not relate to an electronic source or an informant close to Mrs Pritt, it does illustrate the type of language generally used to refer to these types of very intrusive surveillance.

(63) TNA, KV 2/1065 (D. N. Pritt KC,16 May 1951).

(64) Security Service emphasis. A later report which is clearly from the same source and refers back to West’s ambition to work at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment is marked as originating from B1K/MK—Maxwell Knight.

(65) TNA, KV 2/1064 (30 January 1949).

(66) ibid.

(67) More often known by the post-1953 designation ‘A2A’ used in Wright (n 5), and favoured in C. Andrew, The Defence of the Realm—The Authorised History of MI5 (London, 2009).

(68) TNA, KV 2/3412. On 28 July 1945, B4B [the transcript was extracted in 1954 so A2A is the division and section credited on the document] overheard Peter Kerrigan stating that ‘Bing and Platts-Mills had once been Party members’ (Meeting of the Political Committee discussing the general election).

(69) See below, p. 156.

(70) TNA, KV 2/3412 (22 November 1946).

(71) TNA, KV 4/468 (Liddell Diary, 4 November 1946).

(72) TNA, KV 2/3412 (Minute Sheet Note).

(73) Burgess worked for McNeil from the time of McNeil’s appointment as a Minister of State at the Foreign Office in the wake of the July 1945 election. McNeil offloaded Burgess onto Christopher Mayhew at the IRD in December 1947: C. Mayhew, A War of Words: A Cold War Witness (London, 1998), p. 24.

(74) A. Boyle, The Climate of Treason: Five Who Spied for Russia (London, 1979), p. 282.

(75) See The Daily Telegraph 30 April 1948: ‘21 MPs Expected to Give Pledge.’ The Hornchurch Labour Party voted ninety-two to four in support of a resolution of ‘full confidence’ in Bing. Platts-Mills was expelled from the Party.

(76) TNA, KV 4/468 (Liddell Diary, 18 November 1946).

(77) TNA, KV 2/3412 (Minute sheet note, 19 November 1946). The paragraph ends here with an emphatic handwritten full stop. However, a final five words, although scribbled out, are legible. They say ‘outside the purely Party sphere’.

(78) Attlee made this statement in his Foreword to the autobiography of Percy Sillitoe, Cloak without Dagger (London, 1955). Attlee, although then still Leader of the Opposition, was apparently unaware that ministerial responsibility had been shifted to the Home Secretary in September 1952, with the minister’s supervisory powers much reduced. See Chapter 3 above.

(79) TNA, KV 2/3412 (22 November 1946). This is the date the note of the meeting is written up for the files. Liddell’s Diary has an entry for the meeting on 19 November 1946. The latter has not been released intact, and a couple of lines are missing before we are able to read that Attlee had ‘kept on repeating their names and saying: “Really, I should never have thought it” ’. Liddell considered this response ‘quite interesting’, since ‘REDACTED has, in fact, been a member of the Party since 1920’: TNA, KV 4/468 (Liddell Diary, 19 November 1946).

(80) TNA, KV 2/3412 (22 November 1946). In other cases, such as Hutchinson (the only one named), the individual was said to be close to the Party but there was room to doubt their current membership.

(81) Others on the Left suspected that they too had fallen victim to similar politically motivated interventions by MI5, including Pritt, who had been refused permission to give law lectures to audiences of servicemen. See the correspondence following Pritt’s offer to lecture troops on subjects like the English legal system on 29 May 1941. Also, the note by E. M. Furnival Jones to the Joint Military Chiefs of Staff, 13 April 1946, and the accompanying internal memo on the advisability of continuing to ensure that Pritt was not permitted to lecture the military: TNA, KV 2/1064.

(82) J. G. Hope, ‘Surveillance or Collusion? Maxwell Knight, MI5 and the British Fascisti’ (1994) 9 Intelligence and National Security 651, at pp. 652–3. According to Hope, Knight was at various times, Deputy Chief of Staff and the British Fascisti Publicity Officer, and was a British Fascisti member between 1923 and 1930. Knight was associated with MI5 from 1925 and became an MI5 officer in 1930.

(83) See H. Hemming, Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster (London, 2017).

(84) TNA, KV 2/1064.

(85) TNA, KV 2/3412 (Maxwell Knight to Dick White, 26 February 1947).

(86) TNA, KV 2/3412 (Memo to White and Hollis, 27 March 1947).

(87) TNA, KV 2/3412 (Knight to White, 30 April 1947).

(88) TNA, KV 2/3412 (Klugmann to Knight, 5 May 1947). The subject matter was trivial.

(89) C. Pincher, Their Trade is Treachery (London, 1981), p. 116. Pincher got most of his information for the book from Peter Wright.

(90) J. Miller, One Girl’s War, Personal Exploits in MI5’s Most Secret Station (Kerry, 1987 edn), p. 65.

(91) TNA, KV 2/996 (Wilfred Vernon, 25 May 1948).

(92) ibid. Meredith first came to the attention of MI5 via the reports of an informant at Farnborough, who identified him as a Communist ‘known to hold extreme Sinn Fein views’.

(93) Weiss claimed that one of his own handlers had complained that Vernon and Meredith had provided ‘poor quality material’: Extract from Weiss’ interrogation, 20 January 1948. Extracts from the interrogation relating to Vernon and Meredith feature in both KV2/996 (Vernon) and KV2/2200 (Meredith).

(94) NCCL, The Strange Case of Major Vernon (London, 1938).

(95) ibid., p. 17.

(96) The ubiquitous D. N. Pritt KC managed to convince the magistrates that Vernon had committed only ‘technical’ breaches of the Act. W. H. Thompson was Vernon’s solicitor. Pritt discussed the case—without using Vernon’s name—in D. N. Pritt, Autobiography of DN Pritt, Part One, From Right to Left (London, 1965), pp. 154–55. According to Weiss, Meredith had told him that Vernon had confessed to Pritt that he was a spy (TNA, KV 2/2200, ‘Extract from Interrogation Report on WEISS Mentioning MEREDITH’, 20 January 1948). Vernon’s defence is also discussed in NCCL (n 94), p. 20.

(97) TNA, KV 2/996 (Note by J. H. Marriott, B2, 5 October 1948). The document is dated 25 May 1948.

(98) TNA, KV 2/2200 (Note by J. H. Marriott, B2, 19 October 1948).

(99) TNA, KV 2/2200 (Note by J. H. Marriott, B2, 20 December 1948).

(100) TNA, KV 2/2200 (From the Note Shown to P. M. on 20 December 1948).

(101) TNA, KV 2/2200 (Joe Jaggers, Ministry of Supply to Martin Furnival Jones, MI5, 6 December 1948). Meredith was eventually moved away from secret work.

(102) TNA, KV 2/2200 (Frederick William Meredith, by W. J. Skardon, 30 December 1948).

(103) A. Roberts, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900 (London, 2010), pp. 401–2.

(104) For the position at the time of writing, see A. W. Bradley, K. D. Ewing, and C. J. S. Knight, Constitutional and Administrative Law (17th edn, Harlow, 2018), pp. 221–2.

(105) There is some discussion of Ramsey in A. W. B. Simpson, In the Highest Degree Odious (Oxford, 1992), the leading study on Regulation 18B.

(106) HC 164, 1939–40, para. 15.

(107) Roberts (n 103). MI5 removed all mention of Vernon’s status as an MP from the report on George Weiss—the ex-Soviet agent who had revealed Vernon’s pre war role—that was sent to the FBI in Washington. They were ‘fully conscious of the necessity of not making embarrassing remarks to the Americans about Labour MPs’: TNA, KV 2/996 (R. T. Reed to T. A. Robertson, 31 July 1948).

(108) Skardon had reassured Meredith as best he could back in December 1948. When ‘interrogating’ him, Skardon claimed to have told Meredith that ‘so far as I knew, no prosecutions were intended in respect of offences upwards of ten years old and I said he need not worry on that score’: TNA, KV 2/996 (Extract from Report of Interrogation of F. W. Meredith on 6 January 1949 by B2A Mr Skardon).

(109) Note also that despite MI5’s interest in Geoffrey Bing, there is no evidence in Bing’s file to indicate that MI5 put him under technical surveillance, intercepted his mail, or set Skardon’s watchers on to him until after he had lost his seat in the 1955 election. It may be that it was not until Bing was no longer an MP that he was considered to merit such attention.

(110) TNA, KV 2/996 (Interview with Wilfred Foulston Vernon on 4 February 1952, by W. J. Skardon).

(111) TNA, KV 2/996 (Minute sheet note by E. McBarnet, B2B, 13 May 1952).

(112) TNA, KV 2/996 (Minute sheet note by C. A. G. Simkins, B2A, 20 May 1952).

(113) The last minute sheet entry released to the National Archives. The date stamps on the cover indicate that MI5 was periodically consulting or adding to Vernon’s file up until his death in 1975.

(114) TNA, KV 2/996 (Minute sheet entry 781) (the date has been removed but the entry follows a note on the DG’s brief for use at his meeting with Attlee dated 24 June 1952, and it appears that Sillitoe probably met with his old boss on 25 June 1952).

(115) TNA, KV 2/996 (5 February 1952). There is a copy of Skardon’s report of his visit on file.

(116) TNA, KV 2/996 (Minute sheet entry 341 B2A, 18 February 1952).

(117) TNA, KV 2/996 (Doc. 343a, 19 February to G. F. Saffery at the GPO).

(118) Briefly, ‘SF’ was a system whereby a microphone in the telephone handset continued to transmit after the handset had been replaced in the cradle. In all other respects the telephone would operate normally, but when ‘SF’ had been installed, the MI5 B2B team in London would be able to listen to conversations—and much else besides—in the room where the telephone was situated. If, however, a telephone was installed at the end of a long hall, for example, away from the living area, it was rarely of much use to the MI5 eavesdroppers. A telephone in the living room, on the other hand, could pick up a considerable amount of domestic conversation. Knowledge of the date of the proposed meeting was also crucial: these were not voice-activated devices connected to tape recorders. If MI5 wanted to ‘listen in’ back in 1952, the GPO employees at Leconfield House (the MI5 offices in Mayfair) working for B4B had to connect to the line and record the meeting on an acetate disc.

(119) That these letters referred to Meredith and his wife’s activities is confirmed by comments by MI5 officers elsewhere in the file. MI5’s arrangements with local police forces are touched upon at pp. 23, 71, 79–80, 94–6, and 126 above.

(120) TNA, KV 2/996 (Minute sheet note 771 dating from May 1952) (the sheet has been photocopied in order to make redactions and the days of the month have been semi-obscured). A note in the file in which Simkins refers to recording the results of the telephone and mail checks, which would very likely have referred to what information the SF turned up, has been entirely redacted.

(121) It seems Noel-Baker was in contact with some of the leaders of the Cypriot independence movement who were detained in the Seychelles.

(122) HC Debs, 2 August 1956, col. 1597.