This is the first in an occasional series of articles on the role of the British secret services in trying to undermine the left in Britain over an 80-year period. Starting shortly after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, I will evaluate events including the Zinoviev Letter, the alleged attempted coup against Wilson, operations against trade unions in the 1970s, the black operations intended to link a Labour government to the IRA also in that decade, the now infamous operation against the NUM during and after the 1984/5 strike and the framing of George Galloway. In some of these cases, the role of the security services is no longer a matter of doubt or debate, in others a variety of conflicting allegations exist. I will make use of publically-sourced materials only; as such do not expect any revelations, although I hope the discussion will make some new connections and raise new questions.
Before the Zinoviev letter
In the immediate aftermath of the Russian revolution of October 1917, and while war was still raging across Europe, the British security services took an immediate interest in Russia and the impact of Russian politics on British public opinion and the left in Britain. Left-leaning war correspondent Arthur Ransome, who wrote articles for the Daily News and later the Manchester Guardian, arguing for recognition of the Soviet government (and also opposing western intervention in the Civil War that followed) found himself the subject of intense security service interest, including an arrest in 1919 (when he was questioned by Sir Basil Thompson) and a good deal of innuendo that he was a Soviet agent. Russian documents exist that appear to show that Ransome and his wife (Evgenia Shelepin - former private secretary to Leon Trotsky) had smuggled a quantity of Romanov valuables out of Russia to raise money for 'Bolshevik causes' in the UK (the documents may be genuine or may have been a forgery). Although not a classic example of what was to follow in this protracted war - Ransome was not a Labour activist, though some of the characters in his story feature in other inter-war stories - his story does at least feature one (and possibly two) of the classic tactics employed by the secret state against its perceived enemies: the Soviet agent tactic (undermining somebody's arguments by suggesting that they are being made because of attachment to - and possibly financial reward from - a foreign state rather than genuinely-held views or principles) and the forged document tactic.
At the same time as Arthur Ransome was attracting great interest from the security services, a more definitively Labour and leftist figure was also under investigation: Fenner Brockway. As the editor of the Labour Leader, he had been investigated since receiving a letter from Lenin in 1915, and was continued to be investigated through the 1940s and 1950s (Ransome, at least, was removed from MI5's blacklist in 1937 - by which time he was probably the nation's favourite children's author!)
But security service interest in undermining the work of the British left - and employing it for clearly political purposes - emphatically got under way with the so-called Zinoviev Letter; the scandal that was to contribute to the premature end to the first Labour government, in 1924.
The Zinoviev Letter:
Many of the classic hallmarks of security service attacks on the left were present in that first major assault on the British left: the forged Zinoviev Letter. The letter, which was alleged to have been sent in 1924 from Zinoviev - then head of the Comintern - to British communists, recommending an increase in seditious acts to precipitate a British revolution reached British newspapers with extraordinary timing. The Times and the Daily Mail published the letter just four days before the General Election, and at a time when Ramsay MacDonald was arguing that the British government should enter into a new treaty with the Soviet government, which would include a loan of £40 million to promote trade and economic growth in the country following its long years of civil war and famine. Essentially this would have been the political realisation of the campaign that Ransome had been fighting in 1919 - but the Conservatives were swept into office in 1924 and the treaty vanished.
Some later security-service forgeries were very poor efforts. The alleged documents produced by the 'Clockwork Orange' campaign in the 1970s such as a 'Vote Labour' pamphlet advocating assassinations, another pamphlet, "Economics: Master or Servant of Mankind" attributed to Tony Benn, Denis Healey and Stan Orme from Autumn 1971, calling for revolution, and a forged letter from a pro-IRA group in the US, thanking leading Labour politician Merlyn Rees for an (imaginary) donation to Republican causes on Labour's behalf all would surely stretch the credibility of anybody who read them. The association of established Labour politicians - including some on the party's right, like Healey and David Owen - with extremist and violent political views were smears beyond all credibility. In contrast, the Zinoviev Letter was convincing enough to be believed by many - both in the public and in official circles. Ramsay MacDonald himself would appear to have thought it credible.
Research since that time appears to confirm that a number of UK spies were involved in the forgery. Sydney Reilly who, in the best traditions of the security services had been dispatched to Russia to assassinate Lenin, was one of the alleged forgers, alongside Arthur Maundy Gregory. A top SIS spy, Reilly, interestingly enough, met Ransome in 1918 and produced one of the first secret service reports on him (probably the one that concluded that Ransome was 'in the hands of the Bolsheviks'). Offiical connections between SIS and Reilly were allegedly severed in 1922, before the Zinoviev forgery. Gregory was recruited by Reilly, but his work had mainly been in the area of spying on UK politicians, compiling information about scandals. His own scandal was that of selling peerages, firstly on behalf of Lloyd George, and later for a Conservative government (for which he was imprisoned and, after his release, paid a £2000-a-year pension by the Conservative Party). While some research has raised questions about the identity of the forgers, pointing to the possible assistance of pro-White Russian emigres, it was undoubtedly leaked to the press with the full knowledge of senior people in MI6 (Desmond Morton was involved) and MI5, agent Major Joseph Ball was a key player - he went on to work for the Conservative Party as a spin doctor.
The impact of the letter was extraordinary. It was not to be the last time that elements in the security services would try to bring down a Labour government.