|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
MI5 Not Nine to Five
Defending the Realm: Inside M15 and the War on Terrorism
By Mark Hollingsworth and Nick Fielding
André Deutsch, 2003 (New edition), £8-99
‘MI5 NOT Nine to Five’ – the promotional line advertising the BBC TV drama Spooks – attempts to convey a picture of the allegedly ‘fast’, ‘dynamic’ and ‘slick’ world of the British intelligence services (MI5), who spend night and day in ‘defence of the realm’ so we can all sleep well in our beds at night. Mark Hollingsworth and Nick Fielding’s book shows a different type of MI5, however, one made up of ‘bureaucracy’, ‘inept decision-making’, ‘secrecy’ and ‘corruption’.
Hollingsworth and Fielding were nominated for the UK Press awards in 1998 for breaking the story of the former MI5 officer David Shayler. One of the many good reasons why socialists should read this book is for the sections that cover the Shayler case. How New Labour and MI5 tried to gag Shayler is something to take note of in the light of the events around the death of the Ministry of Defence expert, Dr David Kelly.
The authors place this updated version in the context that, since 9/11, it has been ‘widely regarded’ that a ‘failure of intelligence’ on the part of Western security services resulted in no prior warning been given of those attacks. The authors put the case that MI5 has actually "never really adapted after the Cold War" to the threat that ‘modern-day’ terrorism offers. Showing how, after the Cold War, MI5 took over the role as lead organization in the fight against terrorism after a bitter turf war with Special Branch and other agencies, the book also shows how the young David Shayler started to doubt his chosen career with MI5 after the service failed to stop a number of IRA bombs going off in London due to its bureaucratic ways of working.
The best thing about this book is how Hollingsworth and Fielding put the case that MI5 can in no way be trusted to ‘protect’ the people of this country. On the contrary, time and again British intelligence has attacked the rights and livelihoods of working-class people through phone tapping, surveillance, vetting, and the running of agents within the labour and trade union movement, with the clear political aim of defending the power of the capitalist state at all costs.
The book goes into the history of MI5, how it developed from the organisation established by the 1914 Defense of the Realm Act to the multi-million pound agency it is today. From the time of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution MI5’s work was expanded as establishment fears grew of "disillusioned members of the armed services or discharged service personnel", 20% of whom were unemployed, ‘embracing Communism’. "Thus began rigorous surveillance for subversion in the labour movement and the armed forces". In 1919 MI5, then known as the ‘Secret Service Bureau’, set up its first card index on subversives who were a threat to the state. The first three files were on Vladimir Lenin, Eamon de Valera (who was branded as a ‘violent Irish Republican extremist’) and Leon Trotsky!
Following the December 1923 general election, which led to the election of the first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, MI5 recorded its ‘uncertainty’ about a government whose "leading members had at various times been under surveillance". How far this ‘uncertainty’ went was shown when, four days before the subsequent election of October 1924 (won by the Conservatives), the ‘Zinoviev letter’ was published by the Daily Mail. "The document, later revealed as a forgery, purported to show that the Communist International was instructing the British Communist Party to promote and agitate for revolution by using sympathisers in the Labour Party". MI5 and MI6 officers were behind the whole affair to destabilise the minority Labour government and get the Tories back in.
Hollingsworth and Fielding also go into some detail about MI5’s role in trying to ‘destabilise and undermine’ the Labour governments of Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s. By "leaking false stories to the press they [MI5] claimed that Wilson was having an adulterous affair with his political secretary, was involved in corrupt land deals, and had links with the KGB". The book goes on to explain how Wilson himself believed that MI5 was out to get him, so much so that Wilson "briefed journalist about his fears". This from the prime minister who MI5 was meant to report to! The ‘Wilson Plot’ has been covered before in many other books but Hollingsworth and Fielding effectively answer the claim made by Stella Rimington (the former Director-General of MI5) in her 1994 Richard Dimbleby lecture, that the plot ‘just did not take place’.
Nobody could see Wilson as a threat to British capitalism but MI5 and ‘others’ (like Lord Mountbatten) were terrified of the pressure that workers from below could bring to bear on the leaders of the Labour Party – then a capitalist workers’ party – in times of struggle. This was one of the reasons why MI5 has worked within the labour and trade union movement throughout its history. This is clearly shown by Hollingsworth and Fielding when they describe the way MI5 worked for Thatcher and the Tories in the 1980s, in particular their role in combating the miners’ strike of 1984-85 and the Militant leadership of Liverpool city council from 1983-86.
It is no surprise that the Socialist Party and its forerunner, the Militant, has come under the eye of MI5 over the years with our long and proud record of struggling to defend working-class people. When we were called ‘the Militant Tendency’ and campaigned in the Labour Party for socialist policies, we led Liverpool city council’s battle for decent housing, jobs and services, and later defeated Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax, which eventually forced her to resign.
As Hollingsworth and Fielding write, the "Trotskyist party, Militant Tendency (MT), were of more significance as they had engaged in secret long-term entryism of the Labour Party. This was more of a security case because of the covert methods used. In 1992, the MT renounced entryism and F Branch officers believed that the expensive surveillance should stop. However, MI5 continued to tap their phones and intercept their mail and faxes at considerable expense".
Hollingsworth and Fielding further record that in "early 1993, the Home Office warrant for this surveillance needed to be renewed. The F Branch officer in charge researched the case and concluded there was no security justification… [or] intelligence case for renewing the warrant". But the Branch director had a different view on the matter. "I don’t care… go and find a case" and, with that, we take it that the officer found ‘a case’ as the then Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, renewed the warrant.
Hollingsworth and Fielding also refer to the case of a young man who, in 1993, applied for a job at the Inland Revenue. MI5 had an ‘dossier’ on him that showed he was ‘no longer politically active’ but, due to a ‘edited transcript of a tapped telephone conversation’ between the young man and the Liverpool office of the Militant, the case was looked at by a senior manager who ruled that, as the man was called ‘comrade’ by the other person on the phone, this showed that he was still a ‘member of the Militant’ and so therefore should not get the job. The role of MI5 should be exposed and the secret state brought to account, with these agencies totally abolished.
It is important to be aware of the role of the secret state but that should also be tempered with the knowledge that things are never clear cut. After all, both before and during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, there were agents of the Russian state inside the Bolshevik Party working against the revolution and yet they had little effect on the historic events of 1917. That is what the ruling class is so frightened of, the working class finding its true strength and power to change society. This book highlights how much the ruling class fears this power and for that is well worth the read.