Tony Benn on the Security Service’s Hostility to the Labour Movement

The revelation last year that Tweezer’s government was funding the Democracy Initiative and its parent organisation, the Institute for Statecraft, revealed that the British secret state was still hostile to the Labour movement and determined to attack and disrupt any political figure standing for radical change. The Initiative was supposed to combat pro-Russian propaganda on the Net, but instead focused on smearing and trying to discredit British and foreign political leaders, of whom it disapproved. One of them was, surprise, surprise!, Jeremy Corbyn. Although supposedly a private company, the Democracy Initiative had extensive links to the British secret state and the cyberwarfare section of the SAS. As the election rolled on, we also saw various army chiefs and spokespeople for the intelligence agencies tell the Tory papers that they regarded Corbyn as a threat to national security.

In fact the British secret services were always suspicious of the Labour Party. They’re part of the establishment, and so regarded the Labour movement as a whole as subversive. There is considerable evidence that MI5 was behind the rumours in the 1970s smearing the Labour premier Harold Wilson as a KGB spy. Lobster has published a series of articles about British intelligence’s campaign of disinformation against Labour, including how the IRD – a now defunct intelligence department – published fake documents and news during the 1970s to smear Labour politicos like Tony Benn as IRA sympathisers and Communists.

Benn was very much aware of this, and discusses it and the establishment’s general animosity towards the Labour movement in many of his books, including the volume: Tony Benn: Arguments for Democracy, edited by Chris Mullin. Benn wrote

The security services, or at least an element within them, regard those who work within the Labour movement, especially its socialist activists, as being a security risk for that reason alone. Conservatives would not be so classified.

This interpretation of a security risk has never been publicly discussed by ministers, although, if it is as widespread as I believe it to be, it raises major issues of public policy and civil liberties. For it means that the security services, far from being limited in their work to the discovery of direct external and internal threats to our democracy, are also active indirectly as the upholders of the status quo in our society and are treating socialists who wish to change that status quo by democratic means as potential enemies of that democracy.

In the long run this is the biggest threat to political freedom from the state. In the short run it is used to justify a degree of surveillance of certain organisations and individuals in Britain which goes far beyond what is publicly admitted.

The methods used include the widespread interception of communications, the extensive tapping of telephones, and the maintenance of a bar upon employment for people in both government and sensitive industrial work against whom no conceivable charge of treason or subversion would stand up for one moment in any court of law, nor would it command public support if it had to be justified publicly. Hence the secrecy.

The trade unions are of course a special target for surveillance by the security services. The evidence recently published by the Post Office Engineering Union must be taken seriously in this context. There is no room for doubt that active trade unionists do have their telephone calls regularly intercepted,. and this surveillance is redoubled during industrial disputes, as in the miners’ strikes in 1972 and 1974. I was present on one social occasion when a former Labour prime minister indicated this quite clearly.

Twide, as a minister, I was told categorically that the candidates I had proposed for major public appointments were not acceptable on security grounds. The two men concerned were senior members of the General Council of the TUC, active in the Labour Party, and each was then playing a key role in supporting the policies of the then Labour Government. In each case it took a letter from me to the prime minister personally, and in one case a request for a meeting with him, to discuss the matter, to have these objections overruled. Had I not done so, the men would have remained disqualified from public service on security grounds.

Ministers who have direct responsibility for the work of the security services, if asked about the way they exercise their responsibilities, always insist that their control is direct, personal and complete. I very much doubt whether this is the case. If it is so, the Labour ministers must have authorised the incidents of which I have personal knowledge, and this they certainly should not have done. But in my view it is much more likely that the security services do not inform the ministers of what is going on, or cover up their activities in phrases designed to secure acquiescence. (pp. 75-6).

He adds further details to this description of the activities of the British secret state in note 5 to that chapter, ‘Civil Liberties and the Security Services’ on pp. 241-2. This states

According to Mr Chapman Pincher in his book Inside Story, Sidgwick and Jackson 1978, MI5 have files on more than two million people and our security services apparently believe that 59 Labour MPs in the 1974-9 Parliament had ‘current or recent connections with Communist, Trotskyite and other Marxist organisations’. The Special Branch also appear to take a close interest in politics and trade union affairs. For example, during an occupation to prevent closure of a British Steel subsidiary in Greenwich, workers came across Special Branch reports on two of their colleagues. For details of this and other cases see Crispin Aubrey, Who’s Watching You, Pelican, 1981, pp. 36-7.

Benn produced a list of his own suggestions for combating the threat to British democracy from the security services, the civil service establishment and new technology. These were

  1. An analysis of the dangers to the security of the state, external and internal.
  2. A study of the technology now available and the use to which it is being put by other comparable countries.
  3. To consider the case for publishing every year all information that could be published without endangering security, including: i, The budget and staffing of the security services. ii. The names of those in charge of them, as in the USA. iii The guidelines issued to those services relating to their objectives and methods. iv The numbers of dossiers in existence relating to political activities. v A report on the reasons for collecting these dossiers and an account of what happens to the information acquired for inclusion in them. vi An annual report on the total number of interceptions of communications by telephone or mail. vii The full list of foreign security services with which UK security services have arrangements for reciprocal exchange of information, or with which they work.
  4. To argue the case for a special House of Commons select committee, meeting, when necessary, in secret, composed exclusively of privy councillors empowered to question both the responsible ministers and security chiefs on the whole range of their policy and activities – to report annually to Parliament in a form which can be published.
  5. To press for an appeals procedure for citizens reporting to the select committee on matters concerning their own records only.
  6. To have the same rights to information for citizens about records and files kept on them as are enjoyed by US citizens under contemporary US legislation.
  7. To secure the introduction of a ‘Security Services Annual Act’ under which, as with the Army and the Airforce Acts of earlier years, Parliament gains the ultimate control of the security services. (p. 89).

These are all excellent suggestions, but there is absolutely no chance that they’ll ever get passed in the foreseeable future. Boris has an overwhelming majority, which means that he will have no trouble blocking any attempt to reel in the security services. There would also be strong opposition from the Blairites in the Labour Party. When Blair got into power, he and his cabinet were not at all interested in making the security services more accountable. This was so even when MI5 had kept many of them under surveillance as potential subversives. It is symptomatic of this attitude that although Jack Straw was offered the chance of looking at his MI5 file, he didn’t.

And so unfortunately the security services will continue to work against Labour activists, viewing them as subversives, even when they are no such thing.

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