Enemies within?

For most of the twentieth century – the period covered by David Caute’s Red List – the British establishment treated the activities of the intelligence services in much the same way it treated sexual intercourse: everyone knew it went on, but nice people didn’t talk about it. Founded not long before the First World War, the Security Service (MI5) remained officially invisible until 1989; It was another five years before its sister agencies, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, otherwise MI6) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), were publicly acknowledged. Since the mid-1990s the job of intelligence historians has been made easier by the opening of historical intelligence records, while the discipline itself has matured.

The doyen of the new intelligence history is Christopher Andrew, now emeritus professor of modern and contemporary history at the University of Cambridge, who, like Caute, began his scholarly career as a historian of modern France. He then turned his attention towards the British intelligence community, first piecing together its history from snippets and hints buried in more accessible government archives, later making the successful transition to Whitehall insider and author of MI5’s authorized history, The Defense of the Realm (2009). Caute – by contrast, a staunch outsider working from now declassified records – clearly regards Andrew as having accepted uncritically the standard line that throughout its history MI5 “scrupulously respected a clear dividing line between ‘national security’ and ‘party politics'”. If that misrepresents Andrew’s official history, which wisely stops short of making such categorical claims, it nonetheless sets the stage for what Caute calls his “Other History” of MI5 and its “covert pursuit of men and women arbitrarily designated as ‘subversives’ – but who were no such thing”.

Caute’s own area of ​​special interest is not intelligence history but intellectual history, or, more precisely, the history of intellectuals: how they have thought and fared under various political regimes in Europe, the United States, the Soviet Union and Africa. Caute is interested in “writers, philosophers, scientists and scholars of all kinds, but also artists, people engaged in the performing arts and members of certain liberal professions”. This casts a net wide enough for Red List to include figures from many professions and backgrounds, and of diverting views: left-wing poets of the Auden generation; “angry young men” such as Kingsley Amis; outspoken entertainers (including, most famously, the American Paul Robeson); Marxist historians of the New Left; dissenting scientists, trade unionists, campaigning lawyers and members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

As in his earlier study of Cold War cultural warfare, The Dancer Defects (2003), Caute has decided to organize these suspected “subversives” broadly according to profession, although this sometimes results in idiosyncratic groupings. Writers, artists, directors and musicians are all taken together, while publishers, and visual artists share a section with lawyers and a catch-all category of “fellow travellers”. Scientists are given a section of their own – reasonably enough, given Cold War panics about “atom spies” – while “Africanists” and other race-rights appear, somewhat oddly, alongside university historians and other “African academics”. Robeson and CLR James are the only non-white subjects of MI5 surveillance to receive any sustained commentary in Red Listthough Caute doesn’t say whether this reflects MI5’s practice in selecting persons of interest, or his own.

It is to be expected that intelligence services, founded and maintained as they are by those who wield political power, and empowered as they are to protect the body political from undesirable forms of dissent, will reflect the prevailing ethos of their political masters. Still, the picture of the Cold War-era security services painted in Red List is an unflattering one, of an organization haunted by Colonial Office dinosaurs and riddled with racial and class prejudice, struggling – like Britain itself – to reckon with changing circumstances both at home and abroad. Class and race were clearly powerful factors in many decisions to place individuals under surveillance. In his introduction Caute expresses clear disdain for those Special Branch officers “whose prejudiced reports sometimes exasperated the better educated officers of MI5”, but this distinction between officer class and other ranks has all but crumbled by the time we reach his concluding section, which quotes virulently racist and antisemitic statements made by Sir Vernon Kell (MI5’s first director general) and Sir Percy Sillitoe (DG, 1946-53), as well as Maxwell Knight (Kell’s director of intelligence) and Guy Liddell (Sillitoe’s deputy). The plods held no monopoly on prejudice.

MI5’s painstaking observation of communist and left-wing intellectuals, meanwhile, often stands in marked contrast here to their casual treatment of fascists and members of other right-wing political movements. To give the spooks their due, this was not always the fault of MI5 – which, according to Caute, saw requests to tap Sir Oswald Mosley’s telephone turned down by “successive Conservative home secretaries” – but on the evidence provided in Red List it appears that, even before the heady days of the Cold War, the security services have been readiest to scent possible “subversion” from intellectuals on the left of the political spectrum. Not that the Labor Party can claim to be blameless in this regard, as Caute’s chapter on “MI5 and the Labor Left” makes clear in its discussion of the Wilson administration’s use of security service intelligence during several high-profile industrial disputes of the 1960s.

Caute acknowledges that “the targeting of British ‘subversives’ … pales in scale to the McCarthy-era witch-hunts in the US”. Still, if the British approach seems generally to have been subtler and less draconian, it was far from entirely benign: for one thing, the American hearings, which became a byword for paranoid government interference, the covert activities of the British security service long remained outside public scrutiny. And Caute is right to note that those shady activities had serious consequences. Promising careers were diverted and in some cases curtailed. Travel visas were denied. Eavesdroppers listened to intimate conversations and kept tabs on the families of suspected dissidents. More insidiously, friends and colleagues were sometimes quietly invited to supply information on otherwise blameless individuals who, because of their political views, happened to have attracted the interest of the security services. One did not have to be a card-carrying communist (or even a clandestine one) to fall victim to such treatment: among Caute’s subjects are those singled out for too vocally supporting the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, for organizing trade union activities , or simply because an anonymous “secret source” offered an incriminating tip-off.

Fascinating though this material is, Red List It seems at times unsure of its audience. The fragmentary reference-book structure eschews narrative in favor of grouped but self-contained records of individuals under surveillance. This replicates quite neatly the combination of fascination and boredom that can sometimes accompany a sustained trawl of official records, but the volume is not exhaustive enough to save many professional or academic historians the effort of a trip to Kew; nor does it make for particularly engaging reading, notwithstanding Caute’s way with an arresting phrase – as when the poet Hugh MacDiarmid is glimpsed “rumbl”[ing] through the politico-literary landscape like a rhino of many horns”, or the communist-to-neo-Nazi convert Geraldine Hurley-Beresford is described as “a fellow-traveller constantly boarding trains without wheels”. These eccentricities stand out partly because of the predictability of what surrounds them. In cleaving so closely to the files themselves, David Caute’s brief biographical studies tend to replicate the tunnel vision of the secret state functionaries who pieced them together. What Red List neglects to do is to put these bureaucratic glimpses into the intellectual context of their times. Its criticisms of state intrusion into the lives of private citizens – justified though they may be – rely more on accretion than analysis.

James Purdon is a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews and the author of Modernist Informatics: Literature, information and the state2016

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