MI5

Book Review: ‘Searching for Lord Haw-Haw’ by Colin Holmes

The kind folk at Routledge sent me a copy of Searching for Lord Haw-Haw to review as promotion for their new Fascism and Far Right series and I am delighted to review the book below.

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Colin Holmes, Searching for Lord Haw-Haw: The Political Lives of William Joyce (London/New York: Routledge, 2017) pp. 494. ISBN 978-1-138-88886-9.
(£14.99 softcover/£75.00 hardcover)

After Oswald Mosley, William Joyce (infamously known as Lord Haw-Haw) is probably the most well-known British fascist of the inter-war period. A leading member of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF), Joyce was forced from the party in 1937 and after passing through a series of pro-German groups and societies in the lead up to the war, fled to Berlin in the days before the Second World War started. Joyce joined a small bunch of English-speakers in Nazi Germany who worked for Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry, who broadcast pro-Nazi material over the airwaves and wrote similar tracts for distribution in German POW camps and elsewhere. As the deftest of these propagandists, Joyce became known as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ to British listeners, who remained unaware of Joyce’s real identity (although several MI5 staff suspected that he was Haw-Haw). Captured by British soldiers trying to escape Germany at the end of the war, Joyce was repatriated to Britain to stand trial for treason. Despite having an American birth certificate (and hence US citizenship), Joyce was found to betrayed his allegiance to the British Crown and was hanged in early 1946.

Although there have been studies of Joyce’s life before, Colin Holmes, an expert historian on anti-Semitism in modern Britain, has undertaken considerable new research to bring a more well-rounded picture of Joyce and his motivations, both personal and political. Born in the United States, his family traveled to County Galway when he was a child and was a pro-Unionist protestant throughout his youth. Despite Holmes’ diligent research, there are aspects of Joyce’s life in Ireland that are unknown and the first chapter is possibly the weaker section of the biography. However his recruitment as an informant for the Royal Irish Constabulary during the Irish War of Independence and the battles he had with local Irish Republicans, explored in detail by Holmes, is important, because it shapes his future political outlook – fiercely pro-British, a believer in British imperialism and willing to be involved in political violence.

Moving to England in the 1920s, Joyce fancied himself as an academic and tried to pursue a career in English literary studies, while at the same time joining the Conservative Party. Soon Joyce found the Tories too timid and became involved the British Fascisti formed by the eccentric Rotha Lintorn-Orman. Joyce and future Imperial Fascist League leader Arnold Leese both joined a splinter party from the BF called the National Fascisti before Leese formed the Imperial Fascist League in 1929 and Joyce joined the BUF in 1932. One of the interesting things about Joyce for historians is that his journey on the right hand side of politics saw him travel through almost every organisation on the far right and Holmes does a great job to explore the various small and sinister organisations that Joyce encountered in both the 1920s and 1930s.

Joyce did not join Oswald Mosley’s New Party, but was an early member of the BUF, formed in late 1932 after Mosley travelled to the continent to witness Italian fascism in person. Joyce soon found himself in a leading position within the BUF and was known as a confident, yet vitriolic, public speaker. Holmes shows that Joyce gained considerable influence within the BUF during his tenure, but as his star rose, his relationship with Mosley soured and was eventually excluded from the BUF in early 1937.

From the time that he was kicked out of the BUF until his leaving for Germany in August 1939, Joyce, again, was involved in a number of organisations on the British far right and who pushed for stronger links between Britain and Germany. As well as the National Socialist League that he founded with fellow ex-BUFers John Beckett and John MacNab, Joyce was also associated with the Nordic League, the Anglo-German Fellowship and the Right Club. Despite a small number of wealthy benefactors, Holmes shows that Joyce was always looking for sources of income for his political ventures and his associations with many of those who pro-German were as economically motivated as they were political. Holmes also shows that MI5 had penetrated deeply into these circles by the late 1930s, although they were unable to detain Joyce before he fled to Germany in the month before the war.

Joyce and his wife moved to Germany just before the outbreak of the Second World War, using his British passport to leave the country, but not becoming a German citizen until after the war started. For several months in the early days of the war, Joyce assisted the Nazis while holding a British passport, even though he was born in the United States, and was later to be a naturalised German. This is an important detail which becomes relevant at this 1945 trial. Holmes emphasises the irony of the extreme British patriot having to renounce his British citizenship and pledge allegiance to a foreign power during the time of war.

While in Germany, Joyce worked for Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry and while also authoring works on Germany’s future triumph over Western Europe and the bankruptcy of modern Britain, he was most well-known for broadcasting Nazi propaganda in English. Although he was not the first Lord Haw-Haw, a pseudonym used by several different broadcasters, Joyce came to personify the character. Looking at the effect that Lord Haw-Haw’s broadcasts had upon British morale during the war, Holmes uses Mass Observation records to show that while many British listeners dismissed Lord Haw-Haw’s ravings and thought of him as foolish, others were perturbed by his message, particularly as these broadcast often included information about Allied losses not covered in the British media. The book also shows that from the very beginning, the security services were also listening to Lord Haw-Haw and had been informed by several contacts that the voice of Haw-Haw was indeed Joyce.

Holmes depicts how Joyce, who desired attention and praise from his German employers, was given favourable treatment in the early years of the war, but as the war dragged on, this favourable treatment dried up and Joyce started to resent living in a country where wartime restrictions were so harshly felt. Increasingly plagued by alcoholism and abusive towards his wife, Joyce raged against his situation. As the Soviets got closer to Berlin, Joyce and his wife fled westwards and Joyce was eventually captured near the German-Danish border in late May 1945 by British soldiers, who shot him in the buttocks during a quick scuffle. Injured, he was taken back to Britain and within a few months was to be put on trial for treason.

The prosecution of Joyce was complex as it hinged upon the fact that Joyce, although an American citizen by birth, had travelled to Germany on a British passport and from the outbreak of the war until July 1940 (when he and his wife became naturalised German citizens) had broadcast at the behest of the Nazi regime, who were at war with Britain. Holding a British passport implied allegiance to the British Crown and by working for the Nazis while holding this passport, the prosecution argued, Joyce committed treason. Joyce was convinced that his American birth certificate would save him, as it had Eamon de Valera who was pardoned for treason after the 1916 Easter Rising.

Holmes navigates the intricate legal arguments put forward by both the prosecution and defence, though both the initial trail and the appeal. The reader is left with the impression that the successful prosecution and the upholding of the guilty verdict was a controversial interpretation of the law as it stood, with a suggestion that it was unlikely that Joyce would be ever be found not guilty. Once the guilty verdict was upheld in December 1945, execution was quick to follow and in early January 1946, Joyce was hung at Wandsworth Prison in London. Joyce seemed to have accepted his fate and according to Holmes, showed little regret for his political views and where they had led him since the 1920s.

Colin Holmes has done more than write a biography of Joyce, with a book that also explores the social history of the British far right in the inter-war period, outlines the intrigues of the British security services during this era and delves into the legal history surrounding Joyce’s trial for treason. It is an enjoyable read that uses the life of Joyce to traverse down a number of historical paths, tying together several fields of historical scholarship. Overall an ambitious, yet very accomplished, book.

You can order a copy of Searching for Lord Haw-Haw here.

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Policing Communism Across the British Empire: A Transnational Study

This is a revised (yet shortened) version of the conference paper I gave last week at the XXIV Biennial Conference of the Australasian Association for European History. I am currently knocking it into shape for submission as a journal article, so any feedback, comments or questions is most welcome. If you’re interested in reading the longer version, do send me an email.

A flyer from the campaign against the dissolution of the Australian Communist Party in 1951.

A flyer from the campaign against the dissolution of the Australian Communist Party in 1951.

The period after the Second World War looked to present the international communist and anti-colonial movements with an ‘interlude of hope’ as the forces of socialism and national liberation seemed to gather pace.[i] Based on the Lenin’s theory of imperialism, communists saw the collapse of the European colonial systems in Africa, Asia and the Americas as the catalyst for worldwide socialist revolution. On the other hand, these colonial powers, primarily Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal, also viewed colonial independence as a precursor for a communist takeover and prepared heavily to prevent decolonisation and the spread of communism.

The largest empire belonged to the British and there was an orchestrated effort from late 1946 onwards to allow colonial self-government where necessary, but also intense pressure put on the British armed forces and the security services to, in the words of Calder Walton, ‘to prevent former British colonies being absorbed by the Soviet Union as satellite states.’[ii] In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, this led to counter-insurgency measures being taken in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus (as well as support for the Royalists in the Greek Civil War), as well as ‘anti-communist’ interventions by the security services in other parts of the Middle East, Africa and South-East Asia.

While the threat of a communist takeover was more acute within the Commonwealth’s developing nations, the Dominions of Australia, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand and Southern Rhodesia were seen as vital allies in the battle against communism inside the Commonwealth and bulwarks of ‘democracy’ on the periphery of the former empire, charged with maintaining order within the ever increasing post-imperial Commonwealth. Although its struggles were not as bloody as those of French, Dutch and Portuguese decolonisation, Britain did not willingly give up its rule in every former colony were part of a wider strategy developed by successive British governments that was ‘carefully calculated to allow decolonization to occur on British terms rather than those of the indigenous people’.[iii] As Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon states:

The British government developed a concerted imperial strategy designed to secure the colonies for the Commonwealth in an orderly transfer of power while maintaining British influence in the region and strengthening overall Western dominance in the Cold War world.[iv]

In a bid to counter these national liberation movements and their links to communists, the British authorities, alongside the United States, the Australian and South African governments (as well as those of Canada and New Zealand), looked to co-ordinate an anti-communist response across the British Empire. While the British authorities were able to ban many communist or workers’ parties in the British colonies, in the Dominions, where there was self-government, the British tried to build an anti-communist consensus. This was achieved through several measures:

  1. By a constant relay of information about ‘communism in the colonies’ via the Foreign Office through the various High Commissions;
  2. by the establishment of security agencies in liaison with the British and the Americans to gather and distribute intelligence on communist activists in each country;
  3. the monitoring of suspected communists inside the trade union movement, the civil/public service and other civil society organisations; and
  4. the introduction of legislation to ban the Communist Party.

Although much of this was driven by the British (as well as by the United States as the new global superpower), in some areas, the authorities in Australia and South Africa went beyond what the British government was inclined to do domestically, resulting in a process where often the periphery that drove the anti-communist policies and strategies of the metropole. Alongside this, there was also the horizontal transmission of anti-communist politics and policy transfer particularly between Australia and South Africa – two countries where anti-communism became intertwined with white supremacy and shared a common outlook as the Cold War began.

This paper proposes that anti-communism in the British Commonwealth as pursued by the ‘white’ Dominions fuelled by two overlapping sets of transnational ties. Firstly, there was a keen sense of imperial responsibility felt by the Dominions (particularly Australia) to maintain the Empire/Commonwealth and assist in the fight against communism, which threatened both domestic politics and the political situation in the colonies (such as Malaya). Secondly, there was the wider concept of the global West under the umbrella of the hegemonic dominance of the United States and an allegiance to the ‘global colour line’ promoted by the USA’s informal empire.[v] To varying degrees, Britain, South Africa and Australia co-operated with each other to combat the communist threat, but also taking inspiration from other Anglophone nations, such as the US, Canada, New Zealand and Rhodesia. This formed the basis for the intelligence network, developed during the Cold War, known as the ‘five eyes’ network between Britain, the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.[vi]

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall.

The Foreign Office as co-ordinating centre for information

Beginning in the late 1930s, the Dominion Office, and then the Foreign Office, compiled a weekly report from the various High Commissions across the British Empire/Commonwealth, routinely titled ‘Communism in the Colonies’. These typically took in reports from the Dominions of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, as well as the various countries of the Indian sub-continent, India, Pakistan and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and on occasions, Ireland. Correspondence was generally directed towards the Foreign Office in London, but copies of most reports were distributed between the High Commissions in Canberra, Pretoria, Ottawa and Wellington.[vii]

The transmission of anti-communist materials went essentially three ways and this differed with the kind of report produced. Firstly, the Commonwealth Relations Office produced weekly reports on ‘Communism in the Commonwealth [or Colonies]’ that were distributed to the High Commissions in Canberra, Ottawa, Pretoria, Wellington, Dublin, Delhi, Karachi and Colombo. These were, for the most part, summaries of the communist movement in each country and the measures being taken against them. Secondly, there were in depth reports produced by the High Commission in each country, which were fairly constant, but not regular, in their production and these were sent to the Foreign Office in London. Lastly, these in depth reports were also distributed horizontally across the various Dominions, fostering links between the various countries.

The co-ordination of intelligence

Up until the late 1940s, the security and intelligence services of the Dominions were overseen by MI5 and MI6 (also known as the Secret Intelligence Service), with local Special Branches being involved in the policing and monitoring of political dissidents and extremists. Special Branches were established at federal and state/province level within most of the Dominions in the first half of the twentieth century, aided by the British security services. As the Cold War began in the late 1940s, the newly formed CIA (Central Intelligence Agency, taking over from the US Office of Strategic Services) and MI5 formed closer ties and it was felt that a more rigorous security service needed to be established in such places as Australia, Canada and New Zealand after a series of security lapses. Originally perceived as overseas sections of MI5,[viii] each country established a domestic security service modeled on the British agency.

Alongside the establishment of security services in the Dominions and the frequent reports on Communism in the Commonwealth via the Foreign Office, the Attlee government attempted to foster closer ties between the security services and the executive branches of the government with the creation of the Information Research Department (IRD) in 1948. The IRD was an inter-governmental body established to produce ‘covert anti-communist propaganda’ and although originally constituted to counter the Soviet-inspired World Peace Council, it was transformed under the Conservative government, led by Winston Churchill, in 1951 into a strategic counter-subversion body to deal with domestic and transnational communist threats.[ix] Like ASIO under Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, the IRD’s scope for counter-subversion went beyond known Soviet operatives and CPGB members and also targeted ‘fellow travellers’ attached the trade union movement and the British Labour Party.[x] Despite this work on counter-subversion, others in the security services were not convinced of the political threat posed by communism in Britain, and instead focused on the role that communists played within the trade unions.[xi]

Purging the trade unions

After a general freeze on industrial action during the Second World War by many of the Communist Parties in the Western world, strike action involving communists rose sharply in the late 1940s as the Cold War escalated and the international communist movement shifted to the left. These episodes of industrial action in all three countries led the authorities, as well as many others, to worry about communist infiltration in the trade unions. This led to increased monitoring of the trade union leadership in all countries and numerous reports by the security services, the police and various British High Commissions being circulated on the subject. For example, a 1947 report (made public in 1952) by the Investigation Officer of the South African Police declared:

it might be mentioned straight away that they have only one policy, viz. control of all trade unions in this and other countries which must ultimately be used to establish anarchy at a given moment in order to facilitate world domination. Local and present-day strikes are primarily engineered by them in order to practise and perfect the necessary machinery for their ultimate object. In order to accomplish this, demands are invariably made on the employers for increased wages to an extent which can never be met in order that no alternative but a strike may be the issue.[xii]

With their links to the trade union movement, the ruling Labor/Labour governments in Australia and Britain both renewed their rules enforcing the proscription of members of the Communist Party from joining and encouraged those trade unions that also banned Communist Party members. Phillip Deery and Neil Redfern suggest that this revived anti-communism was influenced by Harold Laski’s pamphlet The Secret Battalion: An Examination of the Communist Attitude to the Labour Party, which was distributed widely amongst Australian Labor Party branches and to the anti-communist Industrial Groups formed inside the Australian labour movement.[xiii]

Similar to the Chifley government, Deery and Redfern argue that ‘proscribing the CPGB or banning its publications was not seriously considered’ by the Attlee government. But in all three countries, calls were made on the right wing side of politics for the banning of the Communist Party.

National Party PM of South Africa, who oversaw implementation apartheid, D.F. Malan.

National Party PM of South Africa, who oversaw implementation apartheid, D.F. Malan.

Banning the Communist Party

Of all the anti-communist measures introduced across the three countries (and the wider Anglophone world), the most transnational of these was the banning of the Communist Party (or attempts to ban it), where the governments of South Africa and Australia took inspiration and lessons from each other and other attempts to ban the Party in Canada and the United States. In a 2004 speech, Justice Michael Kirby stated:

In the United States,… the Supreme Court had held up as valid the Smith Act which was in some ways similar to the Australian anti-communist legislation. It, in turn, had borrowed elements from a South African law which subsequently became the model for “suppression of terrorism” laws in a number of British colonies.[xiv]

Shortly before his electoral victory in 1948, Opposition leader D.F. Malan cited the efforts made by Canada and Australia during the Second World War to deal with the ‘threat’ of communism, praising that ‘Canada decided to banish the Communist Party in that country and to take every necessary step to ensure Canada’s safety.’[xv] He further added:

In Australia we have the same phenomenon at the present time. I think it was announced last Saturday that two of the principal parties in Australia had announced that they wanted steps to be taken against Communism in so far as it exercised an influence from outside on Australia but also from within and that they also wanted steps to be taken to ban the Communist Party and its allied organisations. South Africa’s Government is powerless and is doing nothing in the matter…[xvi]

The Malan government and the Menzies opposition (and after December 1949, the Menzies government) did share some thoughts on how to deal with the communist ‘threat’, with the Communist Party Dissolution Bill (Cth) and the Suppression of Communism Bill both being entered into Australian and South African Parliaments respectively within months of each other in 1950. Records from the National Archives of Australia show correspondence between the High Commissions in Cape Town and Canberra in March 1950 that drafts of each country’s anti-communist legislation were confidentially shared prior to the introduction of Menzies’ bill in April 1950. A cablegram from the Australian High Commissioner in Cape Town to the Australian Minister for External Affairs states:

The Union Government has made available for your strictly confidential information, a copy of the draft bill to combat Communism, which I am sending by today’s airbag. It has yet to receive the final approval of Cabinet.

The Union Government state they would seek particulars of any Australian Government measures directed to the same object.[xvii]

In the end, the ban on the CPSA was the only one to survive (and did so until 1990), with the Communist Party Dissolution Act 1950 being ruled unconstitutional by the High Court of Australia and a subsequent referendum to change the Australian Constitution to allow such an Act narrowly failed in 1951. In the parliamentary debates on the Communist Party Dissolution Bill in Australia, veteran Labor MP Jack Holloway raised the fact that Australia was, in May 1950, leading the way in its pursuit of anti-communist legislation, stating:

No other country within the British Commonwealth of Nations would dream of passing legislation of this kind. Great Britain and Canada have refused to do so whilst South Africa is watering down its original proposals to deal with the Communist Party.[xviii]

Legislation was not introduced in Southern Rhodesia as the small communist circle inside the country worked clandestinely within the Southern Rhodesian Labour Party and as an extension of the CPSA (and after 1952, the South African Communist Party). Despite calls for the banning of the LPP, Canadian PM Louis St. Laurent rejected these proposals by the Opposition in May 1950 and the Party was allowed to continue legally until it was reconstituted as the new CPC in 1959. As The Guardian commented on during the debates over the Suppression of Communism Bill in South Africa:

Canada has learnt her lesson. Must we learn it too, in this country, only from bitter experience?[xix]

Conclusion

This paper shows that the co-ordination of anti-communism in the British Commonwealth went beyond the sharing of intelligence between the members what would become the ‘five eyes’ network in the Cold War (and post-Cold War) era. Through government agencies, the institutions of the Labor/Labour Parties and the executive branches in all three countries, Britain, Australia and South Africa drew upon each other’s policies and legal frameworks to develop a shared anti-communist response, although adapted to local political and social conditions. Between 1947 and 1951, this co-ordinated response was strongest, before divisions in the international communist movement and in the Anglophone world emerged in the late 1950s. Using the metaphor that Zhdanov promoted at the outset of the Cold War in the late 1940s, by the late 1950s, there no longer just two camps – the democratic/anti-fascist/anti-imperialist and the anti-democratic/fascist/imperialist camps – but a myriad of camps amongst the global West, the global East and the non-aligned, which complicated the Cold War. With these divisions, the anti-communist and imperial unity projected by Britain, Australia and South Africa (alongside the United States and other Anglophone nations) in the early Cold War period became more fractured and these countries were less likely to act in step with each other as they once did.

18-culture

[i] Robin Gollan, Revolutionaries and Reformists: Communism & the Australian Labour Movement 1920-1950 (Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1985) p. 143.

[ii] Calder Walton, Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire (London: Harper Press, 2013) p xxvi.

[iii] Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon, Imperial Endgame: Britain’s Dirty Wars and the End of Empire (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) p. 2.

[iv] Grob-Fitzgibbon, Imperial Endgame, p. 3.

[v] John Munro, ‘Imperial Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement in the Early Cold War’, History Workshop Journal (2015) doi:10.1093/hwj/dbu040 (accessed 21 July, 2015); Richard Seymour, ‘The Cold War, American Anticommunism and the Global “Colour Line”’, in Alexander Anievas, Nivi Manchanda & Robbie Shilliam (eds), Race and Racism in International Relations: Confronting the Global Colour Line (London: Routledge, 2015) pp. 157-159.

For further discussion of the ‘global colour line’, see: Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008).

Both Lake and Reynolds, and Seymour have taken this notion from W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks (1903) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/408/408-h/408-h.htm (accessed 20 July, 2015).

[vi] See: Stephen Lander, ‘International Intelligence Co-operation: An Inside Perspective’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 17/3, (2004) pp. 481-493.

[vii] See: Letter from Lord Harlech to Viscount Cranborne, 3 December, 1943, DO 35/1199, NA; Letter from Lord Harlech to Clement Attlee, 16 April, 1943, DO 35/1199, NA.

[viii] Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (London: Allen Lane, 2009) p. 371.

[ix] Thomas J. Maguire, ‘Counter-Subversion in Early Cold War Britain: The Official Committee on Communism (Home), the Information Research Department, and ‘State-Private Networks’, Intelligence and National Security, 2014, DOI: 10.1080/02684527.2014.895570, pp. 2-4.

[x] Maguire, ‘Counter-Subversion in Early Cold War Britain’, p. 12.

[xi] Andrew, The Defence of the Realm, p. 406.

[xii] Cited in, South African House of Assembly Debates, 13 June, 1952, col. 7949.

[xiii] Phillip Deery & Neil Redfern, ‘No Lasting Peace? Labor, Communism and the Cominform: Australia and Great Britain, 1945-50’, Labour History, 88 (May 2005) p. 66.

[xiv] Justice Michael Kirby, ‘Comparative Constitutionalism – An Australian Perspective’, paper presented at the University of Chicago, 23-25 January, 2004, http://ccc.uchicago.edu/docs/kirby.pdf , accessed 13 April, 2014.

[xv] South African House of Assembly Debates, 15 March, 1948, col. 3198.

[xvi] South African House of Assembly Debates, 15 March, 1948, col;.3199.

[xvii] Cablegram from Australian High Commissioner (Cape Town) to Minister for External Affairs, 3-4 March, 1950, A1838 TS201/2/26, NAA.

[xviii] Australian House of Representatives debates, 16 May, 1950, col.

[xix] The Guardian, 11 May, 1950.

We’re all off to Newcastle: The AAEH 2015 Conference

Coming around every two years, the Australasian Association of European History conference is being held in Newcastle (Australia) in July and by all accounts, it is one of the funnest conferences to attend for historians in the field (see Brett Holman’s reports from 2013 and 2011). Like many others, I will be making my way via plane, train and bus (and possibly taxi) to the grand city of northern New South Wales for four days of history, high quality research and hi-jinks. The paper I am presenting is ‘Policing communism in the British Commonwealth: The co-ordination of anti-communism between Britain, Australia and South Africa in the early Cold War‘. Here is the abstract:

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the British Commonwealth faced the twin ‘threats’ of decolonisation and communism, with many across the Commonwealth seeing decolonisation as the first step towards communist dictatorship. Recent scholarship has shown that the British attempted to ‘manage’ the decolonisation process to prevent socialist movements or national liberation movements sympathetic to the Soviet Bloc from coming to power. Therefore Britain, along with the Dominions, co-ordinated their intelligence services to combat the communist threat across the Commonwealth. This paper will explore how this co-ordination of anti-communist efforts was implemented in Britain, Australia and South Africa in the early Cold War era, which involved the violent breaking of strikes using the armed forces, the close monitoring of ‘persons of interest’ and the (attempted) banning of the Communist Party. It will seek to demonstrate that the history of anti-communism, similar to communism, has a transnational dimension that is only starting to be investigated by historians.

So if you’re attending the conference, come and say hello. And if you’re not, why not? (If you’re interested in reading the paper and not attending, send me an email and I will send something to you after the conference)

Furthermore, a number of people from the newly formed Australian Modern British History Network will be attending, so discussions may be afoot about organising something under the AMBHN banner in the not too distant future. So if you’re attending and have an interest British history or the history of the British Empire/Commonwealth, also come and say hello (and join the FB group) and maybe help get this new network off the ground!

See you at the Hunter on Hunter!

And to finish, here is some classic music from the Newcastle region:

From the newly released NA papers: Thatcher, riots and the aftermath of Scarman in the early 1980s

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 11.01.05 pm The National Archives have just released archival documents relating to the Thatcher government for 1985 and 1986, with further releases in July 2015. There have been many media reports already on many other aspects of the papers (such as the introduction of the Poll Tax in Scotland, the Anglo-Irish relationship and her love-hate relationship with Australian PM, Bob Hawke) but I thought I’d explore one of the digitised files that has been so far overlooked – a file on public disorder and the aftermath of the Scarman Report on the Brixton Riots, spanning from late 1981 to late 1985 (PREM 19/1521).

As I have written before, the 1981 riots and the inquiry by Lord Scarman signified a low point in the history of Thatcher’s first term as Prime Minister, with public support for the government and for the police greatly dropping amongst large sections of the British population. From this position, the government generally accepted the recommendations of the Scarman Report and on paper, agreed to implement most of its recommendations. The most significant reform was the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (which came into effect in January 1986), but scholars, such as John Benyon, have since argued about the effectiveness of the government’s other initiatives.

The newly released file shows the government’s statements about the extent of their actions in line with Scarman’s recommendations. But the file also shows that the government was still sceptical of Scarman’s suggestion that unemployment, poor housing and declining access to social services were underlying reasons for the outbreak of the riots across Britain in 1981. After further unrest broke out in September 1985 in the Birmingham borough of Handsworth, newly appointed Home Secretary Douglas Hurd made a speech to the Association of Chief Police Officers stating:

Handsworth needs more jobs and housing. But riots only destroy. They create nothing except a climate in which necessary development is even more difficult. Poor housing and other social ills provide no reason for riot, arson and killing. One lady interviewer asked me whether the riots was not a cry for help by the rioters. The sound which law-abiding people at Handsworth heard on Monday night… was not a cry for help but a cry for loot.

Hartley Booth, Margaret Thatcher’s Special Adviser on Home Affairs, repeated this assertion in a report to the Prime Minister in the days after the unrest in Birmingham. Booth criticised Labour MP Claire Short for her statement that ‘unemployment caused the riot’ and said that ‘socialist-style policies’, such as ‘huge state intervention and subsidy’, had failed to quell unrest. Booth reported to Thatcher:

there is overwhelming evidence that [the unrest] was a criminal exercise, carried out by selfish, greedy and idle youths

Booth also suggested that it was outside agitators and groups from the far left that contributed to the riot. As well as proposing that people had come from places such as Wolverhampton, Sparkbrook and Manchester to take place in the riots, Booth also asserted:

The police have clear evidence, as has Special Branch, that a group from Notting Hill with Far Left connections – entitled the Tabernacle Group – were present in Birmingham this week, and were the architects of a demonstration which it was intended should be filmed by the television cameras yesterday outside the Law Courts.

This suspicion of ‘outside agitators’ were responsible for the riots was a subject that Thatcher’s advisers came back to between 1981 and 1985 (I have already written about a report drawn up by Peter Shipley for the Home Office in 1981 which suggested that ‘outside elements’ were involved in the 1981 riots here). Thatcher’s Private Secretary for Parliamentary Affairs, Tim Flesher, wrote a memo in November 1982 that a ‘Trotskyite rent-a-mob’ had attempted to disrupt a meeting of the Brixton Police Community Liaison Committee. Tony Rawsthorne, the Private Secretary for Home Secretary Leon Brittan, wrote to Flesher in July 1983 to outline the risks of public disorder that summer and included the following passage about ‘subversives’:

the assessment from the Security Service is that there is no intelligence to suggest that any black or white subversive groups or individuals are planning civil disturbances or that they are considering how they might exploit any disturbances that might otherwise arise. If disturbances were to break out, some subversive groups would be likely to move quickly to extract the maximum political advantage from them.

After the 1985 riots, Quintin Hogg, the Lord Chancellor, expressed in a letter to the Home Secretary’s staff: I hope the factual account of Handworth [sic] will either confirm or repudiate the impression I get which is that there was an element of deliberate planning there either by drug pushers or left wing anarchists.

The file also has two memos that refer to a special report on subversive groups drawn up by MI5, but there doesn’t seem to be evidence of this report in the digitised file. A memo from Thatcher’s Principal Private Secretary, Clive Whitmore, to Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, dated 22 Feb, 1982 mentioned the report:

The Prime Minister was very interested to read the report by the Security Service on exploitation by subversive groups of last year’s civil disturbances which you sent me with your minute AO7560 on 19 February 1982.

I am unsure why this report seems to be missing from the digitised file. Maybe it is something worth FOI-ing in the near future.

The CPGB response to the New Statesman letter and the Historians’ Group: From the newly released MI5 files on Hobsbawm

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The National Archives have just released a series of MI5 files, including a number of files on British Marxist historians Erich Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill. 8 files on Hobsbawm have been released, with two digitised. The first of these digitised files is particularly interesting because it covers the period 0f 1956, when the Historians’ Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain was involved in dissenting actions towards the Party leadership. One of the Historians’ Group’ actions was the writing of a letter that criticised the Party’s support for the Soviet invasion of Hungary, which was intended for publication in the Daily Worker. It was not published the newspaper and thus the letter was sent to the New Statesman and Tribune, who subsequently published on December 1, 1956. I have blogged about the letter here.

In this file, there is the transcript of a letter, intercepted by MI5, sent from Betty Grant to Edwin Payne, both members of the Historians’ Group. Dated December 3, 1956, the letter addressed the New Statesman letter and individual members of the Historians’ Group, such as Eric Hobsbawm and John Saville. Grant’s displeasure with Hobsbawm and Saville can be seen in several statements within the letter. Concerning the New Statesman letter, Grant wrote:

In the view of the letter to the N.S. (and, I gather, also Tribune) Eric will have to make up his mind pretty soon where all this is leading to. He seems not entirely his own master now.

On the topic of Saville and his recent departure from the Party (after the publishing of the third issue of the dissident journal The Reasoner), Grant told Payne that she had appealed for him to consider re-joining the Party and working on Historians’ Group’s publications in the near future. Grant wrote that his response was ‘a sort of apologia for his political actions, which are really rather revealing, but not entirely honest’. Grant then transcribed a section of a Saville’s letter that said:

[Eric] told me in general terms what was being proposed, viz, that the new grouping was to be a Marxist Historians Group not affiliated to the C.P. I don’t think there was any alternative because although all of us outside want very much to continue the personal, political and intellectual contacts we have developed over the past decade, we should not have been prepared to continue within a Party framework. Nor, should I add, will I be prepared to accept a Party fraction inside the new organisation,…

Grant finished the letter by saying that ‘I no longer think the main task of the Hist. Gr. is to “keep sweet” those who have left or are intending to leave’.

Alongside this intercepted letter, MI5 also bugged two phone calls that shed a little bit more light on how the Party leadership reacted to the New Statesman letter. One was a ‘telecheck’ of a discussion between J.R. Campbell, editor of the Daily Worker, and George Matthews, the Party’s Assistant General Secretary, dated November 20, 1956. The file shows that Campbell read the entire letter to Matthews and finished with ‘George supposed CAMPBELL wanted to know what to do, and he would ring him back.’

The second was the transcript of a phone discussion between John Gollan, the new General Secretary of the CPGB, and Hobsbawm. Hobsbawm had written a letter, intended for publication in the Party fortnightly journal, World News, on Lenin and Party factions in the Bolsheviks and how this applied to the forthcoming Special Congress of the CPGB. Gollan said that World News would be printing the letter, but he was disappointed in Hobsbawm’s attitude, alleging that he was misrepresenting Lenin’s argument.

The telephone conversation took place on November 22, 1956, and there seems to be an undercurrent that Gollan knew that the Historians’ Group letter had been sent to the New Statesman. This is alluded to in the opening description of the call:

ERIC said JAMES had suggested he (ERIC) rang JOHNNIE to find out what happened about ‘this letter of mine which has been discussed today.’ JOHNNIE said did he mean the letter to WORLD NEWS, it was that letter and it would be going into WORLD NEWS…

Another part of the conversation that alluded to the New Statesman letter was when Gollan complained:

if you want the thing in WORLD NEWS, we’re now getting to the stage when everybody points pistols to our heads, if it doesn’t go into WORLD NEWS one week it will go into the New Statesman the next week and frankly I don’t like the whole attitude.

The rest of the conversation between Gollan and Hobsbawm makes for fascinating reading as it shows how the Party leadership tried to keep the debate inside the Communist Party and felt that the Party was being very accommodating in the letters that it was publishing in World News. Gollan said ‘I don’t think any comrade can have much criticism about what they’re getting printed now. Its a very fair crack of the whip for different points of view.’ But Hobsbawm reminded Gollan that the past behaviours of the Party press had led people to be suspicious of attempts to stifle debate. Although Hobsbawm said that no one really wanted to take the debate outside the Party press, he qualified this by saying:

there’s a lot of suspicion about the printing which has cropped up in the past… if people knew that responsible statements which are not just silly are likely to get printed they wouldn’t start saying well they’ve had to be printed elsewhere.

Gollan complained about this approach, arguing:

See comrades want to have it both ways, they want to keep the fight in the Party and they want to keep the fight outside the Party. And you can’t have it like that, life’s not like that.

Gollan then added:

I don’t like this type of attitude. I don’t think its particularly Communist and I don’t think its particularly comradely.

The CPGB’s correspondence relating to the New Statesman letter and the dissenting actions of the Historians’ Group’s members are held in the CPGB archive at the Labour History Archive and Study Centre at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. As revealing as this internal correspondence is, the MI5 surveillance files add something else to our knowledge of what was occurring within the Communist Party in 1956. The documents I have discussed here are only the tip of the iceberg!