The Enemy Within
Verso, London, 1994
Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party
John Murray, London,1995
Seamus Milne has written a very good book, an essential book. Investigative journalism in this country is very hard to do, and Milne deserves great praise for this achievement.(1) The core of the book is the investigation of the various operations to smear the National Union of Mineworkers and Arthur Scargill. There is much about MI5, Libya and Roger Windsor. There is everything short of a smoking gun. However, Milne is also running a thesis about the strike which says: (a) the miners nearly won; and (b) they were only defeated because the government cheated.’Margaret Thatcher …..bent her government’s own rules…. large-scale misuse of GCHQ and its outstations’. (p. 3, emphases added)
Underpinning this thesis is the unstated assumption that the miners were not a subversive threat. This assumption seems to me to be logically necessary because had the miners been a subversive threat to the state, it is difficult to see how the state could be accused of ‘cheating’ in its reaction to that threat: the survival of states is not a game, to be governed by rules. Milne is ambiguous about this. On the one hand he attributes the view of the NUM as a subversive threat to ‘the Thatcherite faction in the Cabinet and their supporters in the security services …. the NUM under Scargill’s stewardship was the most serious domestic threat to state security in modern times’. (pp. 4/5) On the other hand he describes Scargill as ‘head[ing] the country’s most powerful union in full frontal conflict with the state in a way not seen for at least sixty years’. (p. 18) But how does in ‘full frontal conflict’ with the state differ from being a ‘subversive threat’ to the state? Put it another way: can you imagine any state not treating an event like the NUM strike, with the NUM’s leadership, as a subversive threat?(2)
Milne tries to lay much of this at Mrs Thatcher’s personal door. ‘By branding the miners “the enemy within”, the Prime Minister was giving a calculated signal of unambiguous clarity to all government agencies that the gloves should come off in the war with the NUM.’ (p. 18) But do such agencies need this kind of cue? Do such agencies see themselves as beholden to the government of the day? Is it not the perceived duty of many such agencies to frustrate would-be insurrectionists in Britain?
Milne’s ambiguity about whether or not the NUM was ‘a subversive threat’ reflects the more important ambiguity at the heart of Milne’s book about the Communist Party, domestically and internationally. Milne tells us on p.156 that ‘the miners had the strongest communist tradition of any British trade union…the NUM was effectively at the feet of the left.’ What does ‘at the feet of’ mean? Is Milne acknowledging that the MI5/Thatcherite view that the CPGB was running the strike was correct? He reports that Alain Simone, the head of the International Miners Organisation that was being set up with Arthur Scargill, had been general secretary of the Warsaw-based Miners Trade Union International, whose chief affiliate had been the Soviet miners’ union. (p. 92) Well, were the former Soviet and Soviet bloc unions fronts for the state or not? My impression is that they were. (Ditto the Libyan unions.) Is it not the case, for example, as Brian Crozier was fond of reminding us, that the head of the Soviet equivalent of the TUC, the Soviet All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions in the mid 1970s was Alexander Shelepin, a former KGB head?(3) Is it not extremely likely, at the minimum, that Mr Scargill’s colleague, Alain Simone, was a former (?) servant of the Soviet state? In any case, how could the NUM leadership think it a good idea to appeal to Libyan and Soviet ‘trade unions’ for support? If you want to challenge a right-wing Tory government lead by a cold warrior, the one thing you should not do is publicly ally yourself with that government’s betes noires .(4)
The miners’ strike and the relationship between the CPGB and Arthur Scargill is the most interesting bit of Beckett’s history of the Party. The Right assumed that there was a fairly straightforward relationship between the two. Mr Beckett gives us a much more complex and interesting picture in which the CPGB leadership could see that the miners were going to be defeated and thus should settle, but could not persuade Mr Scargill of this fact. In desperation, says Beckett, they brought Bert Ramelson, former CPGB industrial organiser, out of retirement to talk to Scargill.(5) ‘Ramelson wrote a careful appreciation of the situation and took it personally to Scargill. Scargill stopped reading after the first few lines, threw it on the floor and accused Ramelson of betrayal.’ (p. 205) Beckett tells us that the CPGB’s then industrial organiser, Peter Carter, wrote a report on the strike which was ‘so strongly critical of Scargill that the CP suppressed it.’ (p. 207)
Look, no sources.
These are fascinating anecdotes but they are unsourced, like the rest of the book. Why do people do lots of research, talk to lots of people – listed at the front of the book – and then not tell us who is the source of what? Here we have what purports to be a history book, but without sources, what status has it? As far as I can tell it is reliable, but I know a tiny fraction of the material here.
My second disappointment with this book is that the author has not made enough of the revelations of Soviet covert funding of the Party.
The existence of ‘Moscow gold’ means that our understanding of the Party post-war has to change. Mr Beckett has not done this sufficiently: the ‘Moscow gold’ thing is tacked on at the end of the book. Beckett offers no ideas as to where the money really went, and says relatively little about the CPGB’s industrial department (which I assume was the recipient of much of it) and its relations with the rest of the Party. There is interesting (but unsourced) new material on the link-man with Moscow, Reuben Falber, which shows him taking charge of the Party’s secret money in the 1930s when he created the hitherto secret Commercial Branch, ‘a group of about fifty businessmen, mostly Jewish, who joined the Party in the late 1930s and early 1940s.’ (p. 147)
The author has made hardly any use of the material produced by the CPGB’s enemies in or close to the state – the anti-subversion people. He quotes from the Douglas Hyde memoir, I Believed, but not from the contemporaneous memoir of London working class CPGB member, Bob Darke; and of the combined output of Common Cause, IRIS, the Economic League, Geoffrey Stewart-Smith and ISC et al there is not a sign.(6) He actually quotes from the 1974 Sunday Express Chapman Pincher piece announcing the existence of G.K. Young’s Unison to meet the ‘communist threat’, but does not identify any of the participants – does he know? – nor the source of the cutting.(7)
Beckett’s account of the influence of the CPGB since 1964 might be summarised thus: the Party helped prevent Wilson’s attempts at a pay policy in the 1960s, helped destroy the ‘In Place of Strife’ proposals, and helped destroy the attempted pay policy in the 1970s, which led, ultimately, to the Winter of Discontent. In other words, the CPGB maintained a consistent policy of using the trade unions to frustrate Labour’s social democratic policies. This is what Communist Parties always did. (And quite right too, you may think. I do not, as it happens.)
The Soviet threat?
The anti-subversion lobby, the Croziers and the Pinchers, were presumably informally briefed on the reality of the ‘Moscow gold’. How would it go? Something like this? ‘Listen old boy. Can’t tell you the source, of course – need to know – but take it from me we have evidence, hard concrete evidence, that the KGB is funding the party. It is absolutely solid gold.’
Nudge, nudge; wink wink.
Thus emboldened by official sources – IRD, I would guess – they took the fact of CPGB influence on the trade unions, and added the assumption of Soviet control. What a thrill to be part of the anti-subversion lobby in 1974 and 5! All their theories were being substantiated! The Russians ran the CPGB, which ran the unions, which ran the Labour Party. It was simple: all you had to do was follow the money! To this theory the Communist Party itself contributed by boasting of its influence on the Labour Party;(8) and the Labour Party itself added the final touch in 1973 by abolishing the Proscription List of organisations Labour Party members could not join. This decision, taken, as far as I can tell, because the Proscription List seemed like a hold-over from the Cold War, was used by the anti-subversion people as evidence of just how far the KGB influence had run. Right into the heart of the party! Unaware of the ‘Moscow gold’ evidence, the Left dismissed the KGB angle as manifestly paranoid nonsense.(9) (And the people who really benefitted from the end of the Proscription List were the Revolutionary Socialist League – the Millies.)
Close but no cigar?
Seamus Milne would have us believe that the miners nearly won. In the years since the strike, he is the first person I have heard make this claim so boldly. The most I had previously heard claimed was that, because of the politicising effects on the coal-fields, the strike had not been a total loss. Arthur Scargill has said something like this. Milne’s claim is based on a couple of anecdotes about the level of coal stocks towards the end of the strike and a fragment of evidence that Mrs Thatcher was thinking she might have to call in the Army to move coal. I think Milne is day-dreaming. The miners’ defeat was the culmination of the British revolutionary Left’s fantasies. Though rarely so crudely stated, these said: as we push the modern capitalist state it increases repression. Push it hard enough and the repression will radicalize the working class and thus – hey presto! – we will be on the way to having a revolutionary working class
The British Left had its show-down with the British state and Thatcherism in 1984/5 and lost. (Beckett suggests that the CPGB leadership did not want this show-down.) After 1974 and the Saltley depot event, the Conservative Party and the British state prepared not to be defeated ever again: the miners and the British Left in general did nothing. Like other generals before him, Arthur Scargill tried to re-fight his last battle. Miners in shirt-sleeves faced a paramilitary police force which had been training for nearly a decade. As Roger Windsor put it in his open letter to Stella Rimington, quoted on p. 174 of Milne’s book: ‘Let’s face it, the NUM were never more than a bunch of amateurs trying to take on the might of the state.’
Windsor is probably the spook Milne thinks he is, but this is true.
Big boys’ rules.
- He received admiring reviews from the British Left, notably Paul Foot (the Spectator, 21 January 1995), Christopher Hitchens, (London Review of Books, 8 December 1995) and John Pilger (New Statesman and Society, 6 January 1995)
For a hostile review of Milne see the historian Nicholas Hiley in theTimes Literary Supplement, 10 February 1995.
- A handy collection of quotations from Mr Scargill’s public utterances is in Scargill the Stalinist? Nicholas Hagger, Oak-Tree Books Ltd, London, 1984.
- Crozier discusses this in Soviet Analyst Vol 3 No 4, February 14 1974.
- Analogously, the last thing CND should have done was adopt the Stalinist language of ‘peace’, as in ‘peace movement’. People in CND to whom I put this point of view would respond with variations on ‘we must not let them – i.e. the Right– dictate our agenda’.
- Scargill described Ramelson as ‘a mentor of mine’ in the Ramelson obituary in the Guardian, April 16 1994
- Beckett may presume that the material from the anti-subversives is unreliable. This strikes me as one of the interesting questions in this field.
- This event is discussed in Smear! p. 231. Beckett is infuriatingly vague in places. ‘Briefly he [Ken Gill] was joined on the [TUC] general council by other Communists such as Mick McGahey’ (p. 182) But which ones? ‘Such as’ here just looks like ‘I don’t know and don’t think it worth looking it up.’
- See for example Seamus Milne’s obituary of Ramelson in the Guardian, 16 April 1994.
- The theory of the full-blown Soviet threat to Britain, via the CPGB control of the Labour Party, via the unions,
appeared in the Daily Telegraph, 28 January 1974.