The influence of intelligence services on the British left

A talk given by Robin Ramsay to Labour Party branches in late 1996
This is an adaptation and massive compression of the pamphlet The Clandestine Caucus written and published by Robin Ramsay in 1996.
In that the sources for most of the claims contained in this talk are to be found. 

Dirty tricks and covert operations

In the official theory of British politics the state in general and the intelligence services in particular have no role. This is what I think of as the Disney version of politics; and this is the one that is still largely taught in British universities and regurgitated by the mass media. In the Disney version, the state is neutral. Interests in society align with political parties; and the parties contest elections. The election winners form governments whose policies are then implemented by the state. This was the view, for example, of Ron Hayward, the General Secretary of the Labour Party. In 1974 Hayward was informed by a private security company that the Labour Party’s headquarters were bugged. ‘Nonsense,’ said Hayward. ‘We don’t have Watergate politics in Britain.’ Hayward simply didn’t know. In 1974 hardly anybody outside Whitehall did.

But we do have ‘Watergate politics’ and have had them since the cold war. By Watergate politics I mean, loosely, dirty tricks and covert operations. (Obviously they did exist to some extent before the war, but I’m concentrating on the post-45 period.) With hindsight, post cold war, it was inevitable that the major working class party of the second most important member of NATO would be of interest to the intelligence services of several countries Britain, the US and the Soviet bloc.

The first I want to look at is the UK’s. In 1948 the psychological warfare organisation, IRD, the Information Research Department, was set up within the Foreign Office. IRD worked abroad trying to combat nationalism in the British Empire, and at home to combat the British left. IRD fed information and propaganda on ‘communists’ within the labour movement through confidential recipients of its briefings one of whom we now know was the late Vic Feather into the media, and into the Labour Party’s policing units, the National Agent’s Department and the Organisation Subcommittee. These latter organisations also received information on a local basis from some police Special Branches. Special Branches also surveilled the unions, the wider left and organisations like CND. Also, and rather important in this period, surveillance and data collection by private sector groups such as the Economic League, the Building Employers Federation, was still important. [As the state grew in the 30s, and then with the war and the cold war, the relative significance of the private sector declined.]

But we also had American activities to contend with. Through the State Department and the Department of Labour, the US ran education programmes and freebie trips for sympathetic Labour movement people. Hundreds, maybe thousands, no-one has yet assembled the data of British trade union officials and MPs that had these freebies. The State Department, via the London embassy, was sending back masses of reports. The idea that this was just the role of the CIA is false. None of these British reports have surfaced but over a 1000 pages of such reports made by the New Zealand US embassy to the State Department on the tiny NZ labour movement have been declassified and show surveillance down to the level of trades councils and union branches. It seems a reasonable assumption that the same attention to detail was being exercised on the strategically far more significant British labour movement.

There were also US labour attachés based in the London US embassy. One of them, Philip Kaiser, has written a memoir which includes an account of his years in London. He writes: ‘the labour attache is expected to develop contacts with key leaders in the trade union movement and to influence their thinking and decisions in directions compatible wth American goals…’

And not just the unions. Joseph Godson, Kaiser’s predecessor as the US labour attaché, got so close to Hugh Gaitskell that in the climactic struggle with the Bevanites, Gaitskell was planning strategy with Godson, running between Godson and the National Executive Committee.

Under the anticommunism banner a series of domestic antileft groups were, I believe, funded by the CIA in Britain. Let me emphasise believe; for I don’t have much concrete evidence. This network begins with Common Cause, which then produced an offshoot, Industrial Research and Information Services, IRIS, in the mid 1950s to work in the unions. Common Cause and IRIS produced information and propaganda against what it called ‘communists’; and IRIS set up ‘cells’ its word in unions to combat the left. The significance of this is impossible to evaluate; the man who was running IRIS for much of this period won’t answer my questions and Common Cause claimed, in 1987, to have no records. (The Labour Committee for Transatlantic Understanding in the 1970s and 80s was funded if not run by the CIA. One of its members admitted this to a friend of mine but refused to comment on the record.)

The third aspect of US political interference has been the promotion of a particular section of the Labour Party the social democrats whose current manifestation is the Blairites. So, I’ll begin with New Labour people and then trace their ancestry.

The Blairites

In the Guardian Martin Kettle wrote in February this year,’the New Labour project has always been defined in an Anglo-American context.’ Gordon Brown used to tell interviewers that he spent his holidays in the library at Harvard University. In 1986 Tony Blair went on one of those US-sponsored trips to America that are available for promising MPs and came back a supporter of the nuclear deterent. In 1993 he went to a meeting of the secretive Bilderberg Group, one of the meeting places of the European-American elite. (John Monks, an important Blair ally as head of the TUC, attended this year’s ie 1996 Bilderberg Group meeting in Toronto.) David Milliband, Blair’s head of policy, did a Masters degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Jonathan Powell, Blair’s foreign policy advisor, used to work in the British embassy in Washington and is suspected by some of having been the liaison officer between British intelligence and the CIA. (There is as yet no evidence for this view.) Edward Balls, Gordon Brown’s economics advisor, studied at Harvard and was about to join the World Bank before he joined Brown. Sue Nye, Gordon Brown’s personal assistant, lives with Gavyn Davies, chief economist with the predatory American bankers, Goldman Sachs.

And then there’s Peter Mandelson. Via the United Nations Association, of all obscure vehicles, by the end of his final year at Oxford University, in 1976, Mandelson had become Chair of British Youth Council. The British Youth Council began as the British section of the World Assembly of Youth, which was set up and financed by MI6 and then taken over by the CIA in the 1950s, created to combat the Soviet Union’s youth fronts. By Mandelson’s time in the mid1970s under a Labour government be it noted the British Youth Council was said to be financed by the Foreign Office, though that may be a euphemism for MI6, the British secret intelligence service.

In 1977 Mandelson and one Charles Clarke, another familiar name, then head of the British National Union of Students, put together a delegation from the UK to attend the 1978 World Festival of Youth. The World Festival of Youth meetings were great cold war jambourees at which the opposing blocs put forward propaganda at the Third World. Charles Clarke, head of the NUS in 1977, and chosen to fly the flag for Britain in Cuba, became Neil Kinnock’s chief gatekeeper.

Peter Mandelson, we were told in 1995 by Donald McIntyre in the Independent, is ‘a pillar of the two bluechip foreign affairs thinktanks, Ditchley Park and Chatham House’.

The point I’m trying to make here is this; from their early twenties Clarke and Mandelson were already in the Whitehall system, young men on the make; players, albeit minor ones, in the Cold War, Foreign Office game. We might call them premature careerists.

So: the people round Blair are all linked to the United States or the British foreign policy establishment whose chief aim, since Suez, has been to cuddle up to Uncle Sam. This group’s orientation is overseas; this is the territory of the Foreign Office and its think tank satellites like the Royal Institute for International Affairs.

And here is the source of the tension between socalled Old and New Labour. For who are the Labour Party’s traditional constituencies? British domestic manufacturing; and British public sector workers. Old Labour is the domestic economy; New Labour is the overseas British economy. In other words, the multinationals, the City of London, and the Foreign Office which represents their interests.

New Labour is just the latest manifestation of the social democrat tendency within the Labour Party, which runs with Hugh Gaitskell, through Roy Jenkins and the SDP, which has existed since the Cold War, and should more properly be called the American Tendency.

The American Tendency

In the postwar era, as part of their attempt to manage the entire noncommunist world, the US, often through the CIA, funded social democrats all over the world. They ran a wide spectrum of anticommunist groups in the youth, student and labour fields. Peter Mandelson’s World Assembly of Youth was one. The Americans promoted the development of the Common Market. The CIA funded the European Movement.

The CIA also ran the anticommunist international trade union movement, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the ICFTU, and its various spinoff groups, such as the trade secretariats. Whether the ICFTU and its network of organisation are still by run the CIA, I don’t know. They were in the early 1970s. The TUC helped fund the ICFTU through its affiliation fees. By the mid 1950s nearly a quarter of the TUC’s annual budget was going to the ICFTU, a CIA operation.

The CIA ran the Congress for Cultural Freedom which published magazines all over Europe and Asia and organised big conferences to which the British social democrat leaders were invited, and for whom Anthony Crosland worked. In Britain, through the columns of Encounter magazine, this network promoted the Gaitskellites.

In other words, much of the international political landscape of the postwar era in Britain consisted of US-funded or directed political projects propaganda or psychological warfare projects they would now be called. And this was on top of the formal military-diplomatic-financial structure of NATO, the IMF, World Bank, Gatt, the UN etc.

At one level this is banal: in the American-dominated world, to get along you went along with the Americans.

So, if we freeze things at 1963, just before the death of Hugh Gaitskell, the situation in the Labour Party and union movement was this: it was being surveilled by Special Branches, the US state department, the Foreign Office’s IRD and various private organisations like the Economic League. Information and disinformation on the left was being distributed by Common Cause and IRIS both funded in my opinion, by the CIA and by the secret Foreign Office propaganda organisation, IRD, through its network of journalists, union leaders and politicians. Where pertinent, the information was being fed into the Labour Party’s organisation via the National Agent’s Department and the Organisation Subcommittee. In 1963 our Organisation Subcommittee was chaired by George Brown, one of the CIA’s sources in the Party.

In 1963 the Gaitskellites seemed to have a pretty complete grip on the party; their leaders were being boosted, legitimized and discretely subsidized by the CIA through the Congress for Cultural Freedom; and their trade union allies in the major unions appeared to have everything under control having seen off the left’s challenge over unilateralism..

Unfortunately Hugh Gaitskell died, the Labour right couldn’t decide on a single candidate, and the leadership election was won by Harold Wilson, who had never been part of this network; who had spent the cold war travelling to Moscow, not to Washington.

The Wilson era

The Wilson years have been researched in more detail and we can skim across them even more quickly. MI5, encouraged by a section of the CIA, began ploughing through the PLP and Wilson’s entourage looking for Soviet espionage. And found none, incidentally.

On Gaitskell’s death the leadership of the American tendency passed to Roy Jenkins and its focus shifted to the Common Market. Members of the American tendency plotted constantly against Wilson.

In 1967 The CIA’s funding of the National Students Association in America was revealed and, quite quickly the whole network of fronts began to unravel. (This caused some questions to be asked about the British National Union of Students. Its leaders, several of whom emerge in the SDP a decade later, all swore blind they knew nothing of the CIA’s role.)

The revelation of its cold war fronts persuaded the CIA that its future lay in more discrete operations with better cover. Lots of apparently independent think tanks began to appear on the scene Brian Crozier’s Institute for the Study of Conflict was a pioneer in this field.

The old networks continued but with diminishing effect. In the mid-1970s Common Cause funded the Trade Union Centre for Education in Democratic Socialism in London but it did not have the impact of IRIS twenty years earlier; and in the 1980s the same people seem to have been involved in the formation of the group Mainstream, formally headed by Bill Jordan. The activities of this Common Cause, IRIS, Mainstream network were centred round two unions, the engineers and electricians; and this activity came to a kind of appropriate resolution recently when Bill Jordan, of the EEEPTU, the amalgamation of the engineers and electricians, became President of the ICFTU the CIA’s labour front of the 1950s and 60s.

When Labour won the election in February 1974, IRD abandoned its briefings on the domestic left for fear of political embarassment and that role was picked up by Brian Crozier, who had been working with IRD and the CIA, as he tells us in his memoirs, since the 1950s. In the 1970s Crozier created what were essentially private sector versions of IRD’s intelligence gathering and clandestine briefings on the British left, and the CIA’s covert political actions. He had some input into the Social Democratic Alliance in the mid 1970s, the forerunner of the SDP, briefed Mrs Thatcher, while she was leader of the opposition on the ‘communist menace’, and began producing IRDtype briefings on the British left British Briefing. British Briefing was published by…… IRIS.

On top of or below all this, in the 1970s MI5 surveilled the British left; penetrated everything from CND through to INLA; investigated and/or smeared and/or blackmailed dozens of Labour MPs (and Tory and Liberal MPs); and, most importantly, it now seems to me, helped keep the Communist Party of Great Britain going.

The Soviet Union’s activities

Which brings me to the third group interested in this great movement of ours, the political and intelligence services of the Soviet Union.

This story is rather better known, if only because the mass media has reported it. There was some espionage spies spying on each other; and there was some some propaganda for example the network of Soviet fronts, notably the Friendship Societies and the World Peace Council. All of this has been documented in great detail by the right; but I remain unconvinced that it was of much significance. What real influence has the British Peace Council actually had on, say, CND? Let alone the Labour movement or the Labour Party.

The important aspect of the Soviet Union’s activites in the British left has been the Communist Party of Great Britain the CPGB. And here the story gets complicated. I have read quite a few memoirs and histories of the CPGB and, even with the revelations in the late 1980s, I am still unclear as to the exact relationship between the Soviet Union and the CPGB. What is clear however, is that through the unions and through dialogue with some of the Labour left, the CPGB did have some influence on the Labour Party, in particular in the 1970s. On this the right is correct. How much influence they had opinions vary. But the fact that they had any influence at all is largely down to MI5.

We now know there really was Moscow gold in the CPGB; sacks of used notes were transferred from the Soviet Embassy to the party. But the point is this: MI5 knew about this as soon as it started. Peter Wright told us so in Spycatcher, several years before messers Falber and Matthews of the CPGB Central Committee at the time confessed. And MI5 chose to let the money continue. At any time after 1957 MI5 could have exposed the Soviet funding of the CPGB. Had they done so in, say, in the wake of the suppression of the Hungarian uprising, in what state would the CPGB have been in the 1960s?

Even in 1974, with private armies forming in the Home Counties, the British Army doing maneouvres at Heathrow and The Times discussing the conditions for a British military coup even then, when, had you believed the Daily Telegraph, the state itself was under threat from militant unions run by the Communist Party even then MI5 chose not to reveal the Soviet funding of the CPGB.

The same thing was happening in the United States. The man who collected the dollars from the Soviets for the American Communist Party was an FBI agent. Like MI5, the FBI let the funding continue. In effect MI5 and the FBI ran the American and British communist parties as honeytraps for their labour movements.


The alliances of intelligence, military and financial circles which had run the disinformation campaigns against the Labour government in the 1970s helped elect Mrs Thatcher leader of the Tory Party and then as Prime Minister. Mrs T, contrary to popular belief, wasn’t very bright, and while professing to want to rebuild the British domestic economy, actually turned the City of London loose, abolished exchange controls, and wrecked the domestic economy. The City and the overseas sector boomed while the domestic economy crumbled. The basic fault line in British society was never more nakedly exposed. The President of the CBI spoke of a ‘bare knuckle fight’ with the Tory government. (He was forced to resign almost immediately afterwards.)

The City versus industry conflict was recognised in some sections of the Labour Party, notably by Bryan Gould, and the Labour Party began producing policies to deal with it. But in 1986 Neil Kinnock et al decided to support Britain’s membership of the EEC and from that point the game was up. For EEC membership was incompatible with the kinds of nationalist, anti free trade policies being produced by the committee chaired by Bryan Gould. So Gould got dumped and the leadership of the PLP began the process of making itself respectable to the moneylenders. After 1992, John Smith, Gordon Brown and Marjorie Mowlem embarked on the socalled ‘Prawn cocktail offensive’ eating their way round the City’s executive dining rooms, promising not to do anything to restrict their activities. (Mowlem subsequently married a banker.) This climaxed with Labour’s support for membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, which, Bryan Gould reports in his memoir, Gordon Brown sold to the Parliamentary Labour Party as a socialist measure to nobble the speculators!

The important moves were made by Kinnock and Smith in whose teams Brown and Blair were minor players. Tony Blair is merely putting the gloss on; dumping the remnants of the ideological baggage, emasculating the membership and the unions, prior, I would guess, to instituting state funding of the political parties and the final transformation of the Labour Party into the reliable political face of the European Union, NATO, the global economy and the power of the moneylenders.



This is an adaptation and massive compression of the pamphlet The Clandestine Caucus
Skip to content