With the return of age-old allegations about Michael Foot appearing in the press again a few days ago, allegations widely debunked and mocked online and from senior Labour figures, we must understand that these types of smears are nothing new at all. In fact, linking the Labour Party to the forces of Soviet communism are surely older than everyone actually reading this article. Almost every Labour leader worth his salt has been accused of being a Soviet agent at some point in his career. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and fall of communism before many voters were even born is of course no obstacle to these accusations.
The Unreliable Gordievsky
It was in 1992 that The Sunday Times ran with an article under the heading “Kinnock’s Kremlin Connection,” a story that was as full of as much wind as the man himself, Kinnock having held a number of innocuous meetings with Russian diplomats. The Kinnock story came from KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky. In 2009 the diaries of Anatoly Chernyaev again repeated allegations against Kinnock, claiming that Labour was desperate to defeat the Tories and even met with Brezhnev, claims that were interpreted as treachery by the media as opposed to statesman like behaviour.
Following his “revelation” Gordievsky proclaimed that he had nothing more to tell about figures in the Labour Party. However by 1995 he appears to have had a flash of memory as it was his predecessor’s turn to have the pen of Gordievsky turned toward him, the ex-KGB man proclaiming that Michael Foot had been a Soviet agent in his memoirs. He even had a codename, the hilarious/absurd “Boot”. It was Gordievsky and The Sunday Times who put their foot in it however, The Times being rightfully sued and defeated in court. These claims would again resurface last week, for little more reason it seems than giving Labour another kicking, the press acting in the absurdist hope that nobody will actually remember that the claims had been debunked in a court of law.
It seems that the long-standing evidence against Michael Foot being a Soviet agent, not least the case being proven in court, is now to be readily dismissed in the era of fake news. Where what was once proven falsehood is now ready to be “true” again in the eyes of the mainstream press. Foot, like so many socialists of his era, was disgusted with Soviet actions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and condemned them in the strongest terms. Sympathy for the Soviets was hard to find amongst socialists who believed their actions had hurt the overall cause of worldwide socialism.
While Michael Foot was widely respected across the political spectrum, Gordievsky is and will remain a traitor to his nation. While we may admire his bravado, his treason will forever bring questions surrounding his personal morality, a morality that some have suggested allowed him to “tell stories” when it suited him or others.
Gordievsky kept particularly shady company it seems, being acquainted with the “London Circle” of Russian dissidents that included alleged murderer Boris Berezovsky and his former bodyguard and ex-FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, a group that was actively supported by the British security services in their endeavours against Putin’s Russia. The controversial activities of the “London Circle” are too lengthy for discussion here, yet his ready association with a man like oligarch Berezovsky shows either a spectacular lack of judgment or that “money talks”.
In the immediate aftermath of the judgment against The Times, Gordievsky was described not only a man of dubious character but a man who was said to have found a “lucrative scheme for making money” by The Independent, a scheme that involved “telling stories”.
“It seems extraordinary that such an unreliable figure should now be allowed, given the lack of supporting evidence, to damage the reputation of figures such as Mr Foot.” – The Independent, 1995
Now whether these “stories” were merely for money or a more sinister attempt by the security services to blacken the name of prominent socialists and activists is a matter that has been long debated. Names such as John Reid, Charles Clarke, Peter Mandelson and even Tony Blair have been publicly accused of communist sympathies and MI5’s own authorised history acknowledges that the service infiltrated Militant Tendency in the 1980s. How far did MI5 go to ensure that Militant Tendency and socialist sympathy in the Labour Party didn’t succeed?
While the immediate reaction to the suggestion that the security services might take an agenda against left-wing movements might be one of surprise, the existence of such operations has been proven time and again. From the “spycops” scandal to undercover officers monitoring the justice campaign of Doreen Lawrence, from operations against environmentalists to antiwar movements and the CND, there is little doubt that the machinery of state take a dim view of left-wing and liberal movements.
“Do people believe for one second that the security forces are not involved in dark practices … the type of stuff that we ultimately find out about, under the 30-year rule? Anybody who thinks that that isn’t happening doesn’t live in the same world that I live in.” – Len McCluskey, 2016
Fear of the Soviet Union and communism has been used to right-wing political advantage almost from the outset, the infamous Zinoviev letter being perhaps the most famous example. Published by the Daily Mail just days before the election in 1924, the letter was allegedly from Grigory Zinoviev, the head of the Comintern in Moscow, and was directed to the Communist Party of Great Britain with orders for sedition. The letter claimed that a Labour Government winning the coming election would speed the onset of positive relations with Moscow and enable the radicalization of the working class in Britain. The letter was of course a forgery but the result was the collapse of the Liberal vote and a Conservative landslide victory.
The Plot Against Wilson
Perhaps it was this fear that led in the 1960s and 1970s to rumours that Harold Wilson was not only a Soviet agent (of course) but that sections of the security services and other prominent figures in the establishment were ready to enact a coup d’etat on British soil, replacing his socialist government with a military junta.
The claims about Wilson came from yet another Soviet defector, this time Anatoliy Golitsyn who had defected to the CIA in 1961. Golitsyn allegedly told one of his handlers that Wilson was a KGB asset, the Soviet Union having assassinated former Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell to ensure his succession. The claims have been widely debunked and dismissed by historians, MI5’s own historian Christopher Andrew calling the ex-KGB agent a “conspiracy theorist”.
MI5 kept a file on Wilson for several decades before concluding he had no links to the Soviet Union, a practice that has survived into the modern era as they also kept files on Jeremy Corbyn and other prominent Labour Party politicians and political activists.
“M15 kept files on many peace and Labour movement campaigners at the time, including anti-Apartheid activists and trade unionists.” – Spokesman for Jeremy Corbyn, 2017
But was that all the action that they took against Wilson?
In his 1976 memoir Walking on Water, journalist Hugh Cudlipp alleges that he arranged a meeting at the behest of Cecil King, the head of the International Publishing Corporation (IPC). At this meeting, attended by King, Cudlipp, Lord Mountbatten of Burma and Sir Solly Zuckerman, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the British government, it was suggested by King that the national situation was grave and required action. King suggested that Lord Mountbatten essentially assume dictatorial powers, sounding him out as to his interest in such an endeavour. Both Zuckerman and Mountbatten called the plan “treason” and left the meeting.
Yet the flavour for a coup was in the air amongst the press, The Times in particular seemingly backing Cecil King and The Mirror‘s desire for regime change, a particular irony considering it is now The Times who accuses Michael Foot of treason. Harold Evans, the former Times and Sunday Times editor, observed in his memoirs that Times editor William Rees-Mogg, father to Jacob Rees-Mogg, encouraged Cecil King’s plans for a coup.
“Rees-Mogg’s Times backed the Conservative Party in every general election, but it periodically expressed yearnings for a coalition of the right-centre. In the late 1960s it encouraged Cecil King’s lunatic notion of a coup against Harold Wilson’s Labour Government in favour of a government of business leaders led by Lord Robens. In the autumn election of 1974, it predicted that economic crisis would produce a coalition government of national unity well inside five years and urged one there and then between Conservatives and Liberals.” – Harold Evans
By 1974 the climate within the country was at something of a nadir and the smell of a coup was again in the air. Once again Lord Mountbatten was suggested as head of an “interim” government and that same year the British Army occupied Heathrow Airport as a “training exercise” against the possibility of “IRA terrorism”. The government had not be informed of the action and Wilson aide Marcia Williams believed that the operation was a dry run for future action and an intimidating show of strength.
It is somewhat astounding that within living memory the security services, armed forces and political establishment would seem to have plotted against a democratically elected leader of the United Kingdom, not only to undermine his leadership but in fact plan to stage a coup d’état and overthrow democracy on our own shores. The 2006 BBC television programme The Plot Against Harold Wilson however confirmed that were indeed thoughts of a coup, an opinion that was shared from leading figures of the time on both the left and the right.
In a tale that has unnerving echoes of Britain’s current political climate, Spycatcher author Peter Wright alleged that MI5 concocted a plan to leak damaging information surrounding Wilson to undermine the Labour Party, a plan that was approved by “up to 30 officers” within the service. In the run-up to the 1974 general election, MI5 would leak selective intelligence to “sympathetic journalists” for publication, using their contacts in the media to spread the word that Wilson was to be deemed a security risk. Although the plan was never carried out, Wright likened the plot to the Zinoviev letter 50 years previously.
The Plot Against Corbyn?
And so we come to today with an atmosphere no less toxic than the one forged around Wilson. With stories in the press almost on a daily basis that link the Labour leader with everything from being a Czech spy to an IRA sympathiser, perhaps questions should begin to be asked about where the information provided in these stories is truly coming from.
While we might like to believe that our security services are dashing heroes protecting Queen and country from her enemies, James Bond like figures who would never stoop to the levels of a foreign service like the KGB or lately the FSB, the truth is much darker. In the post-Snowden and Wikileaks era, we know that the machinery of the state is no such gilded thing.
From Northern Ireland to the plot against Wilson, the British security services have readily deployed a realist “ends justify the means” strategy to “protecting the realm”, their view of what is and is not protection largely seemingly in-line with what the political establishment and elite believe it to be. As operators for the protection of the established order, can we truly and honestly say with certainty that should Jeremy Corbyn and The Labour Party come to power that we would not see the old plots of the 1970s brought back into play?
Michael Foot might not be a traitor to Britain, but there is certainly treason in the air. For what bigger treason is there than the threat to subvert and overthrow democracy itself?
Michael East is a writer with a wide variety of eclectic tastes including politics, history, archaeology, professional wrestling and British science-fiction. A former Students' Union President and newspaper editor, he has studied at a variety of institutions and graduated in both history and politics.
He is interested in truth, justice and the unAmerican way. Named as TIME Person of the Year in 2006 and 2011, he is known variously as a rake, a libertine and as the King in the North... if to nobody else but himself.