An uneasy relationship?

Drawing extensively on recently released documents and private papers, this is the first extensive book-length study to examine the intimate relationship between the Attlee government and Britain’s intelligence and security services. Often praised for the formation of the modern-day ‘welfare state’, Attlee’s government also played a significant, if little understood, role in combatting communism at home and overseas, often in the face of vocal, sustained, opposition from their own backbenches. Beneath Attlee’s calm exterior lay a dedicated, if at times cautious, Cold War warrior, dedicated to combatting communism at home and overseas. This study tells the story of Attlee’s Cold War. At home, the Labour government implemented vetting to protect Whitehall and other areas of the Cold War state from communists, while, overseas, Attlee and his Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin authorised a series of highly secret special operations in Eastern Europe, designed to erode Soviet influence, told here for the first time in significant detail. More widely, Ministers also strengthened Imperial and Commonwealth security and, responding to a series of embarrassing spy scandals, tried to revive Britain’s vital nuclear transatlantic ‘special relationship’ with Washington. This study is essential reading for anyone interested in the Labour Party, intelligence, security and Britain’s foreign and defence policy at the start of the Cold War.

British intelligence, ministers and the Soviet Union

Chapter Two looks at Ministerial use of, and attitude towards, intelligence after Labour’s 1945 Election victory, drawing on the papers of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). While it has been argued that Attlee, a committed internationalist, was opposed to any hostility towards the Soviet Union, the chapter shows that he was kept fully aware of Soviet interests and intentions despite his commitment to renewed Anglo-Soviet relations. In addition to highlighting the role of intelligence in early Cold War crises, particularly the Berlin Blockade, it also looks at Ministerial doubts about the intelligence community, particularly those of Attlee himself. By 1949, he had grown increasingly critical of the intelligence services and, a year later, ordered a review of the intelligence community by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Norman Brook, which is explored here for the first time.

in Intelligence, security and the Attlee governments, 1945–51
Ministers, subversion and special operations, 1948–51

Chapter Four considers Ministerial attitudes towards special operations and the development of covert warfare against the Eastern Bloc. By looking at the example of Operation Valuable, SIS’s abortive scheme to detach Albania from the Soviet Orbit, it explores why Bevin, initially opposed to any activities beyond propaganda, endorsed offensive measures. The chapter also examines the development of Britain’s Cold War machinery by looking at the formation and early discussions of the Committee on Communism (Overseas), formed in 1949. It shows that by late 1951 Ministers had endorsed proposals for subversion inside the Soviet Bloc with the aim of undermining Soviet rule. The chapter also details Ministerial discussions on the development of stay behind networks in Europe.

in Intelligence, security and the Attlee governments, 1945–51
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Labour ministers, vetting and subversion

Chapter Six focuses on the Government response to Communism at home. Shaped by their wartime experiences of intelligence and security, it argues that the popular perception that Ministers were suspicious of the intelligence services, particularly the Security Service, is unfounded, based largely upon Labour folklore. In fact, rather than viewing MI5 with distain, even alarm, Ministers in the new government were aware of the need for an internal security body; any changes in the security apparatus were the result of the recommendations made by Sir Findlater Stewart, whose report of November 1945 is examined here for the first time. The chapter also looks at the development of Whitehall security procedures using the minutes and memoranda of the Committee on Subversive Activities (GEN 183). It argues that, as in the field of British policy towards Russia, domestic countermeasures measures against Communists in the civil service were hidden until the spring of 1948 after attempts at Anglo-Soviet rapprochement finally broke down. Despite the introduction and later expansion of vetting, Ministers sought to balance anti-Communist measures alongside the need for freedom of speech and liberty. Nowhere is this clearer than in discussions for domestic anti-Communist propaganda. While the Labour Party and other organisations had participated in the distribution of such material, IRD had no specific mandate to conduct its activities at home. However, after the outbreak of hostilities in Korea, Ministers authorised a domestic campaign aimed at influential sections of the British public, with the study looking at the early development of this campaign, revealing IRD’s domestic activities in education, industry and the armed forces.

in Intelligence, security and the Attlee governments, 1945–51
Ministers, atomic espionage and Anglo-American relations

Chapter Five studies Ministerial reactions to the spy scandals that threatened Anglo-American nuclear exchanges. Considering the cases of Alan Nunn May, Klaus Fuchs, Bruno Pontecorvo, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, it argues that Ministers were sensitive to claims from the United States that Britain was weak in the field of security. After the Fuchs and Pontecorvo scandals, Ministers reacted quickly to repair any damage to transatlantic relations by introducing new security procedures known as ‘Positive Vetting’. The chapter also uses newly released archival material to shed light on Ministerial reactions to the disapperance of the Foreign Office diplomats, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, in the spring of 1951. Their defection provoked widespread outrage and, once again, prompted a review of security in government, on this occasion the Foreign Office, on the instructions of the Foreign Secretary, Herbert Morrison, now Foreign Secretary, which is explored here for the first time.

in Intelligence, security and the Attlee governments, 1945–51
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Intelligence and the Labour governments, 1945–51
in Intelligence, security and the Attlee governments, 1945–51

Chapter Seven explores Government attempts to combat Communist influence in and around Britain’s overseas territories and dependencies and the development of security agencies across the Commonwealth. The Attlee era also saw the development of internal security agencies around the Commonwealth modelled on British lines, resulting from Soviet espionage and American fears that Britain’s allies were far from secure. Responding to American threats to cut-off secret information to Australia, the British government responded by assisting in the development of a new internal security agency, the Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). The chapter looks at the role played by Attlee and others in Commonwealth security liaison and the role of the Commonwealth Security Conferences of 1948 and 1951, highlighting the political dimension of intelligence and security liaison. Using the recently declassified files of the Colonial Information Policy Committee, the chapter assesses British attempts to direct overseas anti-Communist publicity. Chaired by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Commonwealth Relations, Patrick Gordon Walker, the committee was formed in the autumn of 1948. The chapter explores the role of the Committee and IRD in combatting Communism in Britain’s African colonies.

in Intelligence, security and the Attlee governments, 1945–51
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in Intelligence, security and the Attlee governments, 1945–51
Labour and intelligence during the Second World War

Chapter One examines Labour involvement in the wartime Coalition government and Ministerial access to and use of intelligence. It argues that the Second World War provided an important opportunity for future Ministers in the post-war government to gain knowledge and experience of handling and using intelligence. Within months of the coalition’s formation, Labour Ministers had access to the fruits of British codebreaking. Further, the chapter also suggests that this experience ended any lingering animosity that resulted from the Zinoviev Letter Affair. The chapter places particular emphasis on Attlee’s wartime experiences and provides examples of his use of intelligence and early views on it. It also looks at Labour involvement with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and Party attempts to add an ideological facet to British special operations in Europe under Hugh Dalton, Minister of Economic Warfare until 1942. Beyond intelligence and special operations, Labour involvement with intelligence and security extended to the domestic front with Herbert Morrison, appointed Home Secretary in November 1940. Already a fierce opponent of British Communists, he received the product of MI5’s surveillance of the Communist Party of Great Britain and provided the Cabinet with information warning of Communist espionage.

in Intelligence, security and the Attlee governments, 1945–51
Propaganda and subversion, 1945–48

Chapter Three explores the development of British propaganda policy towards the Soviet Union. While Ministers began the process of dismantling the wartime information machinery, the developing threat of the Soviet Union forced them to sanction defensive measures where British interests were threatened. The chapter also looks at discussions on anti-Communist propaganda that would ultimately lead to the formation of the Information Research Department (IRD) in 1948. The chapter also shows how, while agreeing to overseas information activities, Bevin resisted calls for Britain to start a Cold War offensive involving subversion and special operations inside the Eastern Bloc.

in Intelligence, security and the Attlee governments, 1945–51