Harold Wilson leaves Downing Street at the end of his first term as Prime Minister in 1970
London Times | Oct 3, 2009
by Michael Evans
MI5 held a secret file on Harold Wilson throughout the time he was Labour Prime Minister, The Times can reveal.
According to the first official history of the Security Service, the former Prime Minister was viewed as a cause of concern by MI5 because of his relationships with Eastern European businessmen, his contacts with known KGB officers and a belief among communist civil servants in Whitehall that he had similar political sympathies.
The associates who were highlighted as being dubious contacts included Lithuanian-born Joseph Kagan, whose company made the Gannex macs that became one of Wilson’s trademarks. When Kagan was made a peer by Wilson, he invited a KGB officer to his investiture at Buckingham Palace.
Other names on MI5’s list of Wilson’s contacts were Rudy Sternberg, who had made a fortune out of trading with the Soviet bloc and was suspected by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of being a Soviet spy but was later knighted; and Harry (later Lord) Kissin, a Wilson confidant who had also made a fortune from East-West trade.
Wilson’s MI5 file was opened in 1945 when he became an MP and remained one of the Security Service’s most closely kept secrets throughout his premierships, 1964-1970 and 1974-1976.
But it was “never used to undermine him”, according to The Defence of the Realm, published next week to mark MI5’s centenary and serialised in The Times today and on Monday and Tuesday. Past claims that there was a plot against the former Labour Prime Minister, who became Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, are dismissed.
The authorised history, however, reveals that the existence of the file was so secret that he was given a cover name. Christopher Andrew, the author of the book and Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Cambridge, who had access to all MI5 files, told The Times that Wilson was the only serving Prime Minister to have a permanent Security Service file.
Because of its unusual sensitivity, his file was kept under the pseudonym “Norman John Worthington”. When Sir Michael Hanley became the MI5 Director-General in 1972, he went to even greater lengths than Sir Roger Hollis or Sir Martin Furnival Jones, his predecessors, to conceal its existence. “In March 1974, the DG instructed that the card referring to the file should be removed from the Registry Central Index, with the result that ‘a look-up on Harold Wilson would therefore be No Trace’.” Access to the file required the personal permission of Sir Michael.
“Hanley’s decision to preserve it, approved by [Bernard] Sheldon [MI5 legal adviser] would doubtless not have been approved by either the Home Secretary or the Prime Minister,” the official history says.
Peter Wright, a former MI5 officer, alleged in his book Spycatcher, that there had been a Security Service plot against Wilsoninvolving a number of intelligence officers. But Wright himself later admitted in a television interview that the plot only involved one person — him.
The revelation that MI5 had kept a personal file on Wilson since 1945 will reignite the question of whether the former Prime Minister had any grounds for his increasingly obsessive belief that the Security Service was bugging his office and plotting against him.
Professor Andrew writes in The Defence of the Realm: “Sitting in his study at Number Ten on his first day back in office [in February 1974], Wilson told [his business friend who Sir Michael Hanley said was not to be trusted with confidences] Lord Kissin of Camden, ‘there are only three people listening — you, me and MI5’.
“Though MI5 was not, of course, listening in to the Prime Minister and had never actively investigated him, it still had a file on him which recorded, inter alia, his past contacts with Communists, KGB officers and other Russians.”
Baroness Manningham-Buller, the director-general of MI5 from 2002 to 2007, told The Times: “Having a file doesn’t automatically mean that you are in any way under suspicion. You might well have a file, supposing you were a person who was a target for a terrorist attack. You might well have a file giving the security arrangements. So files don’t equal suspicion. There was no plot, no conspiracy.”
According to MI5 files, Graham Mitchell, a senior intelligence officer responsible during the Wilson era for studying communism in the UK — who was later investigated after a false accusation that he was a double agent — noted when the young Labour MP became a Cabinet Minister: “The security interest attaching to Wilson and justifying the opening of a PM [permanent file] for him derives from comments made about him by certain Communist members of the Civil Service which suggested an identity or similarity of political outlook.
“A telecheck on a Communist civil servant at the Ministry of Works recorded him bemoaning Wilson’s move to the Board of Trade in 1947: ‘He and I were getting, you know, quite a plot, but it has all gone west now’. ”
In October 1954, a year before Clement Attlee retired as Labour leader, a bugged discussion at the headquarters of the Communist Party of Great Britain in King Street, London, revealed that opinion favoured Wilson as Attlee’s successor. In the event, Attlee was succeeded in 1955 by Hugh Gaitskell.
“King Street’s misplaced hopes in Harold Wilson doubtless owed much to his unusually frequent contacts with the Soviet Union. While at the Board of Trade, Wilson had paid three official visits to Moscow for trade negotiations, claiming after a game of cricket near the River Moskva ‘to be the only batsman ever to have been dropped at square leg by a member of the NKVD [KGB].”