Spycatcher: Fact or Fantasy

This review, using a pen-name, was about a then-famous book called Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer by Peter Wright.

 The Unmentionables

By Gwydion M. Williams

Spies are liars, by their very nature. Modem spies devote a lot of their time to “black propaganda” and systematic attempts to deceive their enemies. Spies are also very fond of claiming that their activities change the world – or else prevent it being changed. It is against this background that the “Spycatcher” controversy should be judged.

Thatcher seems intent on pushing the secret services back into the obscurity in which they used to reside. They will become “The Unmentionables”; people whose existence is well known but whose activities are never discussed. Whatever the result of the Wright case, it seems likely that she will succeed.

Thatcher is ready to look rather silly, in the short term, in order to achieve a long-term result. She has given Wright the sort of publicity that most authors only dream about – just as she previously made GCHQ the most famous top-secret institution in the world. Her willingness to fight has made a difference. Her actions against the press and the BBC seem likely to strengthen her in the long term. By and large, media people do not have the same strength of conviction or readiness to carry on in the face of setbacks. Leaks have grown less frequent, and the BBC shows signs of having been tamed.

The Wright stuff?

Let’s look at two of the major allegations; that the Secret Services investigated people close to Wilson when he was Prime Minister, and that there was some sort of coup plot.

On the first point – one should remember the case of former Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt. He had to resign after it was discovered that one of his close political aides was in fact an East German secret agent. If such a thing could happen in West Germany, why not in Britain? In fact; it occurs to me that perhaps they did find a spy, and that this was the real reason for Wilson’s resignation, with everyone involved agreeing to hush things up in typical British fashion. In any case, it was fair enough for the Secret Service to investigate the matter.

The possibility of a coup is another matter. Britain has had constitutional continuity since 1688. Changes have been settled, not by violence but by elections. In 1688, power was shared between a powerful monarch and an oligarchy of property-owning voters. Step by step the system has become a broad democracy, with the monarch no more than a ceremonial head of state. The break-down of this system would be no small matter. And it would be a serious set-back for the left, since a politicised army would be almost certain to side with the right.

But what substance is there behind the allegation? As far as I know, there is no more that Wright’s statement that some sort of plot existed. If it was only a boozy notion by a few spies, newspaper editors and peers, then it was a trivial matter. Coups are, after all, made by armies. If elements of the army did get involved, that would be another matter. If it was serious, it would be the duty of Labour MPs to put all other matters on the back burner and concentrate exclusively on bringing the matter to light and having the offenders punished. Since Labour MPs have used the coup allegation as one more titbit of scandal to use against the government, one may reasonably conclude that it was never a serious matter, and that MPs know that it was never a serious matter.

Thatcher, Wilson and the spies

According to Private Eye, there was a faction in the Secret Services that decided to take a hand in politics. They are supposed to have had a hand in Heath’s replacement by Thatcher. I could well believe that there were people about who had that aim. But how important were they?

Heath’s political career ended because he failed either to curb the Trade Unions or to do a deal with them. He had no hope of carrying on as Tory leader after losing power – yet he tried to do so regardless. Had he chosen to resign, he could probably have ensured that Whitelaw would have succeeded him. But he insisted that the party vote him out. Thatcher was the only serious contender who was ready to stand against him in the first round of voting. And she made a sufficient impression on the other Tories to be elected leader. Possibly some members of the Secret Services gave her behind-the-scenes support. But the main course of events was beyond their power to influence. The critical events were those going on in public, and known to everyone.

Then there was the matter of Wilson. Wilson resigned rather suddenly, for no very obvious reason. There have from time to time been hints that the Secret Services “nobbled” Wilson in some nefarious way.

Is there any substance behind the hints? The Secret Services have no power to get rid of a Prime Minister, who is after all the boss of their bosses. Not unless they have knowledge of something scandalous or dishonest. And if they did have such knowledge, they could hardly be blamed for using the knowledge to push the offender out of power.

In any event, Wilson’s departure made remarkably little difference to the course of events. Under Wilson and Callaghan, the Labour Government tried to run the country in partnership with the Trade Unions. If the Secret Service had an ambition to break up that partnership, then that ambition got nowhere. It was the Trade Unions themselves which wrecked it. They rejected the idea of creating a new social system.

The Bullock Report offered Workers Control; they didn’t want that. Benn and the Labour Left offered a watered-down version of the East European system; they didn’t want that either. The logical alternative was to continue the partnership with the Labour government. But in the “winter of discontent” this too was rejected. No doubt right-wing members of the Secret Services were delighted at the way Trade Union power destroyed itself. But they observed the process as spectators; they had no power to prevent the Trade Unions coming up with a sensible solution, if the Trade Unions themselves had had the will!

Spies are a diversion from real politics. They are the stuff of fantasy and paranoia. Most serious intelligence-gathering in based on looking carefully at published material. Spies occupy a little world of their own, which has little connection with the larger world of politics and economics. A Labour movement that knew what it wanted would find that spooks are very insubstantial beings.


This article appeared in January 1988, in Issue 5 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  One of many on the website.  See https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/magazine-001-to-010/magazine-005/.