smear, which describes in meticulous detail the activities of the security services, over many years, in seeking to discredit and destroy the Left in British politics, and Harold Wilson in particular, is by far the most important book that has been published on this subject.footnote＊ It is based upon the most comprehensive research—which, in my own experience, is accurate—and connects all the sources available, adds new material, and backs it all up with an analysis of what was really going on, and what this meant in political terms. Fifteen or twenty years ago, when the political role of mi5 and mi6 was first identified and discussed on the Left, it was all dismissed as a form of paranoid, conspiratorial fantasy, while today it is accepted as quite normal and natural. These two, and quite contradictory, responses to what has been going on are equally wrong and dangerous, because both seek to discourage any serious examination or analysis of the constitutional importance of the issues raised by the secret state and how it operates within our system of government.
Chapter after chapter in this book is devoted to accounts of the secret meetings that took place, and the right-wing networks which systematically fabricated lies and had them disseminated to undermine public confidence in all those whom the establishment regarded as hostile to their privileges and power. The justification for all these campaigns was the supposed existence of a powerful Communist influence in British politics, especially in the Labour Party, and later the theory that Harold Wilson was actually a Soviet agent and that 10 Downing Street itself had been penetrated. Later the threat was seen as being more domestic in character, with ultra-left groups believed to dominate the trade unions and seeking to disrupt the economy in order to produce a breakdown of society—a forerunner of the ‘enemy within’ doctrine which Mrs Thatcher articulated and made the basis for her attacks upon the Left.
However absurd or exaggerated these stories may have been, what
It is very important to remember that the campaigns against the Left, which Dorrill and Ramsay write about, are still going on and have been intensified, since those who now conduct them are doing so under the protection of a sympathetic government. And it is because of the future—rather than the past—that this book should be compulsory reading for all those who may be invited to serve in the next Labour government, since, however ‘moderate’ Labour’s policies may now be, the security services will see them as subversive, and seek to undermine them with equal vigour. We may also be sure that the British and American security services have long since planted their own people within the Labour Party, the trade unions, the Parliamentary Labour Party, and hence within the new Labour cabinet and amongst their advisers, and that they will use them as and when it seems necessary. But what matters is not so much the identification of past or future conspiracies, still less the unmasking of the conspirators themselves—who are, in the main, quite ignorant people of no weight or substance—but the whole constitutional process that permits this subversion of democracy to go on and flourish in secret.
What is really important about this book is that it tells us more about how Britain is governed, and by whom, than most of the standard academic texts put together, and the first thing we should learn from it is this: that the Crown—as distinct from the Queen personally—remains, at the end of the twentieth century, by far the most powerful element in our present Constitution. For every single one of the treasonable activities described in this book were undertaken by persons who had convinced themselves that their prime duty was to the Crown; that their bugging, burgling and smearing was done under the authority of the royal prerogatives; and, later, that the cover-ups were necessary to protect their lifelong obligation of confidentiality to the Crown. The secret state does exist, quite separately from our parliamentary system, and the Crown is both its head and its cover, and thus gives it the legitimacy it needs to destroy democratically elected governments or individuals within them, if it believes that to be
But Crown powers played an even larger part than that, for the key role of the American government in this whole sordid story had been granted to them by another use of the prerogative—this time the prerogative of treaty-making. For it was by the prerogative that the cia, without the knowledge or consent of the House of Commons, was given control over, and the supervision of, all British intelligence operations in return for allowing this country access to some us nuclear technology to preserve the myth that Britain had an ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent. This was why James Angleton of the cia was able to order mi5 to continue to keep a duly elected prime minister under surveillance as a suspected Soviet agent, and why the Americans were permitted to receive—as they still do—all the material collected by British intelligence on British subjects.
Walter Bagehot, in his famous English Constitution, explained to his Victorian readers that the Crown no longer enjoyed real power but had become what he called the ‘dignified’ part of the Constitution, while the elected parliament was the ‘effective’ part, with the cabinet as the ‘buckle’ uniting them together. What Dorril and Ramsay have established is that today the Crown—using the secret state—is, in reality, once again the effective part of the Constitution, and that parliament and the cabinet have been demoted to be the dignified part, acting as a mere democratic cover for those who exercise the real power, free from any public accountability or scrutiny. Any serious reforms would have to look critically at the role of the Crown itself, with a view to its removal as a legal entity; and extend to the abolition of the security services (just as the kgb has been abolished), in favour of new arrangements providing direct ministerial and parliamentary control, the publication of budgets and staff numbers, an annual debate in the House of Commons on their work, and an agreed policy under which they would operate, even if some actual operations were kept secret for genuine reasons. And for this reason alone we should have to terminate the us nuclear link and their control over our intelligence services. Such proposals, however, were they to be made, would guarantee that the entire resources of the secret state and its allies in business, finance and the media, would be mobilized against the person, persons or parties that put them forward. That is why no previous prime minister has ever dared to tackle the problem head on, and why even Harold Wilson’s efforts were so ineffective, for he must have sensed that he could not win if he tried to do it.