Public Record Office files released today confirm the suspicion that the Security Service, MI5, extensively penetrated the British trade union movement in the Sixties. Secret reports from agents convinced the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, of Communist Party involvement before he made his celebrated remark about the 1966 seamen's strike being masterminded by a "tightly knit group of politically motivated men".
But the official record of Cabinet discussions shows that Labour ministers had deep sympathy with the seamen - whose ranks included the present deputy leader of the Labour Party, John Prescott. In Cabinet they even admitted the strike had been precipitated by the shipowners. In private they said the finding of the court of inquiry into the strike - which the government backed in public - gave the seamen less than they deserved.
However, ministers were also worried that seamen were being misled by the ad hoc negotiating committee putting their case to shipowners. In extended sessions at No 10, Wilson met both groups during the dispute in an effort to mediate. But he had been warned by the Security Service that one of the committee, Gordon Norris, was seeing the industrial organiser of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Bert Ramelson, more or less daily "to plan the next move in the strike and the outcome of discussions at the executive of the National Union of Seamen".
Edward Heath, leader of the Opposition, attacked Wilson for alleging a conspiracy without naming names. In response, Wilson offered him a secret briefing courtesy of MI5. At it he told him of a "close correlation between decisions taken at meetings of the Communist Party, the commentary of the Morning Star [the CP newspaper] the next day and the decision subsequently reached by the National Union of Seamen".
For instance, the key decision to reject the court of inquiry report was taken the day before the report was published and the Communist Party had decided that the Executive Committee of the National Union of Seamen should be persuaded at its meeting on the following day to continue the strike. The executive committee reached the decision the Communists wanted.
Earlier that year Wilson had been told of Communist influence in the National Union of Railwaymen - information secured by an MI5 informant, whose name has been blanked out from the official papers now on public view. A threatened railway strike had been called off at the last moment.
In February, a Home Office official minuted Wilson's principal private secretary. "From the outset [the Communists] viewed the dispute in predominantly political terms and their objective was to discredit and bring to a halt the current income policy. The problem facing the Communist minority on the NUR Executive Council was to retain sufficient non-Communist support to ensure that the strike notice was maintained throughout the negotiations in the hope that the government's will might ultimately be broken."
He continued: "The Party started from a position of reasonable strength. Quite apart from the fact that it was dealing with an issue popular with railwaymen it had two of its members on the eight-man negotiating committee, including the chairman, Dan Kelly, and its influence with the district councils meant that it could rely on a flow of militant resolutions to strengthen any waverers on the executive council itself."
The agent concluded: "In retrospect, the party views its efforts as a well-fought rearguard action in a worthwhile fight. It believes that the government and the railway board have bought nothing more than time."
During 1966 Harold Wilson's political secretary, Marcia Williams (now Baroness Falkender), engaged in a pitched battle with his Civil Service private secretary Derek Mitchell over office facilities while leaks to the press produced a constant stream of self-exculpating memoranda to the Prime Minister from officials and party colleagues.
Ostensibly the civil servants looked after official business while Mrs Williams looked after Wilson's party and constituency work. Both sides bitched about one another.
Barely a year after Labour took power in October 1964, Mr Mitchell was penning pompous notes asking if it was not time Mrs Williams got her own "political" photocopier. His assistant, Jane Parsons, evidently kept a surreptitious eye on the Rank Xerox 914. In one note she alleged that a "considerable amount" of party political work was being done on the copier.
At the beginning of the 1966 election campaign, No 10 staff proposed that use of the official machine would be charged to Transport House, Labour HQ. If Transport House were to supply its own copier, "security drills" would have to ensure that "it cannot be used to make quick copies of classified papers".
The official files are stuffed with memos from civil servants and party officials to the Prime Minister denying talking to journalists and so were the source of leaks. Even Wilson's security adviser, the Paymaster General George Wigg, submitted a memo to Wilson in July 1966 explaining who he had and had not seen.
Wigg was embarrassed because he had seen a Sunday Times journalist, Stephen Fay, who in turn denied he was the source of a leak from the conversation to Private Eye, which sought to pooh-pooh Harold Wilson's suggestion that Communists were behind industrial unrest in Britain that year.
Another story, about dock workers getting a pay and conditions deal which appeared to break the pay norm, provoked a flurry of denials. Trevor Lloyd Hughes, the Civil Service press officer at No 10, sent a memo to George Wigg in his capacity as security chief listing all his dealings with the press. The party press officer based at No 10, Gerald Kaufman (now a Labour MP), went through his diary before coming up with a clincher. He could not have briefed the press on the relevant day because he was away from the office that day "observing the Jewish New Year".
Mr Wilson went on to authorise the compilation of "source books", which indexed press cuttings by code, "so the subject could be traced from beginning to end and ministers and MPs statements can be examined as well as journalists."
Plan for ads on BBC radio
The Wilson Cabinet approved in principle the idea that the BBC should take advertising on one of its radio channels to bail it out of a financial crisis. It was only after several further meetings and lobbying from the BBC's then vice-chairman, Lord Fulton, and its director-general, Hugh Greene, that the proposal was dropped.
Case of the missing envelopes
Downing Street security discovered that envelopes of letters sent to Harold Wilson from Rhodesia fell into the hands of the stamp dealers Stanley Gibbons and were changing hands for pounds 5. The envelopes had become collectors' items since Rhodesia's unilateral declaration of independence.
Although some of the Prime Minister's staff admitted they may have kept the odd envelope as a souvenir, all denied having sold any to Stanley Gibbons. The Paymaster General, George Wigg, was appalled by a Treasury suggestion that all foreign stamps may now have to be incinerated to prevent a repeat of the incident. "I am ready to swear I did not sell any envelopes to Messrs Gibbons, not for any moral reason, but because the price of 5s 0d was much too low; I shall only come into the market at a minimum of pounds 50," he wrote.
Protection for stars in the east
The might of Her Majesty's diplomatic service was mobilised to ensure a new generation of British ambassadors abroad - pop stars - encountered no problems. From Japan a charge d'affaires anxiously reported rumours of an assassination attempt on the Beatles and said he proposed to do all he could to make a success of a forthcoming tour by the Rolling Stones.
The Wilson government stood firm against United Nations sanctions on Ian Smith's illegal regime in Rhodesia for strictly economic reasons. Cabinet papers say Rhodesian sanctions would increase trade between the white republic and South Africa which in turn would lead to world-wide sanctions against South Africa. This "would have the gravest consequences for the United Kingdom economy".
Plans for a giant panda from London Zoo to visit Russia in the hope it would mate with a panda in Moscow Zoo, caused concern to Whitehall officials - in case "it became mixed in the public mind" with a planned visit to the Soviet Union by Harold Wilson. Official memos cooed about "the proposed marriage" of pandas. But one mandarin checked the enthusiasm: "I agree but let us get this moved out of the headlines. Otherwise the two visits will become mixed in the public mind and worked to death by TV satirists."
Cup win led to backlash: Foreign Office files report how England's victory against Argentina in the 1966 World Cup provoked an anti-British backlash in Buenos Aires, with the British embassy receiving "abusive" calls. After an ill-tempered game, the England manager, Alf Ramsey, stopped the players swapping shirts and called the Argentines "animals".
A dispatch from the British embassy in Buenos Aires describes how in their home country the Argentines were given a heroes welcome while the England team were treated as the villain of the piece.
While thousands waited in the pouring rain to give their team a "tumultuous" homecoming, the British Embassy was receiving "hundreds" of abusive phone calls.
The dispatch notes that even the more balanced Argentine newspapers were claiming the World Cup had been snatched from their team by the German referee whose appointment was part of a "blatant conspiracy to defraud the South Americans" and keep the trophy in Europe."
NCB indicted over Aberfan
Alf Robens, chairman of the National Coal Board at the time of the Aberfan disaster, only seems to have survived thanks to his own marked reluctance to resign and Harold Wilson's reluctance to fire him.
Other ministers felt he should carry the can after a Tribunal of Inquiry report which Wilson said was a "damaging indictment of the NCB".
The documents chart a stream of meetings which began on 22 October 1966, the day after 116 children and 28 adults died in a landslide at the South Wales mining village. They ended 11 months later when Lord Robens of Woldingham agreed to continue at the head of the NCB.
The newly released files show the government was far from sure whether Lord Robens would resign, or how it should react. Officials even prepared two alternative announcements of the government's reaction to the report, depending on whether he offered to resign.
Two weeks before publication of the report in August, officials were proposing the government should "say as little as possible".
But Wilson was having none of that. He wrote in the margin of one note, dated 19 July: "I hope ministers will have agreed on something to say before publication. We must not look callous or complacent or in any way passing by on the other side. It is important to decide whether we `accept' the report. HW." He made a further note at the bottom of the page. "I have now looked at the report. It is devastating."
Currency union with US floated
Desperation over sterling led the Wilson government in 1966 to propose a currency union with the United States.
At a critical Cabinet meeting called to discuss emergencymeasures to combat speculation against sterling in July that year, Harold Wilson floated the idea of a "link between sterling and the dollar" based, at first, on a floating exchange rate between the two currencies overseen by a joint commission.
The Americans were none too enthusiastic. According to Wilson, reporting back to the Cabinet in August after a trip to see President Lyndon Johnson in Washington, the US said the British should set up a committee to examine transatlantic monetary links.
The planned link-up with the US indicates the extent of the Wilson government's desperation when, in the wake of the seamen's dispute and renewed hostilities in Vietnam, sterling started to plummet.
Under pressure from colleagues Wilson even agreed a dramatic Cabinet "think-in" on whether the pound should be devalued - since coming to office in October 1964 he and the Chancellor, James Callaghan, had tried to smother all talk of cutting the pound's value.
Hidden in a secret annexe to the main Cabinet papers, the report of the debate on 19 July takes an unprecedented six pages and is likely to be read by historians as one of the crucial turning points in the post-war history of Britain.
Though Wilson said "if the choice lay simply between devaluation and maintenance of full employment he would prefer to devalue" he insisted there was an alternative - deflation. An unnamed Cabinet member said the cuts would have to be savage. "A fundamental weakness in the government's present policy was the fact we were seeking to maintain a position in the world which our economy could not support ... the only practical course was to abandon a very substantial part of our oversea [sic] commitment."
The Cabinet was also told it should cut "unproductive expenditure, eg on social benefits, health and housing until our rate of growth was adequate to support the burden of the social expenditure we wished to undertake."Reuse content