The dirty tricks that were made in England

Scott Lucas on how a Labour government made propaganda war on Russians

THE secret is out. After 47 years the Government has admitted the truth about the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office, if only through the release last week of a few boxes of documents. The IRD's primary task, these papers prove, was not research, but the spreading of anti-communist propaganda by covert and often dubious means.

Lord Healey can add a line to his CV - that of liaison between the IRD, the Labour Party and trade unionists worldwide. The BBC is revealed to have been eager - for a time - to act as an outlet for a government message disguised as "news". Stephen Spender and Bertrand Russell, meanwhile, are incorrectly identified as having "key roles" in the skulduggery.

Behind all this, however, the documents tell us something bigger, a poignant tale about Britain and the Cold War. For in this one area and for a fleeting few years it was the British who led the way in the struggle against the Soviet Union. Military and economic power might be the domain of the United States, but it was the Attlee government that first took arms in the battle for "hearts and minds" in the West as well as the East.

The CIA later became notorious for supporting almost any kind of organisation, reputable or not, that would criticise Moscow; the Boston Philharmonic, the US Olympic team, and even the Yale Glee Club were secretly funded to promote the American way of life. But these techniques were used first by the IRD. Two years before the US launched its propaganda offensive against Moscow, the IRD had its network up and running.

It was established in 1948, when the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, told the Cabinet: "By giving a spiritual lead now we ... will show clearly that we are not subservient to the United States or to the Soviet Union." His idea was to fight communism by spreading the ideals of British democracy, with a Labour flavour.

The existence and activities of this instrument of spiritual leadership, however, had to remain secret, partly because the word "propaganda" was widely associated with the Nazis. Instead, while the IRD churned out highly selective literature tailored to official objectives, its output was presented as the considered opinion of free-thinking individuals or bodies.

The BBC and friendly newspapers carried stories told by the IRD's eastern European contacts. MPs gratefully relied on IRD "speaker's notes" to guide them on the content of their speeches. Authors paraphrased IRD reports about "communist methods of infiltration into political, social and economic life".

A good example of this work, revealed in the papers opened last week, was Freedom First, a Trades Union Congress newsletter funded by the IRD through the simple trick of buying copies from the TUC at a grossly inflated price. These were then distributed abroad. "Such an arrangement," wrote Christopher Mayhew, the Foreign Office minister who oversaw the IRD, "would enable us to give Mr Tracey [the editor] financial support and, at the same time, preserve the non-official nature of the paper." Mr (now Lord) Mayhew also thoughtfully arranged for the IRD to provide the editorial content for this "non-official" TUC organ.

The IRD was so clever at this that it believed it should be telling the impetuous Americans what to do. Christopher Warner, the Assistant Secretary supervising the IRD, warned that at one stage the US was "thinking of stirring up the people behind the Iron Curtain". Britain had to curb the quest for liberation because it was "quite unable to give [eastern Europeans] any support if they indulge in subversive action. Apart from the moral aspect, this would be liable to have a very bad effect on British prestige".

By the end of 1948 IRD material was reaching all corners of the world. Meanwhile, the US propaganda effort was still in its infancy. Warner noted, with both pride and regret, that the State Department had nothing "corresponding to the IRD's basic papers".

This did not last. No bold message about British leadership and the Labour way could obscure London's increasing dependence on the US through Marshall aid and organisations such as Nato. The IRD had pounds 100,000 for its mission; once the CIA finally organised its campaigns, it had millions.

By the 1950s the IRD was a pale shadow of the CIA propaganda machine and was turning its fire upon other, lesser, opponents: Nasser in Egypt, Kenyatta in Kenya, Sukarno in Indonesia, even, in its final days, the student protesters in 1968.

Four days before the IRD's creation, Attlee had told the country of a Britain that would avoid the extremes of the US and the Soviet Union: "Our task is to work out a system of a new and challenging kind, which combines individual freedom with a planned economy, democracy with social justice."

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the IRD's covert techniques, the real tragedy was the failure of this mission. It would be the US, with its own propaganda means and ends, that would define the image of the Free World.

The writer is lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future