Unlikely reds under the Bed - McCarthyism in Britain

It has emerged that MI5 monitored the folk singer Ewan MacColl because of his Communist views. Oliver Duff recalls the famous figures who were considered to be a threat to national security
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The Independent Online

Ewan MacColl, folk musician

The celebrated folk musician was tracked for more than 20 years by MI5, who believed him to be a dangerous radical.

Secret service files released yesterday by the National Archives in Kew, south-west London, reveal that he and his first wife, Joan Littlewood, the theatre producer who created the hit musical satire Oh What a Lovely War!, were closely monitored, along with their circle of theatrical friends. The intelligence service feared the ardent Communist Party members would try to convert people through their drama company, Theatre Union, which it viewed as a vehicle for revolutionary propaganda.

MacColl, whose real name was James Henry Miller and was father to the singer Kirsty (famous for her Christmas hit "Fairytale Of New York" with The Pogues) - first came to the attention of the authorities in 1932 when the chief constable of Salford reported him as a Communist Party member of the distinctly non-dangerous sounding Ramblers Section of the British Workers' Sports Federation. Police mounted a "discreet supervision" of the couple's home in Hyde, Manchester.

He was placed on the Special Observations List when he joined the Army in July 1940. His superiors regarded him as a model soldier, despite his background, and he received a glowing good conduct report. Two days later he went absent without leave.

The couple acted and gave readings for the BBC, and were among those purged from its airwaves during the Second World War, when the corporation was racked by anti-Communist paranoia. From the late Thirties until the end of the Cold War, MI5 had an officer at the BBC to vet editorial appointments, stamping a green "Christmas tree" on the personnel records of potential subversives.

John Coatman, the BBC's north regional director, expressed fears in 1941 that MacColl and Littlewood might encourage revolutionary fervour in the North. He wrote that they were "active Communists" and said he "could not allow people like this to have use of the microphone or be prominently identified with the BBC".

Victoria Brittain, journalist

MI5 conducted a year-long surveillance operation, said to cost £750,000, against The Guardian's respected deputy foreign affairs editor - tapping her telephone and planning to raid her home - after large sums of money were deposited in her bank account, some from Libyan sources.

The service received a tip-off in 1993 that £100,000 had suddenly appeared in Ms Brittain's account, followed by further deposits - a total of £250,000. It suspected that the money was being laundered through Libyan intelligence.

MI5 gave her the codename "Shadower". She was tailed, a tap was placed on her phone, and in 1995 the service is said to have decided to bug her house, requiring a break-in while she was away on holiday. The search was called off.

The service eventually found out what Brittain later successfully explained: that she had allowed Kojo Tsikata, head of the Ghanaian security forces and an old friend, to channel funds for a libel suit against this newspaper through her personal bank account.

Unknown to Ms Brittain, Mr Tsikata was receiving money for his legal action from Libya.

The Guardian said that she had been "surprisingly naïve" but had done "nothing fundamentally wrong".

UB40, reggae band

The former MI5 employee David Shayler claimed in 1997 that the service spied on UB40, spending years listening to the reggae band's lyrics for evidence of their suspected "subversive" tendencies.

Agents from the F2 counter-subversion branch were said to have bugged the homes of Ali and Robin Campbell and taped phone conversations between band members, fearing they were closet Communists.

"Bastards. Outrageous. What a total waste of money, eh? Tapping our phones for 15 years ..." said singer Ali, whose No 1 records include "Red, Red Wine".

"We did a bunch of benefits for the miners and Legalise Cannabis. We went to Russia. We sang pro riot songs. We were just smoking weed. Nobody could understand the lyrics anyway."

Robin, the group's guitarist and brother of Ali, said: "In the past, people have told us we were being watched and bugged. "Once, a squad of undercover policemen moved in over the road from us. But we're just a pop group - we aren't planning to invade Poland or overthrow the Government."

Ian Campbell, the musicians' father, who is a folk singer, said he believed that the band were targeted because of his own links to CND and support for the 1984 miners' strike.

The band wanted any tapes of their conversations handed over and even considered suing MI5 - but decided not to, said Ali, because "we'll all end up with poisoned umbrellas sticking out of our arseholes".

He laughed off the unwanted attention: "Have you been in the [swimming] pool yet? Any bugs on top? I was an hour there this morning with my net."

Labour ministers

At least six members of Tony Blair's governments have been monitored by MI5.

During the Cold War the service believed Soviet agents were infiltrating trade unions. It kept a file on John Prescott for two decades, detailing his links to dangerous agitators in the Sixties alongside agents' fears he was an idealist open to Communist subversion. No longer active, the file contained transcripts of bugged meetings of the National Union of Seamen, which Prescott advised during the 1966 seamen's strike and later worked for as an official.

Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, asked in 2000 to see his file after discovering MI5 had kept records for 25 years on the false accusation that he was behind a botched raid on Barclays in 1975. He was acquitted at the Old Bailey after a 10-day trial. The leading member of the anti-apartheid movement suspected MI5 and Boss, the South African security service, of plotting to frame him. His file was allegedly vetted before the 1992 general election and again in 1997.

Mr Shayler said Jack Straw, now Foreign Secretary, was monitored while president of the National Union of Students between 1969 and 1971. Phone conversations of Peter Mandelson, a member of the Young Communist League in 1972, long before he became a minister or the EU commissioner, were monitored to determine if he was a covert Soviet "sleeper". Shayler claimed Mandelson's file was still active in 1992.

Patricia Hewitt, now Health Secretary, and Harriet Harman, the Constitutional Affairs minister, were wrongly classified as Communist sympathisers during their time at the National Council for Civil Liberties - now Liberty.

Harold Wilson, Prime Minister

Some circumstantial evidence - although few hard facts - support Harold Wilson's theory that MI5 was behind plots to overthrow him as Prime Minister.

During his last year in office, 1975-6, he became convinced that a series of burglaries were actually malicious attempts to find damaging material to sell to the press. In May 1976, two months after he resigned, he summoned two young journalists, Roger Courtiour and Barrie Penrose, and told them he would investigate "the forces that are threatening democratic countries like Britain". He said that MI5 had been spreading stories alleging his involvement with the Communist Party.

"I see myself as a big fat spider in the corner of the room," he told the alarmed hacks. "Sometimes I speak when I'm asleep. You should both listen. Occasionally when we meet I might tell you to go to the Charing Cross Road and kick a blind man standing on the corner. That blind man may tell you something, lead you somewhere."

In his last months in office he took to turning on taps before he would talk in No 10's lavatory, telling colleagues that the light fitting was bugged. George Bush Snr, when head of the CIA, said after a conversation with Wilson: "Is that man mad? He did nothing but complain about being spied on!"

Peter Wright's book Spycatcher in 1988, in which the former spook said that he was among 30 (he later said three) MI5 agents who plotted to overthrow Wilson, indicated that it was the security service, and not Wilson, which was prone to delusions, although an inquiry did not support Wright's claims.

John Lennon, musician

The former Beatle, shot dead in 1980, was another musician to have a "PF" (personal file) at MI5. It included information on Lennon's conviction for possession of cannabis in 1968 and is said to have claimed that he gave money to the IRA, Vanessa Redgrave's Trotskyist Workers' Revolutionary Party and Tariq Ali's radical magazine Red Mole.

Lennon joined "Troops Out" marches in Britain. When the couple moved to New York he repeatedly spoke in favour of the IRA, once holding up a sign reading: "Victory for the IRA against British imperialism." Prompted by the Richard Nixon administration during America's 1972 presidential election campaign, the FBI is thought to have asked British agents for help when it wanted to deport the anti-Vietnam War singer-songwriter as a subversive.

Garry Bushell, journalist

One of Shayler's least predictable revelations was that The Sun's TV critic Garry Bushell had joined his boyhood idol John Lennon in MI5's "subversive celebrities" file.

The whistleblower said the service still had a file on Bushell, built up when he was a writer on the rock paper Sounds in the 1970s and 1980s: "It is based on both alleged far-left and far-right activities."

The journalist, who trained on Socialist Worker and was beaten up by far-right thugs in 1981, was suspected of being a Communist because of his outspoken left-wing beliefs. A decade later, they tracked his perceived move to the right when he wrote about the punk-inspired Oi! movement featuring skinhead bands.

"Anyone who remembers Sounds knows I covered every sort of music happening at street level, from two-tone to the new wave and British heavy metal," he said. "The Oi! bands I wrote about were into football - not invading Poland."

In case phone transcripts became public, he warned his wife that references to "Melinda", "Fleur" and "massage oils" were all code words for revolution, adding: "Freedom for Charlton!" The most militant thing he had ever done, he said, "was to headbutt a brick during the Lewisham riots of 1977".

A security source told The Sun: "It may seem ridiculous now, but at the time there was a very real fear of 'reds under the bed' and fascism rising again in the country."

In a leader column at the time, the newspaper - outraged at what it said was the secret service wasting taxpayers' money - ordered MI5 to "leave Comrade Bushell, the Che Guevera [sic] of Eltham, alone".

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