Wilson chose `traitor' to head spy inquiry

The 1966 papers
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David Walker and John Crossland

The web of Cold War conspiracy spun around Harold Wilson is set to thicken after the disclosure that as Labour Prime Minister he urged the appointment of Sir Roger Hollis, the suspect MI5 chief, to an official inquiry into the 1966 jail escape of a Soviet spy.

This is revealed in government papers at the Public Record Office released today under the 30-year rule.

After the escape of the double agent George Blake from Wandsworth prison in south-west London, Wilson suggested that Hollis - recently retired as head of MI5 - join the inquiry chaired by Earl Mountbatten of Burma, the former chief of the defence staff.

But Lord Mountbatten and the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, were none too keen. As a memorandum to Wilson puts it, the role of the Security Service under Hollis was itself going to be examined. "He would probably not be able to contribute a great deal to the work on prison security", it says. Today it reads ironically; then it may or may not have reflected suspicions of Hollis.

In a curious aside which some might take as evidence of that, the memo highlights MI5's "alleged wish that Blake would be kept in a London prison".

It was not till the Eighties that Hollis, who died in 1973, was fingered as a possible traitor. The proposition was voiced by the spycatcher Peter Wright and has never been confirmed; Wright, by his own admission, "bugged and burgled" his way around London when Wilson was next Prime Minister, in the Seventies.

What the 1966 papers show beyond dispute is how distracted the Wilson regime was by security - from Communists in the unions to the reign of terror at No 10 by Wilson's personal security adviser, George Wigg, over leaks to the press.

Even in official records, MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, was not referred to by name. Security buffs will pore over the report of the briefing after Blake's escape given by MI6's chief, Sir Dick White, to Wilson and the Opposition leader, Edward Heath. White was complacent, insisting that even if Blake ended up in the Soviet Union (he did), he could not do any more damage to British interests. "There was not therefore any very strong Soviet obligation to him. They might conceivably give him some money and leave him to work out his own future."