Attlee’s secret war with Stalin

Clement Attlee is widely feted today as Britain's greatest socialist leader. But, says Dan Lomas, a new side of the Labour prime minister (who died 50 years ago this month) is emerging from the archives – one of a virulent anti-communist, who was prepared to employ sabotage and subversion to take the fight to the Eastern Bloc...

British prime minister Clement Attlee reading a document in his office, 27 July 1946. (Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the October 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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On the night of 3 October 1949, a team of well-armed anti-communists rowed ashore onto the rocky outcrops of Albania’s Karaburun Peninsula, a narrow finger of land extending into the Adriatic Sea.

The men had been given a perilously difficult task – to establish intelligence networks across Albania and train regime opponents for “insurrectionary purposes”. Their long-term goal was more ambitious still: to bring down the Albanian leader Enver Hoxha’s communist regime and, in doing so, prise open the first crack in the seemingly impenetrable Soviet bloc.

Though the men rowing ashore that night were themselves Albanian, the mission they were embarking on – Operation Valuable – was very much an Anglo-American creation. Valuable was the brainchild of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) and the American Office of Policy Co-ordination (OPC), responsible for clandestine special operations. Ahead of their mission, the insurgents had spent weeks on the British-held island of Malta, training in the arts of sabotage and subversion. Above all, Valuable could only go ahead once it had been given approval by the most powerful men in both Washington and London – among them, Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee.

Bevin, Britain’s foreign secretary, had declared that Operation Valuable would “pay dividends”. Clement Attlee also gave the mission his full backing. The British prime minister had even gone as far as to suggest bribery, asking the Foreign Office’s top civil servant about “Albanian personalities. Are they not,” he suggested, “possibly for sale?”

Anti-communist espionage

To some, Attlee’s support for covert SIS operations in Albania may come as something of a surprise. Attlee is, after all, widely celebrated as Britain’s greatest socialist prime minister – an architect of the National Health Service, the welfare state, and the drive towards nationalisation. The altogether darker worlds of espionage and intelligence don’t generally get a look-in. In fact, on the rare occasions that historians do touch upon the subject, they tend to suggest that Attlee – shaped by claims that members of MI5 and SIS attempted to undermine Labour’s first ever government in the 1920s – was deeply suspicious of Britain’s intelligence community when he entered No 10 in July 1945.

But the opening of government files on security affairs tells a different story entirely. They reveal a man who was acutely interested in what MI5 and SIS could do for their country and – perhaps more surprisingly still, given Attlee’s position on the left of the political spectrum – one who harboured a hatred of communism.

Attlee would no doubt have learned the value of intelligence during the Second World War, when he served in Winston Churchill’s war cabinet, first as Lord Privy Seal and then as deputy prime minister. In May 1940, having just entered office, he called for a “thorough overhaul” of intelligence in light of the failed Anglo-French operation to defend Norway from the Germans. That same month, as fears of a German fifth-column swept Britain following Germany’s invasion of France and the Low Countries, Attlee was tasked to meet MI5’s Guy Liddell, responsible for counter-espionage, about the internment of fascists and enemy aliens.

Attlee agreed with MI5’s assessment that the “liberty of the subject, freedom of speech etc were all very well in peacetime but were no use in fighting the Nazis”. Crucially, given what was to follow in the war’s aftermath, he also saw reports that members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) were, despite the wartime ‘Grand Alliance’, covertly passing information to the Soviet Union. It was a sign of things to come. As the dust settled after the Second World War, Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) painted an ever darker picture of the UK’s relationship with her former wartime ally, the Soviet Union. In 1946, the JIC had been fairly optimistic that Stalin would work with his western counterparts, though the Soviets would adopt, they admitted, a policy that was “aggressive by all means short of war” if threatened. A year later, however, the committee believed the Soviets wanted to “hasten the elimination of capitalism in all parts of the world”. By 1948, Moscow was irrevocably hostile to the west.

(Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
(Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Soviet threat

Though initially committed to maintaining friendly relations with Moscow, Attlee and his allies read with growing alarm SIS’s reports on Soviet “subversion, sabotage and strikes”. Attlee was also concerned by the difficulties Britain’s intelligence services were having penetrating the Iron Curtain. He asked the cabinet secretary, Sir Norman Brook, to carry out a significant postwar review of the intelligence machinery, and set in motion the professionalisation of Britain’s intelligence community for the postwar period.

For all his socialist credentials, Attlee vehemently rejected the notion that the Soviet Union was a workers’ utopia – a view accepted by many on the left. Such hostility meant he could be vocal in his condemnation of Stalin’s Russia. In 1939, he attacked the “ideological imperialism” of the Communist International (an organisation that advocated world communism) and, speaking to Labour members in January 1940, compared Soviet communism to Nazism. For Attlee, the British Communist party was “the dummy of the ventriloquist Stalin”.

In 1953, replying to criticism from veteran anti-communist Senator ‘Joe’ McCarthy, Attlee showed his irritation at “being instructed by a beginner”, proudly stating that Labour had “nearly 40 years of fighting communism in Britain, and despite war and economic depression, the communists have utterly failed”.

Attlee’s anti-communism chimed nicely with MI5, which was growing increasingly concerned with communist espionage and subversion. In May 1945, one senior MI5 officer remarked that the Labour party, rather than being opposed to their secret work, would be “more interested” in using the service than their Conservative counterparts. MI5’s released files prove this correct.

Both Labour and MI5 were keen to find crypto-communists (or ‘fellow travellers’). It was claimed there were “eight or nine” secret communists in the Labour party. Attlee was eager to know more; in 1946, Liddell, now MI5’s deputy-director general, recorded in his diary that the prime minister wanted “positive information” on subversive MPs.

Attlee wanted to make sure that these MPs didn’t “get into positions where they might constitute a danger” to the state. As a result, we know from released MI5 files that Attlee saw the names of several Labour MPs – among them Geoffrey Bing and Wilfred Vernon. Bing had served in the Royal Signals, rising to major, but his past (he had been a member of the Communist party’s secret legal group) prevented elevation to any significant posts. According to MI5, Vernon had spied for Soviet intelligence in the 1930s while working at Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. Attlee, we’re told, was “shocked”.

Fears of ‘fellow travellers’ were given real impetus by the defection of Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk working for Soviet military intelligence (the GRU) in Canada, who gave the first insight into postwar Soviet intelligence operations just weeks after the end of the Second World War. Attlee was fully in the picture about Gouzenko’s revelations of a spy network, including the British-born physicist Alan Nunn May, who was later arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1946.

Guy Maynard Liddell
Guy Maynard Liddell. (Getty Images)

A hardline stance

Attlee’s government reacted by implementing rudimentary vetting (‘negative vetting’) in parts of the Civil Service. In 1947, a group of ministers – the Cabinet Committee on Subversive Activities – recommended that communists and fascists should be banned from working in jobs with “access to really secret information”. Attlee agreed. “We cannot afford to take risks here, and the general public will support us,” he declared. “Fellow travellers may protest, but we should face up to this.”

A year later, the prime minister told the House of Commons – against protests from the communist MP Willie Gallacher – that Communist party membership involves “the acceptance by the individual of a loyalty, which in certain circumstances can be inimical to the state”.

By 1951, Attlee’s cabinet was adopting an increasingly hardline stance – in part, under pressure from the United States – by starting the implementation of ‘positive vetting’ (or PVing), a more intrusive screening process, to protect Britain’s Cold War secret state.

Overseas, Attlee was initially more cautious. Despite Britain’s relationship with the Soviet Union starting to deteriorate in 1946, the government was reluctant to break off talks altogether.

But, by late 1947, the gloves had come off. In his new year’s broadcast for 1948, Attlee drew a distinction between British social democracy and the Soviet bloc where criticism was silenced and only “one view… allowed” – the Soviet one. This public criticism of Moscow was the opening salvo of a new propaganda policy enacted by the Foreign Office’s anti-communist organisation, the Information Research Department (IRD). From now on, the Labour government committed itself to giving “a lead to friends abroad” and helping them “in the anti-communist struggle”.

Attlee’s most forceful denunciation of Stalin’s system was yet to come. In late January 1948, during a debate on foreign affairs, he declared: “We are resolutely opposed to the communist way of life. The police state is utterly repugnant to the people of western Europe.”

He was equally critical of “the left” – the Communist party and those on Labour’s backbenches – who “shut their eyes to the absence of human rights when they look to eastern Europe… Those people who deny human rights have no right to claim that they are in the van of human progress. The only van they are in is the police van, and in the field of human rights today Russia and eastern Europe are right at the back.”

The ‘Big Three’ posing for photographers just before the final conference meeting at Potsdam. Left to right, seated: Prime Minister Clement Attlee; President Harry S Truman; and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin. (Getty Images)
The ‘Big Three’ posing for photographers just before the final conference meeting at Potsdam. Left to right, seated: Prime Minister Clement Attlee; President Harry S Truman; and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin. (Getty Images)

Covert operations

Words alone wouldn’t be enough. In 1948, spurred into action by the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia and the start of the Soviet blockade of Berlin, Attlee’s government gave SIS the green light for a series of covert operations in eastern Europe. These included Operation Valuable, and a mission in East Germany to smear local communists and Soviet officials.

However, Operation Valuable was compromised from its very inception. Poorly planned and executed – and betrayed by Kim Philby, a KGB double agent working as SIS’s liaison with Washington – the results of the operation proved, as one Foreign Office official noted, “disappointing”. Of the six British-trained teams of anti-communist Albanians who made landfall on the Karaburun Peninsula in October 1949, three fled to neighbouring Greece and one survived for a couple of months in Albania. The other two were destroyed by the local security forces and never heard of again.

Despite this failure, by 1950, ministers had given approval for ‘whispering campaigns’ to compromise Soviet officials into defecting, subversive activities to worsen Moscow’s relationship with the Eastern Bloc and propaganda to keep alive a ‘spirit of resistance’ behind the Iron Curtain. Agents parachuted into Poland and Ukraine, and SIS buried weapons and radios across western Europe to prepare resistance networks should the Soviets invade – all with Attlee’s blessing.

As more archive material becomes available, so it becomes increasingly evident that there was a lot more to Clement Attlee than – to quote Ed Miliband – “the NHS, building homes, and the family allowance”. In fact, it’s no overstatement to claim that his government lay the foundations of the postwar intelligence community – a legacy that’s important for our understanding of modern government today.

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Dr Dan Lomas is lecturer in international history at the University of Salford, specialising in Cold War intelligence.