Wednesday, January 16, 2013

When IRIS eyes were spying...

MANY years ago, browsing in the basement of a Manchester department store, I chanced upon a stack of remaindered copies of a booklet called "The Communist Solar System", and bought a copy for 6d. It was not a manifesto from Juan Posadas, nor an early example of socialist science fiction, but a publication from Industrial Research and Information Services (IRIS) Ltd, designed to warn us about the dangers of Communist "front" organisations.

There was a foreword by Herbert Morrison, and a handy list at the back of organisations proscribed by the Labour Party. Besides such obviously suspect outfits as the British-Soviet Friendship Society, British-Bulgarian Friendship Society and so forth, there were groups like Musicians for Peace, and Artists for Peace - that last word was bound to alert any social democrat, coming at the end of a decade when a Labour government had rushed to develop nuclear weapons and been the first in Britain to maintain conscription in er..."peacetime". (which had been anything but peacetime in Greece, Palestine, Malaya and Korea).

Less obvious, perhaps, the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and the Labour Research Department received a mention apiece as, if not on the list, nevertheless organisations you'd best avoid, or keep at arms length, if you knew what was good for your career in the Labour Party. 

 So was Industrial Research and Information Services (IRIS) a part of the Labour and trade union movement, albeit anti-communist, or was it warning against the influence of a "foreign" tyrrany, from a position of political independence then?

Well, not quite. It was reported recently that Tory prime minsiter Harold Macmillan authorised covert government expenditure to support IRIS, as government files now made public under the 30-year rule reveal.

"Lord Shawcross, a former Labour Attorney-General, first introduced him to the organisation, Industrial Research and Information Ltd (IRIS), towards the end of 1962. It was secretly funded by employers, including Ford and Shell, through a private trust of which he was a trustee, the Prime Minister was told. According to Lord Shawcross, unions with a strong Communist presence included the ETU electricians' union, the Draughtsmen's Union, and several more representing white-collar workers. He also claimd the BBC and several television companies were infiltrated. With more money, anti-Communist trade unionists could be supported, and information about known Communists passed on.

"Macmillan was immediately interested, and after arranging a meeting to find out more about how the Communists organised strikes and infiltrated organisations, the Prime Minister promised to talk to the Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, about raising money from the Secret Fund, which also funded MI5. Sir Burke Trend, the Cabinet Secretary, assured Mr Macmillan's private secretary Sir Tim Bligh that the Secret Fund could manage £40,000 a year."

Macmillan wanted to keep all this quiet, restricting information to a small circle. But he assured  Lord Shawcross he had not forgotten the matter. Mr Brooke in turn met Lord Shawcross in February, and offered in principle to fund the Shawcross organisation.

Mr Brooke wrote to Mr Macmillan after the meeting saying IRIS would be a useful way to use information on Communists uncovered by MI5. "The outcome, if all goes well, is that there will exist not only an effective channel for giving wider currency to facts of public interest which we know about certain individuals from secret sources, but also a more powerful instrument for mobilising effort within the trade unions against the determined attempts by the Communist Party to get control of key positions inthe unions nationally and locally."

Henry Brooke, MP for Hampstead, whom Macmillan promoted to Home Secretary that year, was no stranger to the business of working with information from secret sources or backing publications to target people. Before the war he worked at the Conservative Research Department where Sir Joseph Ball, ex of MI5 was a guiding influence - the Hidden Hand, so to speak. It was Ball who was behind the notorious "Zinoviev Letter" that was used against Labour in 1924. But it was Henry Brooke who became chairman of the Truth Publishing Company. (Though this fact was missing from his Who's Who entry. The magazine Truth was used to support a pro-Nazi Appeasement policy and in 1940 to smear Leslie Hore-Belisha so he could be removed as War Minister.

That was how the Tories dealt with a coalition partner. But now while gaining a reputation as one of the worst ever Home Secretaries, Brooke was also looking after funding to covert efforts inside the trade unions and Labour party. 

In this he evidently acted with Labour's Baron Shawcross. Hartley Shawcross QC had been British prosecutor at Nuremburg, and also tried William Joyce ('Lord Haw Haw") but in later life he was one of those in the House of Lords who opposed efforts to pursue alleged war criminals in Britain, possibly because he remembered who had brought them in. By then, having once been dubbed "Shortly Floorcoss" by other Labour MPs, he had eventually crossed to the Social Democratic Party. He had also served as head of the Press Council, and though critical of unscrupulous editors, he ridiculed the idea of democracy in the press, saying it would lead to control by van drivers and other trades unionists.

In July 1964 Shawcross wrote to the new Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, saying: "The help we obtained from official sources was of the greatest assistance in tiding things over, but it does not seem there should be any need to seek further subventions." IRIS had now raised £35,000 of private funding, and did not need more. Sir Alec replied he was delighted that the Government had been able to help.

Although IRIS was funded by the Tories and business and backed by the security services, it did have its people in the labour movement. One who seems as interesting as Shawcross if not so eminent or well-known was Charles A.Smith, who at one time had been a Trotskyist of sorts, and became quite prominent in the Independent Labour Party. Smith left the ILP for the Common Wealth party towards the end of the war, perhaps repelled equally by Hitler and Stalin, and after the war he also became pro-Zionist (though this was not uncommon among Labour Lefts at the time).
But after leaving Common Wealth (which had mostly dissolved into Labour), Smith joined forces with an assortment of anti-communists including Jack Tanner of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, who had been a militant shop steward and Communist Party member himself at one time; and the Duchess of Atholl, who though a Tory had opposed Franco (her book Searchlight on Spain was publisjhed by Gollancz' Left Book Club) but was now founder of the British League for European Freedom, opposing Soviet dominance in eastern Europe. They founded Common Cause, which aimed to combat communism in the unions, in 1951, and Smith became its genral secretary. Common Cause dissolved itself into Industrial Research and Information Services, of which Jack Tanner became an official, in 1956.

Ironically 1956-7 was to be the year in which the Communist Party suffered its greatest crisis, not through the efforts of people like IRIS, but because of the publication of Khruschev's secret speech, and the military suppression of the revolt in Hungary.

Ironically too, in 1957 the Communist Party's remaining influence in trade unions like the ETU was used to support Nye Bevan, Labour's shadow foreign secretary, when he rejected calls for the unilateral renunciation of nuclear weapons. ("I cannot go naked into the conference chamber"). In the hope of Summit talks, the Young Communist League waa to produce a Christmas card which people were urged to send to "Mac"millan asking him to act for peace, a couple of years before "Mac" decided to authorise funding for IRIS to combat communists.

There have been lots of changes since then, both in Britain and in the international scene. First the security services had to turn from concentrating on the CP to dealing with other kinds of "Reds", and then with the Soviet Union's collapse they can no longer pretend the pusuit of industrial militants is due to them assisting foreign tyrrany.

But though the context and organisations change, still it goes on, not just surveillance but interference, the most common form being in the state assisting employers in blacklisting. And not just the state. For the Blacklist Support Group whose Facebook page drew my attention to that item on Macmillan and IRIS has also been looking at some of the blacklisting files uncovered on which there frequently appear against someone's name the words "NOT RECOMMENDED BY AMICUS". Amicus, which absorbed the old right-wing EEPTU electricians union, is now part of Unite, whose officers previously reported they had found no evidence of collaboration with blacklisting. There is plainly more here for trade unionists to investigate.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home