One of the striking features about being a UK citizen is the pervasive feeling of the establishment, (or parts of it), pursuing an agenda of its own. Concern about this flares up periodically – whether over the Iraq war or Snowden disclosures about GCHQ. But what never quite goes away is the feeling that somehow the British state is not fully within democratic control, or necessarily acting in the public interest. What, for example, really lies behind our slavish adherence to Trident, a weapon which is unpopular, unaffordable and redundant. The purpose of this article is to look at one particular example: namely, events surrounding the activities of atom spies during and immediately after WW2. What happened then is not merely interesting in its own right. It also suggests the emergence of a particular agenda for parts of the establishment, which perhaps makes later events more explicable.
Because very little in this type of area is actually provable, at one level, all that emerges are tantalising, suggestive, hypotheses, rather than concrete proof. But, nonetheless, something very concrete actually does emerge – that we are completely unable within the UK ever to come to full and satisfactory closure on episodes like the atom spies, or Iraq, or the Al Yamahah arms deal, or Bloody Sunday, is in itself concrete proof that something is very wrong with our mechanisms for calling the establishment to account. That is the lesson to be taken, and it is something that we could, and should, do something about.
The particular example considered here relates to the events surrounding the careers of the atom spies, Melita Norwood and Klaus Fuchs, in the 1940s. These events strongly suggest that elements of the establishment at that time were pursuing a covert policy which ran quite counter to the government’s officially announced policies. But this example is also interesting because it suggests how Britain’s establishment saw Britain’s world role emerging – and the lengths they would go to in order to secure that role.
The characters involved in this episode are as follows. Melita Norwood was, during the 1940s, secretary to the director of the Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association (NFMRA) – and, as is now known, a spy for the Russians. The NFMRA was a consortium of private companies and research bodies which played a central role in doing research for the British government on the atom bomb project – and, from 1945, was formally incorporated into that project. So Melita Norwood was in a position to access, and pass on to the Russians, material which was extremely important to development of the Russians’ own bomb. She was publicly identified as a spy in 1999, when material was leaked from the KGB archives. But she was never prosecuted by the British, and died in 2005. David Burke’s 2008 book, The spy who came in from the Co-op, gives an authoritative and well researched account of Norwood’s career, and many of the following facts, (but not the interpretations), are taken from that book.
The better known atom spy, Klaus Fuchs, was a scientist who started work on the atom programme in the UK in May 1941, and moved to the US to work on the Manhattan Project in December 1943. He was arrested and charged with spying in February 1950, after coded soviet messages were deciphered which pointed to him as a spy. He was sentenced to fourteen years in jail, and served nine.
The third, and in many ways central, character is Ursula Kuczynski, or Beurton – better known now by her cover name Sonya. She had been a Russian agent in Switzerland up until late 1940, working for the Lucy spy ring which fed important German military secrets to Moscow. While in Switzerland, she had recruited to the Lucy network an Englishman, Alexander Foote, who was a veteran of the Spanish civil war – he will re-appear in this story later. In January 1941, Moscow moved Sonya to England, where she settled down ostensibly as a housewife in Oxfordshire. In fact, from 1941 to 1944 she was the controller of Norwood, and of Fuchs before he left the country. She continued as an active spy thereafter: and slipped away to the Soviet bloc about the time Fuchs was arrested. She was much honoured by the Russians, being made an honorary colonel in the soviet army. She died in 2000.
So what were the remarkable events this trio were involved in – events which attract controversy to this day. The fundamental puzzle is that they were able to get away with it so long: completely, in the case of Sonya and Norwood, and in the case of Fuchs until the Russian codes were broken. Consider the following:-
• Towards the end of 1943, Sonya came to the attention of the British security authorities when her ex-husband was arrested as a Russian agent in Iran. When the Oxford police carried out enquiries, the chief constable reported to MI5 that a large wireless set was known to be in her possession, with a special pole erected for the aerial. He recommended she was worthy of further enquiry: but MI5 took no action.
• In 1945, Melita Norwood was given full security clearance, just as she was given access to even more important atom secrets, as BNFMRA was integrated into the British atom bomb project. This was despite her name having come up in connection with Soviet espionage in 1938, in relation to a spy case in Woolwich arsenal.
• In 1945 and 1946, a Russian defector to Canada, Igor Gouzenko, passed to the British the information that there was a high level mole in MI5: and also the names of five possible Russian agents, including Fuchs. MI5 failed to pursue either lead. The officer who failed to pursue these leads was Roger Hollis – which later led much suspicion to attach to him.
• In July 1947, Alexander Foote came over to the west. He informed MI5 that Sonya was a Russian spy. On interrogation, she tacitly admitted she was a soviet agent. However, no charges were brought: and two days after the interrogation, the mail checks which had been started on her were dropped.
• In 1949, Alexander Foote published “Handbook for Spies”, a memoir of his time working as a soviet spy. This, according to intelligence specialist and MP Rupert Allason, was actually ghost written by the British intelligence services, (Hansard, 25 January 1989): and was endorsed by the head of the security services as being essentially true, (National Archives). It is clearly a work of dis-information by the UK security services. And what it says about Sonya is that, after she came to England in 1941, she was just an ordinary housewife: “I do not think that from that time on she has had any connection with a Russian spy net.”
• In February 1951, Guy Liddell, deputy director of MI5, binned an internal memo suggesting that further contacts of Sonya should be checked up.
In fact, the events described above may be even stranger still, since there is a strong suspicion that Alexander Foote was actually a British agent throughout, and that the British were latterly using the Lucy ring to feed Enigma intercepts covertly to the Russians, without the Russians being aware of the true source: (the latter was the view held, for example, by former MI6 officer Malcolm Muggeridge, who claimed to have learned this from Alexander Foote, as recorded in the second volume of Muggeridge’s memoirs.) In this case, the British would have known Sonya as an active spy before her arrival in the UK in 1941. But even leaving this possibility aside, the events described above are strange enough: what should be made of them?
First of all, the information fed over by Norwood was extremely important – despite attempts by the British to play down its significance when Norwood was finally exposed. Norwood’s information enabled the Russians to sidestep some of the severe technical problems involved in designing reactor fuel rods. Burke’s assessment of its importance is as follows: ‘The contribution of Britain’s atomic spies had greatly reduced the time-scale for a Russian atomic bomb. … By helping to create an armed stand-off between two nuclear superpowers Melita Norwood had played a significant part in ushering in the era of détente and its counterpart, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). For that millions of Russian people probably owe her their lives’.
Secondly, the public debate on these issues has tended to focus on the question of whether the British were staggeringly incompetent – or was there a traitor within MI5, (with the finger of suspicion pointing particularly at Roger Hollis.) But this is clearly not the appropriate choice of alternatives. The events involved go way beyond incompetence as a plausible explanation. The realistic option is between treachery – and a deliberate attempt by the British to feed atom secrets to Russia through a Russian spy ring which the British were aware of and were, in effect, manipulating.
At first sight, this second possibility looks ridiculous: why, as the Cold War was crystallising, would the UK pursue a covert policy of passing vital atom secrets to the Russians? But there is a very plausible potential motive: a motive which could, in fact, explain a good deal about British policy throughout the post-war period.
Consider the thankless position of Britain’s elite towards the end of the second world war. Here they are, in charge of a virtually bankrupt country: a country which has clearly been comprehensively overtaken as a military and economic superpower by the US: and which is faced with the imminent and inevitable loss of empire. What should Britain’s role in the emerging post-war world be? One potential role is to be America’s loyal poodle. But this possible role is likely to be a rewarding one only as long as there is a credible threat to American supremacy. So it is actually not in Britain’s interest if America holds undisputed world sway, either because it possesses nuclear supremacy, or if it has used nuclear weapons to destroy its main potential challenger, the Soviet Union. In these circumstances, there actually is a strong motive for Britain to give some covert and deniable aid to Russia’s nascent nuclear programme, by discretely turning a blind eye to the actions of Russia’s nuclear spies.
Of course, we will never know. All of this is hypothesis and speculation. But there are two implications of this line of thought. First of all, if the hypothesis were true that Britain’s elite saw the UK’s world role as being America’s loyal poodle, then it actually explains a lot about British actions throughout the post war period: not just the cringing obsequiousness to US wishes, but also the playing up of perceived threats – e.g., the willingness to buy into the “war on terror”.
But secondly, and most importantly, the fact that there never has been a satisfactory public resolution of issues like the Hollis controversy: or what really underlay Britain’s involvement in Iraq: or what the actual scope is of GCHQ surveillance: and so on, in itself tells us something very significant. It tells us that we have been conditioned to accept “absence of proof” in these cases as a satisfactory explanation, which is meant to reassure us that nothing underhand is going on. In fact, what absence of proof, or, more accurately, absence of satisfactory closure, tells us is that there is something very wrong with the apparatus of the British state. It means that we do not have satisfactory mechanisms for shedding light on these areas, and for calling the establishment to account if appropriate.
This matters, because there is no chance of getting our governing elite under control, and keeping them under control, if they can operate hidden agendas with impunity. And, at a time when the UK again faces a fundamental crisis as to what its economic and political role in the world should be, there is no chance of redefining that role unless we know exactly how we got to where we are now.
So what should be done? There is no easy answer: but here are two things which would help.
First, scrutiny of the elite should not be carried out by the same elite. There is little chance of a Lord Denning, or a Lord Butler, or a Lord Saville getting to the root of what the establishment may, or may not, have been up to when they are, by upbringing, education, and culture, part of the selfsame establishment. Denning’s infamous quote, when he rejected the Birmingham Six appeal, says it all: ‘If they won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous. …That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, “It cannot be right that these actions should go any further’’.
And. secondly, whatever form of tribunal is set up on any particular issue, it should have power to compel, and to publish evidence. The current situation on the Chilcot enquiry is, for example, totally unsatisfactory. But procedural changes alone are not enough. In the last resort, what is required is a fundamental change in public attitudes – so that we are no longer prepared to be put off with lies, half-truths and obfuscation when things in the conduct of public life do not add up.
Jim Cuthbert is an independent researcher