KEITH EWING, JOAN MAHONEY and ANDREW MORETTA probe the Special Branch files which destroyed an innocent man’s livelihood — and ask whether anyone on the left is safe from secretive state-sponsored sabotage
ON MARCH 12, Theresa May announced a judge-led inquiry into undercover policing. Not a moment too soon it might be thought, as evidence mounts of Special Branch infiltrating various campaign groups and trade unions.
But how extensive will this inquiry be? Will it be permitted to examine the role of the police and MI5 in the blacklisting of trade unionists, as the Blacklist Support Group has demanded, or will this be swept under the carpet?
It has been said many times that the blacklisting of trade unionists is one of the greatest abuses of workers’ human rights in recent memory.
Yet despite the sterling efforts of Ian Davidson and Parliament’s Scottish affairs committee, we still do not know enough about the scope and extent of the practice. Nor do we know enough about state complicity, including both the police and MI5.
The government will respond of course by denying any such involvement. They will want us all to believe that the blacklist was a purely private operation conducted by employers seeking to protect their interests, albeit in a most heinous and shameful way.
But if history is any guide, this is unlikely to be the case — though it has always been difficult for trade unionists to find hard evidence that the state was complicit in such practices.
It might have been thought that the selective release of MI5 files to the National Archives would have helped to expose the surveillance and victimisation of trade unionists by the state.
Yet although many personal surveillance files have now been disclosed, great care appears to have been taken to ensure that no evidence is released to suggest that trade unions or trade union activists may have been the subject of surveillance, or that the state intervened to prejudice trade unionists in their dealings with employers.
Sometimes mistakes are made — the release of Bert Edwards’s file being a case in point. Edwards was London District Secretary of the National Union of Vehicle Builders (NUVB) who came to the notice of Special Branch in the 1930s, being mentioned in correspondence between Special Branch and MI5 on account of his “communistic views.”
A Labour councillor after the war, Edwards was not a national figure, not especially well known and not an especially significant trade unionist.
It is precisely for these reasons, however, that the file is important, providing an unusual glimpse into the practices of MI5 and the Special Branch and their surveillance of trade unionists.
Edwards’s file reads very much like the more recent files kept by the Consulting Association on construction workers. There was a lot of biographical detail about Edwards (born in 1896), as well as his wife and son.
The descriptions of his appearance are as unflattering as some of those penned more recently by the Consulting Association to describe construction workers.
Otherwise we learn that Edwards was born in Liverpool, it being reported in later entries on the file that he was the son-in-law of the great Irish republican leader James Connolly, a point that curiously attracts little interest or emphasis.
We also learn about the identity of his various employers in the London region, and his work as a shop steward.
The nature and scale of the surveillance of Bert Edwards is revealed by the detailed personal information that was collected and placed on his file. He was “born in Liverpool and speaks with a slurred north country accent.”
In addition, entries listed the following facts:
“Motor cycle Index Number RX6147, a Norton, is still owned by Edwards but he intends shortly to exchange it for a Rudge Whitworth.”
“Edwards expects to visit Manchester frequently during the summer months, the object undoubtedly being to attend union conferences.”
How would they know all this? Only by the most pointed inquiries, which also included his family.
He had two adult children. Special Branch “enquiries show that while there is little doubt that these persons share the same views as their father they do not appear to have been openly active in extremist matters up to the present.”
This file is a rare find, which makes it very clear that trade union activists were under surveillance by both MI5 and the Special Branch. Some of the surveillance is direct, in the sense that Special Branch had a physical presence at meetings.
These include workplace gatherings, such as the lunchtime meeting of 150 workers employed at Briggs Motors held at the rear of the Princess Cinema, Dagenham, under the auspices of the NUVB.
Where Special Branch officers were unable to watch or attend particular meetings (such as a strike meeting of 300 Park Royal Vehicle employees at Acton Town Hall, restricted to union members only), they brazenly report that “they kept observation outside.”
These events would be attended or watched to gather information on all those present, and would help to nourish several files.
The same would be true of other sources of information that appeared on the files, including informants (presumably employers), as well as the interception of letters and phone calls.
But because so much of the Edwards file has been censored to save MI5 embarrassment and conceal even greater abuses, it is impossible to say just how extensive the letter and phone surveillance were. It looks like any surveillance of his Labour Party activities has been carefully removed from the file, for obvious reasons.
Another source of information was Lascar, the code for the listening device or devices placed (almost certainly illegally) at Communist Party HQ in King Street.
While it is unclear whether Edwards was a party member (the file blows hot and cold), he was often mentioned in conversations picked up by King Street bugs, although there is no evidence on the file of him ever having been there, or ever having made contact.
He was, however, the subject of an inquiry by Desmond Greaves when the latter was preparing his biography of James Connolly. His name was also mentioned in the course of conversations about the NUVB. All this was recorded and squirrelled away.
This surveillance of multiple activities by multiple means allowed the state to build up a profile of Edwards, which at various points in the file is summarised by state officials.
What is notable about this file, however, is the extent to which the surveillance penetrated the official structures of the trade union movement.
It is perhaps predictable that the state would have its spies and narks close to radical individuals and groups, and that organisations believed to be Soviet-dominated (such as the WFTU) would be closely watched (in the last case revealing an interesting criticism of the NUVB from Walter Reuther for working so closely with the WFTU).
What is less predictable is the surveillance of the TUC, with Edwards’s role as delegate to its annual congresses of 1948 and 1952 deemed to be worthy of note.
The latter sparked particular interest in Edwards as he rose to defend the London Trades Council and to oppose its expulsion from the TUC on account of its “subversive” influence.
This sparked a renewed interest in Edwards by MI5 and an inquiry by it to the commander of Special Branch for information about where Edwards was now employed and whether he had come to their notice since 1941.
There was no need for his address — this had been supplied by the TUC list of delegates, held by MI5 department B1D.
It was an article in the Daily Worker about the London Trades Council resolution that had aroused MI5 interest, and it is no doubt reassuring that MI5 should presume that Special Branch would have seen this latter report.
The concern, it seems, was that the “reference back” of a general council motion was a “Communist resolution,” and the fact that Edwards had moved it indicated that he “continues to be either a party member, or a sympathiser.”
It looks like MI5 had been a bit slack, though it is not clear whether Special Branch was any better able to confirm his party status. The best it could do was to insist that Edwards was an “ardent communist,” now employed by a firm in north London.
The accumulation of enough information to write a full and informed biography of surveillance subjects raises the question of what the information was used for.
It must have been for a reason other than accumulation for its own sake, or to facilitate polite exchanges between Special Branch and MI5.
Another reason why the Edwards file is so important is that it reveals clearly that surveillance information about trade unionists was shared by the security service with employers.
In the case of Bert Edwards, information was shared with a number of employers including Park Royal Coachworks, by whom Edwards was employed and where he appears to have been a shop steward.
Writing on behalf of MI5, Flying Officer G C Laws wrote to the company in 1940 to confirm that Edwards “has, in fact, been for some time a fairly militant communist.”
As Laws pointed out, however, “legally, this is nothing against the man,” and because the “obstructive activities” were not directed at slowing down production, it would have to be dealt with as an “internal matter.”
Laws suggested that if Edwards should continue to cause trouble, he could be dismissed for “trade reasons,” failing which the help of the local union organiser should be enlisted. A reply from Park Royal Coachworks to PO
Box 500 (MI5’s address) promised to treat this information with discretion.
According to MI5, Edwards was dismissed shortly thereafter on an “excuse,” while a Special Branch report on Edwards prepared for MI5 reveals that he was sacked “on a pretext of a shortage of work.”
It seems subsequently that Edwards had difficulty in holding employment, being dismissed from a number of other jobs after only a few days or weeks, his task not made easier by MI5 continuing to inform employers of his Communist Party membership.
Although the reasons for Edwards’s victimisation are not clearly specified, Special Branch reports leave little to the imagination, describing him as a “troublemaker at firms where he obtains employment.”
As might be expected, Edwards did not put up with this blacklisting without a fight, though the involvement of Ernie Bevin (as minister of labour) was predictably fruitless.
Nor does it seem that his problems in securing work were confined to wartime. A Special Branch report in the 1950s (from a “reliable” source) reveals that in a spirited act of defiance with a contemporary resonance, Edwards made his way to the offices of a vehicle builder to demand a job, reasoning that as an unemployed trimmer, he should be given priority at a time when some of the company’s employees were working regular overtime.
His demand was “ignored” and he left the premises without any evidence of the police having been called.
Although providing only a little glimpse, the experience of Bert Edwards nevertheless reveals quite clearly a casual collusion between the state and employers in order to exclude trade unionists from employment.
What is striking about the information gathered, retained and shared is that it contains nothing specific about what Edwards was alleged to have done.
He was smeared with general remarks about being a “troublemaker” and an “agitator,” about being a “communist.”
But what was it he did in these capacities to make him unemployable? The files suggesting that he was not disrupting production. They were not even sure that he was a party member — not that that should be relevant.
The case of Bert Edwards of course raises much wider questions about the number and identity of trade unionists who were subject to surveillance and victimisation in this way.
It is not credible to suggest that Edwards was the only one — nor is it credible to suggest that collusion of the kind revealed by his file took place only in wartime.
All of which is to suggest that there may be many, many more cases of historic abuse of trade unionists by the state than the recent cases relating to Shrewsbury and the Consulting Association suggest.
That being so, there is a case for a much bigger inquiry than that currently promised by Labour, if we are ever to get to the root of what is likely to have been trade union surveillance and victimisation on an industrial scale.
The Labour Party is promising an inquiry into blacklisting if it wins the election. But the Bert Edwards file suggests the need for a much bigger inquiry to find out the extent to which trade unionists are or have been the subject of surveillance by the state, and the extent to which the state has colluded with employers by supplying information to employers.
There are many questions that Labour must answer:
How many trade unionists have been or are the subject of MI5 or Special Branch surveillance?
What is the identity of the individuals concerned?
Why were/are they the subject of surveillance?
How was information on trade unionists collected?
Were/are the means used lawful?
How was/is the information used and with whom was/is it shared?
How many trade unionists were/are prejudiced by the use of this information?
Where are the personal files of the individuals in question?
Why are there so few on deposit at the National Archives?