Douglas Eden

We came close to losing our democracy in 1979

Douglas Eden reveals the extraordinary penetration of the 1970s Labour movement by pro-Soviet trade unionists and the extent of Callaghan’s toleration of the hard Left

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Douglas Eden reveals the extraordinary penetration of the 1970s Labour movement by pro-Soviet trade unionists and the extent of Callaghan’s toleration of the hard Left

Thirtieth anniversaries have been in vogue this year. So far, there have been seminars and conferences to commemorate the notorious 1979 Winter of Discontent and the subsequent election of Margaret Thatcher’s government. Still missing is observance of the defeat of the Left’s project, led from the trade unions, to transfigure parliamentary demo-cracy into a form of soviet state.

The project’s leading figure was the general secretary of Britain’s largest union, the Transport & General Workers Union (the T&G), and chairman of the TUC’s international committee, Jack Jones. In 1977, more than half the respondents to a Gallup poll named him the most powerful man in Britain. Only half as many named the Prime Minister, James Callaghan.

Jones died only a few weeks ago at the age of 96 and, after a series of anodyne obituaries not speaking ill of the dead, the brief moratorium on his reputation was suitably ended by one of his KGB case officers, Oleg Gordievsky CMG, the best-known surviving KGB defector to our side.

He confirmed in April that Jack Jones was a Soviet agent. ‘I was his last case officer,’ wrote Gordievsky (Daily Telegraph, 28 April), ‘meeting him for the final time in 1984 at Fulham [six years after Jones’s retirement from the T&G], together with his wife, who had been a Comintern agent since the mid-1930s. I handed out to him a small amount of cash. From 1981, I had had the pleasure of reading volumes of his files, which were kept in the British department of the KGB until 1986, when they were passed on to the archive.’

The idea that Jack Jones had a close collaborative relationship with the Soviet side in the Cold War will surprise and perhaps alarm many who recall how influential he was in British politics during his prime. The Callaghan government came to depend on him to help keep them in office and arrange the incomes policy they thought would save their political bacon.

Following Jones’s death, it is now also poss-ible to examine assertions about him by another Eastern Bloc secret intelligence service defector to the West, Josef Frolik, who served Czech intelligence under diplomatic cover in London between 1964 and 1966, defecting to America in 1969. Living safely under a number of aliases, he is believed to have died in the US in 1989.

In 1975, Leo Cooper published his memoir, The Frolik Defection, in London. In a chapter on ‘Trade Union Brethren’, Frolik named leading British trade unionists he knew to be deeply involved with the Soviet-led spy circle in London. When Cooper worried about the legal consequences of such exposure, Frolik agreed to withhold the names and replace them with dashes. He confided the names to my good friend, the late Josef Josten, head of the Free Czech Information Service, on condition that they not be revealed during their lifetimes. Jack Jones was the last of them to pass away, so Frolik’s names can now be published.

Frolik’s account of his contacts with Jones and his colleagues can be found on pages 87 to 92 of his book. Mr Jones was a costly contact. Frolik writes that his expenses in connection with Jones began to mount and, when he reported to Prague, he was given the brisk order, ‘Drop the Jones project. He’s a horse of friends!’ ‘Horse’ was the accepted code for ‘agent’ and this was the signal that Jack Jones was already being ‘handled’ by KGB Lieutenant-Colonel Nikolai Berdenikov, who operated under diplomatic cover as the Soviet labour attaché and is probably best known for his involvement in the Penkovsky affair.

Jack Jones was not alone among trade union leaders in his pro-Soviet sympathies during the period of overweening trade union power in the 1960s and 1970s. Others named by Frolik include Ted Hill (Lord Hill of Wivenhoe) of the Boilermakers, Ernie Roberts and Hugh Scanlon of the AUEW (Engineering Union, second in power only to Jones’s T&G), and Richard Briginshaw, leader of the largest print union.

Without testimony from the British security services and thus far unpublished KGB files, we can’t claim that more than a couple of these gentlemen were in receipt of cash from Soviet or other Eastern Bloc security services for passing information about this country. However, there is plenty of evidence that they were strongly pro-Soviet in their sympathies, even more so in private.

Most of them were frequently honoured guests in Eastern Bloc countries. They kept close private and heavy-drinking company and spoke freely and confidentially with ‘friends’ whom they had to know were Soviet Bloc intelligence agents whose purpose was to acquire information about our political and industrial classes for use against our best interests.

As Frolik advised in his book, ‘Under no circumstances accept money from any representative of an Eastern embassy or official organisation! Everything must be accounted for [by our accountants] and they tolerate no gifts or money, unless they serve the purpose of obtaining information... There are no such things as “gifts”, “retainers” and “consultancies” in the Czech service or in that of any other Eastern Intelligence Department — there are only bribes!’

Long believed to be a staunch supporter of Labour’s anti-communist establishment from Attlee to Gaitskell, Ted Hill was in fact a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, as was his wife. However, his membership was kept secret, not an unusual arrangement on the pro-Soviet Left. It was a common practice after Lenin advised it when asked by Sylvia Pankhurst how she and her friends could work for the revolution in Britain. ‘Support the Labour party as the rope supports the hanged man,’ he told her.

When the ‘innocent’ Frolik sought permission to recruit Hill, he was told: ‘Hands off! That particular mare is being run from another stable close by.’ This was Berdenikov’s stable.

Frolik was similarly warned off Richard Briginshaw, Ernie Roberts and Hugh Scanlon, soon to become general secretary of the AUEW. It is worth noting that in 1977, Scanlon was prevented from becoming chairman of British Shipbuilding when MI5 advised that he should not see documents marked ‘confidential’ or above. As for Briginshaw, ‘the Russians had taken him over; he was too important for the Czechs’. The ability to shut down Britain’s newspapers was a vital facility.

The kindest construction that can be put on the conduct of these trade unionists is that they believed the Soviet countries to be true workers’ states and world leaders of the working-class movement; and that it was in the best interest of British workers to shift Britain from alignment with the US and the West to a closer relationship with the USSR. There is no shortage of statements by Jack Jones, for example, on the record to this effect.

During the 1970s, the official Western policy of détente toward the Soviet Union provided an ideal backcloth for the conduct of fraternal relations between TUC leaders and the totalitarians of the Soviet ‘workers’ states’. During 1975 and 1976, for example, two members of the USSR Communist Party Politburo were honoured at TUC headquarters.

After leading a TUC General Council delegation to East Germany (the ‘German Democratic Republic’) in 1976, Jack Jones stated that ‘the GDR was a workers’ state and the trade unions were not therefore in opposition; the only help [the GDR] had received from outside being from the Soviet Union in preserving the freedom of the country.’

At the 1970 Labour party annual conference, Mr Jones said, ‘We have got to start to buil d genuine democracy in Britain in place of the sham democracy which exists... maybe we shall eventually get round to the idea of shop stewards in the streets... For too long the idea has been about that an MP was just a representative and not a delegate... We must determine to build a people’s democracy.’

Ernest Bevin, the no-nonsense foreign secretary of the Attlee government, had introduced a ban on Communists holding office in the T&G. Jones removed it. By 1977 some 13 CPGB members were on the union’s national executive, which had the power to initiate and vote on resolutions at Labour party conferences. Jones built a powerful network of regional and local officials in his own image that could continue operation after his retirement in 1978. This was to prove disastrous to the Callaghan government in 1979.

These are only a few examples of Jones’s activities. There are many similar items concerning Scanlon and other pro-Soviet TUC leaders. All point to a belief in the ultimate establishment of a Soviet ‘workers’ state in Britain, replacing parliamentary democracy.

I can still recall the knock-down argument at Blackpool between Jack Jones and Ian Mikardo, representing the union and parliamentary wings of the pro-Soviet Left respectively, as to whether the coming far-left government of their desire would be run by the TUC General Council (or Soviet?) or the Parliamentary Labour Party. They infuriated each other, and left the meeting without shaking hands or resolving the argument. The revolution was not in question — its proponents were arguing over who should control post-revolutionary power.

How then could James Callaghan come to depend so utterly on Jack Jones and his colleagues to sustain his government? Harold Wilson’s attempt to reform the unions, In Place of Strife, was defeated by union pressure and by Callaghan’s opposition in the Cabinet in 1969. The full story of what happened to the Labour movement in the next 10 years, reinforced by Frolik’s and Gordievsky’s revelations, shows the danger faced by parliamentary democracy after the failure of In Place of Strife.

Perhaps Wilson saw it, encouraging his departure in 1976. Despite frequent warnings, Callaghan, who had defeated In Place of Strife, would not. His blindness may have been induced by his overwhelming loyalty to the trade union movement to which he believed he owed his political career. Or he may have considered the TUC leadership’s pro-Sovietism as useful to him in his bi-polar détente diplomacy.

Accustomed to the rarefied atmosphere of government and reliant on his concordat with Jones, Callaghan took little or no notice of the replacement of official Labour candidates by hard Left people chosen by the unions. He intervened personally in the ousting of Reg Prentice, the most prominent victim, only to delay Prentice’s resignation out of fear of a run on sterling.

By 1979, the candidates’ list was dominated by the hard (not Trotskyite) Left in winnable constituencies. Had Labour won that year’s general election, the new Parliamentary Labour Party would have ditched Callaghan and adopted the extreme policies passed at Labour conferences but kept out of the 1979 manifesto by Callaghan. In January this year, on the anniversary of the Winter of Discontent, two of his closest aides admitted to me that the union officials behind the destructive action were politically motivated, which they and Callaghan had not expected. Now they agreed that those of us who sounded the alarm at the time had been right.

As for the argument between Jones and Mikardo, neither won in the end. The victor in 1979 was Thatcher, the only national political leader who understood all this and was determined to defeat it. That’s how close we came to losing our parliamentary democracy in 1979. Clearly something worthy of commemoration 30 years on.

Douglas Eden is associate fellow of the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of London.