Startling evidence has come to light about a secret programme of covert surveillance of British workers in the 1920s. Rachel Conner talks to North-East historian Dr Jennifer Luff, pictured,who has delved into the National Archives to find out more

IT is not often that the National Archives throw up something like a previously unknown state surveillance programme.

But new research published today reveals that Britain had a secret ban on Communists in government service from the 1920s to the 1940s and ran an extensive programme of covert surveillance of civil-service workers.

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"I was astonished," says Durham University historian Dr Jennifer Luff. "When I first saw the evidence I thought it must be about a policy that must not have been implemented. But I went down to the archives and was astonished to find a huge amount of paper work.

“I think one of the most surprising things is that it has remained secret for so long. It's remarkable. How many civil servants must have known about this?"

The Northern Echo:

Durham University researcher Dr Jennifer Luff

Though many of the documents were released in the 1990s, no-one has previously pieced together the information to form a picture of what was happening.

Dr Luff adds: "It’s rare to come across something that people don’t know about. People initially don’t believe me or think it was happening during the Cold War.

"It’s startling to everyone."

As part of her research, the American historian, who specialises in politics and labour in the US and the UK, has found evidence of a wide-spread policy of surveillance and action against suspected Communist workers in government dockyards, ordnance factories, and other industrial sites.

The findings, which have been drawn from government documents released to the UK National Archives, show surveillance tactics such as mail interception and tailing, were used to monitor industrial workers. Thousands of workers were affected, as the government employed about 125,000 industrial workers in the interwar years.

Many were denied employment, or removed, from the Civil Service as a result of the surveillance and their future employment may also have been inhibited.

While the programme was successful in identifying and prosecuting some individuals for treason and espionage, the extent, nature and duration of the surveillance raises questions around civil liberties and privacy.

The policy was kept secret by the government and repeatedly denied by Cabinet officials, including Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Records show that workers were monitored for the smallest of reasons despite the fact that Communism was not illegal. Surveillance often lasted decades before concluding the targets were innocent.

There is also evidence that the British government monitored workers in private firms working under military contracts.

Dr Luff, associate professor of modern American history, says: “The scale of the surveillance programme undertaken by the British government was truly remarkable. At one point, MI5 were checking over 25,000 names a month and yet the British public knew nothing about this.

“Workers were monitored and blacklisted from government employment without the opportunity to see or challenge the evidence presented against them.”

The covert nature of the anti-Communist policy also meant there were variations in whether and how it was implemented.

Records released to date show the policy was not applied to the non-industrial Civil Service, or ‘black-coated workers’, which meant that double agents such as Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, who were part of the famous ‘Cambridge Five’ spy ring, escaped scrutiny.

Rank-and-file employees working in areas such as the Post Office, Royal Naval dockyards, and munitions factories, on the other hand, were subject to sweeping surveillance.

Dr Luff says: “After the General Strike in June 1926 there was deep concern within the War Office and MI5 that Communists could infiltrate Britain’s ‘war machine'.

“The Cabinet took a secret decision that active Communists could be discharged without pension, and workers who merely subscribed to Communist beliefs should be removed through attrition.

“Surveillance of workers and their families continued for years, and yet because this policy was never announced publicly, those affected would never know why they lost their job or were unable to gain future employment.”

Dr Luff’s research has found evidence of several government officials objecting to the policy on the grounds that Communism was not illegal, that workers were not given the opportunity to give up their participation in the communist movement to retain their employment and that the policy was exerting a significant strain on investigative resources.

The findings, published in the American Historical Review, suggest that the British security regime during the inter-war years was not as tolerant as previously thought.

In light of her findings, Dr Luff suggests that historical understandings of British political policing during this time, and its comparisons with the approach America took, must now be revisited.

Dr Luff explains: “Until now Britain has been viewed as moderate and held up in contrast to the more open political repression, such as McCarthyism, that took place in the USA.

“However, these findings show that Britain was waging its own anti-communist political fight. Unlike America, this was done in secret.

“Understanding our histories helps inform current debate and clearly there is a need to better understand what has, until now, been an almost entirely unknown aspect of British political history.”

She adds: "It shows the value of freedom of information and the releases the Government has made to date.

"There's no doubt that we can't know the full scope of our own history without these documents. To understand the scale and scope of policing requires that.

"The extraordinary government secrecy in the past means the public just hasn't been informed about and has no idea about the policing of extremists and Communists. The British public has the right to know it's own history."

She also has hopes to find the descendants of people affected by the policy.

She says: "I’d like to hear from people whose fathers and mothers lost their jobs under strange circumstances. It’s long enough ago for it to be grandchildren so it’s a long shot but that’s what I hope will happen."