British Writers and MI5 Surveillance 1930-1960 by James Smith – review

For three decades, the surveillance of Britain's supposedly communist writers and intellectuals was a comedy of errors
Arthur Koestler and his wife
‘One third blackguard’: Arthur Koestler playing chess with his wife Cynthia Jefferies in 1947. Photograph: Pat English/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image
‘One third blackguard’: Arthur Koestler playing chess with his wife Cynthia Jefferies in 1947. Photograph: Pat English/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image
Thu 7 Mar 2013 07.00 EST

One of the most mythologised aspects of the British secret state has been its attempts to keep tabs on literary intellectuals. As Ian McEwan's last novel Sweet Tooth showed, the idea that poets, novelists or playwrights could have been crucial to the progress of the communist menace is an enduringly attractive one. It flatters poets, novelists or playwrights, after all; and it causes spooks to go into conniptions of paranoia.

Here is a sober and scholarly attempt to tell the story straight, drawing on the declassified files from Special Branch and MI5 that have trickled into the National Archives at Kew since 1997. (Files from SIS, the foreign intelligence agency that went on to become MI6, are still sealed.) James Smith's three sections deal with the Auden circle; the songwriter Ewan MacColl and director Joan Littlewood; and with George Orwell and Arthur Koestler.

Most of the scoops are what you might call scoops of perspective: that is, Smith brings some. The need to make headlines out of newly declassified files has given us the suggestion that WH Auden all but spirited Guy Burgess to Moscow, and "the uncanny parallel between [Orwell's] nightmarish vision of an all-seeing dictatorship and his own status for more than a decade as a target for the close scrutiny of the British security services". The truth is, Auden missed a phone call from Burgess on the eve of his disappearance; and Big Brother's 15-year "surveillance" of Orwell yielded less than 40 pages of material.

Since he's writing an academic monograph Smith is free to cough gently and point out that the evidence for X is underwhelming, the subversive activities of Y were nugatory, or – of bugged conversations about the leftist Theatre Workshop – that "whatever its covert origin, none of this evidence gathered by MI5 indicated illegal activity or even anything particularly sinister". Truth told, this is most often a comedy of errors. We see that the security services – MI5 often, and Special Branch unfailingly – were useless at spying on intellectuals. We see that the intellectuals were useless to the British Communist Party (CPGB chief Harry Pollitt, one dispatch had it, "thinks less than nothing of their value to the party"). And we see that the CPGB ("a tiny, barely legal organisation whose main activity was libelling the Labour Party," said Orwell) was useless to the Comintern. A great deal of time and energy could have been saved by folding the whole tent.

One of the problems was that spooks and plods aren't literary critics. The intelligence establishment, said Hugh Trevor-Roper, ranged between "pretty stupid" and "very stupid", and never "had much use for ideas". Orwell said: "the policeman who arrests the 'red' does not understand the theories the 'red' is preaching". This is more than a sneer: to be "an intellectual" was itself grounds for mistrust. It's often apparent from the files that the things these writers actually wrote went unread by those investigating them.

In 1933, for instance, Cecil Day-Lewis published "The Magnetic Mountain", which he was proud to consider "a violently 'revolutionary' poem": "It is now or never, the hour of the knife / The break with the past, the major operation." He was positively disappointed that the "guardians of Cheltenham" didn't seem to consider him the threat to the established order that he considered himself. In fact, tasked by MI5 to look into him because he'd sent a fiver to the CPGB, the local police were able to establish nothing more subversive than that he "seldom wears a hat and is not altogether of smart appearance in dress". They weren't wrong: by the early 1940s the great revolutionary was trying to pull establishment strings through his mistress Rosamond Lehmann to get a job in which he could avoid getting called up to fight fascism.

Spender looks from this account like even more of a booby. In 1937 he was asked by the Daily Worker to travel to Gibraltar to investigate the sinking of a Russian ship. When it became clear his mission was really on behalf of the Russian embassy, Spender reasoned that, as long as he wasn't being paid, this "certainly did not involve betraying my country". Since he was turned back at the border anyway, that was something of a moot point.

Was Spender a Party member? His essay "I Join the Communist Party" was apparently helpful to MI5 in this respect. The men in trench-coats went on to infiltrate a public meeting where our hero "gave a rather rambling account of some of his experiences in Spain". Further trips to Spain were a mixed success. His services were declined by the propaganda agency he hoped to work for, and as part of the British delegation to the International Conference in Madrid, "he underwent the incongruous experience of being driven around in a Rolls-Royce and supplied with Champagne while farm workers were being machine-gunned by Franco's planes several miles away". He fell out with the Party when he was forced to admit that he had a romantic interest in lobbying for his friend Tony Hyndman to be discharged from the International Brigades.

Arthur Koestler's story is the darkest and most interesting. One intelligence officer described him as "one third genius, one third blackguard, and one third lunatic", which seems about right. In his Communist years, Koestler really was close to the East German propaganda chief Willi Münzenburg, and his escape to the UK (he had a US visa but preferred to be here) was accomplished through blackmail, bluster and outright lying. Orwell, notoriously, named some names – and Smith doesn't entirely let him off the hook for that. Koestler, on the other hand, "launched an energetic campaign to ingratiate himself with whatever office or agency of the British secret state he could establish contact with" (with a view, in Smith's estimation, to "influence and prestige [and] desirable social circles").

What the spooks were best at doing (not that they were all that good at doing that) was following networks of affinity: what you published was far less important, in terms of the attention you drew, than where you published it. Auden, therefore, went largely under the radar because he never joined the Party and tended to publish in establishment literary journals rather than the Daily Worker.

Bureaucracy, inter-service rivalry and sheer inertia tangled things further. Special Branch ploddingly investigated Encounter magazine in the early 1950s and reported: "It would not be right, at the moment, to say that this organisation is Communist-dominated." I'll say! It was being bankrolled at the time by SIS and the CIA. Smith is very starchy, incidentally, about the plausibility of Spender's claims that he had no idea where the money was coming from. Spender, as these files revealed for the first time, was deeper into British spookery than previously thought.

Amazing how much time was wasted on red herrings. A great deal of energy was spent fretting over the influence Ewan MacColl and his wife Joan Littlewood had in the BBC – Children's Hour, specifically. A 1944 minute on surveillance of the Independent Labour Party, dismissed nine years previously as no threat, observed: "In the course of officially ignoring the ILP we have accumulated a file of 22 volumes about it."

The occasional voice of good sense is the blessed exception. One MI5 officer called Ogilvie calmed the waters after Special Branch reported on Orwell's "advanced Communist views" and alarming tendency to dress "in a Bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours". Ogilvie, who had actually read Orwell, indicated drily that their man wasn't really on board with the Moscow line.

As Smith levelly acknowledges, the most impactful relationship between the secret state and writers during these years was not in any subversive effect the latter had on the former: rather, it was the way in which the former provided career boosts to the latter. Leftish writers – whether careerists such as Spender and Koestler or apostate one-time sympathisers such as Orwell – made good propagandists. The upshot of the cultural cold war, more or less, was that the British government caused the printing of very many copies of Animal Farm.

Sam Leith's You Talkin' to Me? is published by Profile.

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