Book Review: The Secret Twenties – British Intelligence, the Russians and the Jazz Age

Recent polls have shown that 50% of Americans believe that the ‘Deep State’ exists, while in the UK, 55% of Labour members now agree with the claim that MI5 are working to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. Yet fear of being undermined by the ‘Hidden Hand’ has its roots in the 1920s, as Timothy Phillips discovers in his new book ‘The Secret Twenties: British Intelligence, the Russians and the Jazz Age.

As the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour government increases with every passing day, the party hierarchy has already identified  problems that will arise with implementing their programme. At this years conference, John McDonnell warned of a potential a run on the pound, as the few attack the many.

Historically it is with the secret services that the party has feared its programme would be thwarted. Whether it is through fiction like Chris Mullin’s ‘A Very British Coup’ or Tony Benn’s claim that he kept in touch with MI5 daily – thanks to their efforts to monitor his phone calls – Labour have always been prepared for a fight on two fronts.

Last year, Unite leader Len McCluskey accused the intelligence services of undermining Corbyn, asking; “Do you think that there’s not all kinds of right-wingers who are not secretly able to disguise themselves and stir up trouble? I find it amazing if people think that isn’t happening.”

McCluskey believes that it will be revealed in 2047, when the 30 year rule is lifted – just as it has with the Dockers’ strikes of the 1970s, Orgreave and Hillsborough. For now, Labour will have to make do with access to the extensive archive of files from the first Labour government.

For his new book, The Secret Twenties, Timothy Phillips has delved into the National Archives at Kew, to asses “the decade of British history for which the most complete intelligence record has so far been made available” in what he calls “an attempt to tell the story of a decade from the perspective of its spies”. In it, he has discovered many parallels with today’s politics.

Firstly, there was the constant threat of party infiltration as Phillips explores how the CPGB sought to affiliate with the Labour Party  but were rebuffed each time. This rejection did nothing to dampen the fear within the security services that Labour could become a ‘Trojan Horse’ for Communism.

After the Curzon Ultimatum of 1923 the Soviets were expelled and Baldwin’s bungled snap election led to Ramsay MacDonald entering Number 10. As the first ever Labour prime minister, the establishment were spooked. George V wrote in his diary “Today, 23 years ago, dear Grandmama died…I wonder what she would have thought of a Labour government.”

The Macdonald administration was shocked at the way business was conducted. When the head of special branch gave the new PM his usual weekly list of ‘revolutionary organisations’ in the UK, Macdonald was shocked that such a list existed. He was then concerned to see that it focussed on left wing organisations rather than the growing numbers in the fascist movement. As Phillips points out, much of the suspicion of Labour motives arose from MacDonald’s decision  ‘just days after coming to power, to invite Bolsheviks back to Britain for talks about a new Anglo-Russian treaty and closer trade ties’.

While Macdonald felt it would be ‘pompous folly’ to stand ‘aloof’ from the Bolsheviks, it allowed the right-wing press, in conjunction with the security services and the Tory establishment to undermine the government’s ‘real’ motive. As Phillips alludes to ‘MacDonald and his ministers faced similar hostility from within the bureaucracy’. What Donald Trump later called ‘The Swamp’ – was then riddled with establishment insiders, who ‘saw Labour as a kind of Trojan Horse – surreptitiously bringing a radical ideology into the country – and increasingly they felt justified in trying to frustrate it’.


It all came to a head in 1924 when a fake Russian letter became one of the great political scandals of all time.  The original James Comey letter was released in 1924, four days before the general election, when the Daily Mail published the fake “Zinoviev letter,” a supposed directive from Moscow to British Communists to mobilise “sympathetic forces” in the Labour party.

In 1999 Robin Cook, as foreign secretary, admitted that the letter was forged by a MI6 agent’s source and almost certainly leaked by the Tories. But as Phillips points out, regardless of the letter, Britain remained a Tory country, and their poor performance in 1923 was down to ‘a single unpopular policy’ on tariffs.

MacDonald was adamant that it was a forgery, and resented the fact that he needed to deny a relationship. By denying it, Macdonald gave credence to the claim, something which the Remain camp and Hilary Clinton have claimed affected their recent elections. Claims such as 350 million for the NHS and Turkey joining the EU were deliberately planted so their opponents would deny them, thus creating further debate about the initial lie.

The Zinoviev letter, and the first experience of government, haunted the Labour party, and the Labour movement for the next century. Yet MI5 didn’t retreat in their suspicion of Labour motives. Now the media focus is on the MI5 file on Corbyn, as well as his shadow chancellor John McDonnell and chief of staff Andrew Fisher – who have both called for the abolition of the MI5 in the past. Yet the trio are in good company.

By 1945, Stafford Cripps, Attlee’s chancellor, had an MI5 file due to his prior support for the Communist-backed Popular Front Movement. In 1947, the service gave Attlee a list of Labour MPs suspected of being Communists. Later, Harold Wilson was the subject of an MI5 file, held under the pseudonym “Norman John Worthington”, as was Jack Straw, who and Peter Mandelson due to their young Communist affiliations. Yet by 2006 the world seemed a much more stable place. When Chris Mullin was asked whether ‘A Very British Coup’ could occur again, he claimed;

“No i’m afraid not. The political landscape has changed beyond recognition. Cruise missiles are long gone. MI5 has been cleared of dead wood… A Labour government is in power – and on excellent terms with Washington”

Now the landscape has changed again beyond recognition. For Brexiters and Trump supporters, the real enemy is to found within the ‘deep state’. The term is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as  “a body of people, typically influential members of government agencies or the military, believed to be involved in the secret manipulation or control of government policy.” However, as Phillips observes;

“1924 is the moment when such a ‘deep state’ first made its presence felt in modern Britain, the moment when a concerted and thoroughly illegitimate attempt was made to subvert a national democratic process”.

And it is for that reason that Timothy Phillips’ book is a timely welcome to the political discourse. Whether its Russian interference, Deep State Labour infiltration or Fake News, its reassuring to know that we have been through all of this madness before.

Timothy Phillips is the author of The Secret Twenties: British Intelligence, the Russians and the Jazz Age (Granta, 2017) and Beslan: The Tragedy of School No. 1 (Granta 2008). He grew up in Northern Ireland and now lives in London. He holds a doctorate in Russian from Oxford University and has written and spoken widely on British and Russian history

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