HO 45/25486

HO45/25486 seems to be the main source of Special Branch records of RCP and Club activities (up to c.1954). It is about 1000 pages or so, divided into 24 internal folders.


HO45/25486: a report on the RCP and the Trotskyist movement

An assessment by Ted Crawford in May 2003

This file was released into the public domain in January 2003 and was first noticed by Dave Renton who mentioned it to me. It consists of a number of folders derived from reports and summaries sent in to the Home Office by the Police and MI5 over the years 1944 to 1953. It rather looks as if there is very little documentation before 1944, certainly the Morrison document of that date suggests that very little was known of the Trotskyists before he ordered an investigation as a result of wartime strikes.

Though HO45/25486 is open, 25484, 25485, 25487 were all closed with no description of what is in the file but they may deal with other subversives such as Communists or Fascists. One of them is closed for 75 years, another for 50 but has been available from Jan 2004. From the list at the beginning of the file it is clear that there has been considerable weeding and quite a number of documents have been destroyed. There are also, above all in the earlier period, a whole number of issues of Socialist Appeal, leaflets, internal bulletins and so forth. Photo-copies of these might fill any gaps in the Al Richardson collection at London University when that is finally catalogued. There are fortnightly reports from SB (sometimes these have been obviously extracted from bigger files about the Communists) and reports from MI5. In addition there are about six special folders which deal with matters that exercise the Home Office and relate to Trotskyism but may not be of so much interest to historians of the Movement though one of these is unintentionally very funny and one perhaps of relevance today in an analogous situation (Nuremburg Trials). Finally there is in September 1953 an assessment of the movement, similar but feebler and less insightful than that done for Morrison in 1944. The general tone is, as one would expect policière and frequently they get the wrong idea.

One aspect that I looked for carefully was evidence of police penetration of the movement. The earlier material seemed to me to be almost entirely reliant on published material, attendance at open public meetings and, above all on postal and Telegraph Censorship intercepts for relations with the International. There were lists, not exhaustive, of people going in to closed meetings who had been identified by officers outside (in some cases the numbers of their police files were given and Harry Ratner (PF 61,591) and Bill Hunter (PF 218,602) will be glad to know the number of their files. Clearly there are individual dockets on masses of people but these may have been destroyed wholesale in the clear out of the early 1990s despite the enormous interest this would have to future Family Historians. Within the closed meetings there appeared to be some information about what was going on but I felt that in at least one case it may have been from a microphone since it was stated at one point that it was unclear what was said which I guess means that the early microphone might have been playing up. However later there was indirect evidence of penetration. A closed meeting of 25 Trotskyists on 22.9.1951 had a very full report which might have been from an agent and there was a revealing statement at the time of the Healy-Lawrence split that information on the Lawrence faction was much less good than on Healy’s. From this I deduce that the spy was in the Healy group. There was also evidence that, during the Healy-Haston split, the tone was more hostile to Haston and the latter was put in a worse light than more balanced research since would justify. Apart from any political arguments, Haston was, by all accounts, a most attractive character and the same could never be said of Healy and normally, if their neutral tone did slip, the unpolitical police would be influenced by the nice guy. Again this points to a spy close to Healy from the 1949 period onwards. The description of the Cliff group in the 1953 document says that they believe that State capitalism is a higher stage of development through which society will have to pass to Socialism. The SR group never believed that but Healy & Co said it of the State Caps. A further indication that the spy, if there was one, was in the Healy group. There is some suspicion about one individual, now dead, but no real evidence.

There were also two or three occasions when nosey and nasty landladies went through comrades mail and reported matters to the police but this sounded as if it was off their own bat rather than initiated by the state machine and in one case had hilarious consequences.

The special dockets consisted of the following matters. In one the Home Office was very exercised about a marriage of convenience to a Jewish woman from Palestine, where the landlady had picked up a comrades’ letters and reported the matter to a newspaper who passed it on to the police. The comrades concerned, Pawsey and Brant were not so directly involved but the officials were bothered at this “Trotsky plot” though from the documents it appears to be very much a piece of private enterprise. (According to Ken Weller, Joe Pawsey was a very inactive member of Healy’s outfit in the late 50s when he lived in NE London, and wrote political verses. One piece of doggerel that KW recalls was about The man who did the dirty work for Trotsky which was apparently reprinted in the NALSO Song-Book. John Archer reports in an unpublished doc that Pawsey recruited Brian Pearce, and Brian confirms that is true. Archer wrote several comments about Pawsey supporting the "Staines Group" (mainly Karl Westwood) on LP work.) Another docket involved the Trotskyists arrested for their part in the Ridley Road anti-Fascist disturbances. A third was the matter of Bill Ainsworth who had handed out leaflets in German to a group of German PoWs in October 1947 and was arrested by an officious policeman, charged, convicted and fined with some reluctance by the magistrates who would almost certainly have let him off with a caution if he had said he would not do it again. After taking legal opinion the Home Office pointed out that according to the act this was not an offence if the prisoner was walking about freely on parole but only if the literature was given to somebody who was in custody behind the wire. In this file there was a distinct feel of needle between different sections of the government machine – the Yorkshire Police looking rather nasty. In yet another docket dating the end of 1948 to March 1949 there was even nastier vindictive little episode which involved the use of the exchange control regulations to prevent Haston from importing a number of pamphlets from Canada. When Haston said they would be sent as a gift the reply was but you might secretly send them pamphlets in exchange later! This seems to have been initiated by an official in the Board of Trade and the Home Office was just informed.

The funniest docket was the case of the Tory MP for Ilford, Wing Commander Alderman Cooper who was informed by the landlady (who looked at their opened letters) of a couple of comrades in Ilford Labour Party, that there were Trotskyists in that body. (This tends to confirm material in an RCP Organisers Bulletin that refers to the good work being done in Ilford LP.) The gallant Wing Commander thereupon informed a public meeting in his constituency that he had been told personally by MI5 that the Ilford Labour party was a nest of Trotskyists. It turned out that the landlady had previously told the local police and thus the local SB. (Her communications contained gems like “that black man who comes round gives me the creeps”.) Alderman Cooper asked the police if they knew about this disgraceful state of affairs and they replied to the effect that, yes sir, they did sir, it is all in hand sir, do not bother sir. This was transformed into a personal communication from MI5 – to the rage of that body. Ilford Labour Party demanded to know whether any of its members were being watched by MI5. A world weary note in the file notes that “short of positively vetting every member of the Ilford LP we cannot give that assurance”. The whole thing went right to the top involving Chuter Ede, the Home Secretary, and Attlee who as Prime Minister was responsible for Security. When in mealy-mouthed civil service-ese it says “Cooper does not come out of this matter well” one can imagine the more full bloodied expletives that MI5 may have used about the man.

But the most interesting and significant file of 1947 was the letter by Haston to Attlee at the time of the Nuremburg Trials which asked that the accused could be questioned and evidence taken about the truth of the allegations in the Moscow Trials that the Nazis had plotted with Trotsky and others to destroy the Soviet Union – such as the fact that Hess was said to have met Trotsky. This appears to have caused the government more annoyance than anything else the RCP did in the post-war period, certainly more than any industrial action. This too went right to the top and the officials seemed to have believed that the Trotskyist trouble-makers were trying to embroil the UK with the Russians. Actually of course that was quite untrue, the request was surely aimed at the British CP, its high level Trotsky-hunters and Stalinism generally rather than the government. Quite some time at the highest level was spent by the country’s ablest and most intelligent civil servants in getting the correct form of weasel words so that HMG could evade this entirely justifiable request.

The contents of the rest of the file strike me as follows. To start with the police looked carefully at the financial resources available to the RCP and noted that Millie Lee gave her entire private income of £300 pa from South Africa to the movement. (They also interviewed two businessmen from the North-West, Spreirenger of Cumberland and Marziller of Whitehaven in June 1944 and hoped they had frightened them away from contributing. Socialist Appeal is said to have a circulation of 10,000. V.S.S. Sastry is mentioned and quite a time is spent by the highly qualified civil servants considering the Leninist League which is said to number about 30 (actually about 5) and Ernest Rogers alias Edward Macpherson and Denis Levin, alias Jack Macquaid are serving 3 months for offences against the National Registration Act, Defence Regulations etc or more simply evading military service. It is said that most workers tore up the leaflets they were given by the LL but a sample leaflet is solemnly put into the file. Even that silly old fool Tom Cowan is mentioned though he was then a youth of but 17 summers.

In general it is pointed out that the Trotskyist hostility to Russia is likely to prove unpopular and hamper them while they use “obscure, harsh, doctrinaire language” unlike the more emollient Harry Pollitt in his How to Win the Peace. In March 1945 an official, Miss L.W. Burge, says despite reading their stuff she has no idea what they would do if they came to power and how they would run things. I am not sure that they did either. The Congress in Paris and the arrest of delegates there is April 1946 is noted. A report of its proceedings comes from a pamphlet by P. Frank – not from an agent. RCP congresses are watched (Sept 1946) and the numbers attending given (120 of the first 2 days, 85 on the last day). There is a report of proceedings but there is nothing about the deliberations of the 12 CC members who meet for 3 hours after the Conference ended. Any serviceman who appears is swiftly noted and his unit given and his file. For example, Paton, an ex-PoW, who was around the Movement before being captured, is noted with his SB file no. 405/44/235. Agitation among the “Bevin Boys” in the mines is noted. There is a public meeting on 19.8.1946 on the theme “Palestine – The Trotsky answer” where 80 people attended “mostly Jews”. If the summary of the speeches is accurate it is not much of an answer though British anti-semitism and policy of divide and rule is denounced. In 1946 attempts to build at Oxford University and the name of Christopher Pallis, a medical student at Balliol appears who, it is said, spoke at the Neath by-election under the name of N. Kastings. That may be an SB typo for Hastings I would have thought. A debate takes place between Ted Grant and Tony Turner of the SPGB. Then there is the Dock Strike and the curious case of Phillip Zecanovsky (Zec) the Daily Mirror political cartoonist who, to the surprise of SB waits at the station in London with someone else for Frank Campbell, a member of the Liverpool Strike Committee (though in fact Martinson comes instead.) Martinson later makes a speech to some London dockers at the gates. It is then discovered that ‘Zec’ is a close personal friend of Sherry Mangan, the American Trotskyist. Arthur Deakin of the TUC, publicly accuses the Trotskyists of providing the strikers with cars, loudspeakers and halls all of which is news to SB who ask him for details. It is very unlikely, for as time goes on the severe financial difficulties of the RCP are increasingly noted (31.5.1947) and the quarrels erupting in the organisation. Harry Ratner is mentioned but never as a soldier, only later when he has been demobbed. The aliases of foreign delegates are also mentioned, Freddy Forest and Sam Gordon and on the 11.10.1947 Sheila Lahr is noted for the first time and later in 1949 when she is the Secretary of the Islington Labour Party. I bet she never knew that all these strange men were interested in her.

SB always takes a prurient interest in the doings of its clients and Fred Emmet and Violet Ruppard are noted as co-habitees while Mildred goes off in 1947 on a dirty weekend with her future husband Sam Gordon “accompanied by a Miss Mildred Fellermen, a British subject and active Trotskyist. Miss Fellermen made only a short stay in France returning to this country on 30.8.1947”. (Mildred remembers this distinctly as they were stopped when leaving and all the letters and papers that Sam Gordon had were read.) About 10 days before Sam Levy is noted addressing a meeting in Hyde Park but it is said that public interest in the RCP is very slight. There are not many files covering the next two or three years. Ted Grant is said to be living in a caravan in Dalston (20.10.1949) and living on the money sent to him by his sister in South Africa. Great interest is shown at the mention of an “observer from colonial Africa” at a Conference in 1950 – the British state was always bothered by colonial agitation.

Finally there is a document drawn up 21.9.1953 to reveal the state of knowledge of the Trotskyist movement, which is listed separately to these comments.

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Updated by ETOL: 3.11.2006