Exclusive: How Margaret Thatcher approved right-wing smear sheet attacking Searchlight editor

By Searchlight Team

Gerry Gable

Margaret Thatcher

Documents from Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street office, declassified at New Year 2024, show that Thatcher and her closest advisers discussed and approved of a right-wing smear sheet that attacked Searchlight’s editor and publisher Gerry Gable. This smear sheet – British Briefing – was edited by a former MI5 officer whose wife had worked for a secret Whitehall propaganda agency.

The document is one of several showing that far-right factions among former MI5 and MI6 officers continued to have influence over Thatcherite circles in the 1980s.

At the end of 1986 Thatcher’s government was increasingly embarrassed by its attempts to stop publication of Spycatcher, an autobiography by the retired MI5 officer Peter Wright. The latest declassified documents are mainly linked to the Spycatcher affair. Part of this book put Wright’s much-disputed case for believing that his former boss Sir Roger Hollis, who was Director-General of MI5 from 1956 to 1965, was a Soviet agent or ‘mole’.

But other revelations in Wright’s book concerned the activities of far-right factions in MI5 and MI6 whose conspiracy theories revolved around the Labour Party and especially around Harold Wilson, Labour leader from 1963 to 1976 and Prime Minister for eight of those years.

Part of Thatcher’s concern over Spycatcher was very personal. She knew that those factions existed and that they had played a part in her campaign to undermine her Tory predecessor Edward Heath, as well as in later propaganda against Labour, the unions and a broader left-wing “enemy within”. She would also have known that many of Wright’s allegations had already appeared in Chapman Pincher’s earlier book ‘Their Trade Is Treachery’, for which Wright was the principal source.

But in public she stuck relentlessly to her official line that the government must suppress Wright’s book to uphold the principle that an MI5 officer owed a lifelong duty of confidentiality.

Even here, paranoia was not far from the surface, in an assumption by Thatcher and her closest advisers that journalists who encouraged MI5 whistleblowers were part of a communist conspiracy to undermine the security services in Moscow’s interests.

Thatcher’s style of government began the practice of relying on highly politicised advisers (a habit followed by several later governments) in addition to, or instead of civil servants. Among these was Charles Powell (later given a peerage as Lord Powell of Bayswater), a former diplomat seconded to advise Thatcher primarily on foreign policy as Private Secretary from 1983 to 1990.

Charles Powell

On 2nd December 1986 Powell sent Thatcher what he called “two quite revealing documents” which provided ammunition for her arguments against journalists and whistleblowers. These documents were articles from the secretive newsletter British Briefing, dated May 1984 and March 1985.

The more recent article was headlined “The Massiter File”, referring to an MI5 whistleblower Cathy Massiter who had been interviewed for a Channel Four documentary about security service abuses. The film – MI5’s Official Secrets – was banned by the IBA in March 1985 though later broadcast.

British Briefing attacked several people associated with the film, including its presenter – respected political columnist Hugo Young, later Thatcher’s biographer – and leading figures in the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) such as future government ministers Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman. It then took aim at Gerry:

The research for the film was undertaken by a journalist named Gerry Gable of somewhat murky antecedents. A former member of the YCL and a CPGB candidate in a local government election, he was closely involved with Maurice Ludmer, the Communist founder and Editor of the (revived) Searchlight anti-fascist magazine (see British Briefing 6/81 p 8).

He and Ludmer were also among the first sponsors of the Anti-Nazi League. As an anti-fascist activist he, with two others in the guise of Post Office engineers, entered the house of historian David Irving, in order to steal papers. The three were convicted in January 1964 of breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony.

Sixteen years later the New Statesman (15th February 1980) published an article by Duncan Campbell, Bruce Page and Nick Anning (of State Research) suggesting that Gable had been used as an agent by MI5 and Special Branch to provide information and purvey disinformation about Agee, Hosenball, Phil Kelly, Aubrey, Berry and Duncan Campbell (the ABC trio).

The object of the article was to discredit both Gable and the security authorities. Whatever the truth about Gable’s alleged connection with security, his credentials as a “researcher” do not sound either unbiased or reliable.”

While Gerry is labelled “murky” on the grounds of having been a Communist Party member more than 25 years earlier, the notorious nazi David Irving is described simply as a “historian”! The article also misstates the offence for which Gerry and other members of the anti-fascist 62 Group were convicted: there was no “breaking and entering” involved. Note also that British Briefing had targeted Searchlight in an earlier article in June 1981.

The articles passed to Thatcher went on to throw mud at several other journalists including Nick Davies and Ian Black of The Guardian. Commenting on Charles Powell’s suggestion that the smears were “quite revealing”, the Prime Minister replied with the single word: “Very”.

British Briefing (which was only circulated to a limited number of subscribers, mainly wealthy donors with an interest in union-bashing) was later taken over by one of Thatcher’s favourite shady businessmen, the property millionaire and former bankrupt David Hart, who had been centrally involved in a dirty tricks campaign to subvert the 1984 miners’ strike.

David Hart

But at the time of its attacks on Searchlight this far-right publication which the Prime Minister and her top adviser found so helpful was published by Brian Crozier, a notorious Cold Warrior with lifelong connections to right-wing factions in intelligence services on both sides of the Atlantic.

It doesn’t surprise Gerry that Brian Crozier disliked him so much. Searchlight had been examining Crozier’s ties to European fascists and South Africa’s apartheid regime for years. Earlier the same year, on 28th February 1986 another man Crozier and his far-right network hated, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, was murdered in Stockholm. Searchlight correspondent Stieg Larsson later spent years investigating the Crozier network and its possible involvement in Palme’s murder.

Brian Crozier

Those readers who watched a recent television documentary based on Stieg’s research will have heard the Swedish fascist and apartheid regime intelligence asset Bertil Wedin boasting about his “collaboration with senior figures from the CIA and MI6. There was an ultra-secret, as they say, intelligence organisation that had the modest name 61, and I was attached to it. So, I collaborated, worked with, worked for the organisation. …Our 61 had direct access to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. I have met Margaret Thatcher.” (Bertil Wedin died aged 81 in March 2022.)

The Crozier connection suggests that this was no idle boast. The group originally named 6I but sometimes referred to as “The 61” was a network of former intelligence officers funded by right-wing businessmen including Sir James Goldsmith and the American billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. Brian Crozier was the main coordinator of 6I and its membership overlapped with his other enterprises such as the Institute for the Study of Conflict and a broader international Cold War network of conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, Le Cercle Pinay, named after a former French Prime Minister.

Born in Australia, Crozier moved to England as a child and became a journalist after the Second World War. During the 1950s while employed by Reuters and The Economist he was one of many militant anti-communists who were occasionally employed by a secret British propaganda unit formed by MI6 and the Foreign Office: Information Research Department (IRD).

In December 1963 Crozier became dissatisfied with his work for The Economist and suggested to his IRD contacts that he could become a full-time Cold War propagandist, if they could pay him a retainer, perhaps via some supposedly independent institute. He spent the rest of his long life (Crozier died in 2012 on his 94th birthday) operating in the grey area between intelligence agencies, political think-tanks, and journalism.

Recently declassified official documents show that ever since the early 1960s if not earlier there were divisions between some Whitehall Cold Warriors (whether in IRD or the Foreign Office) and their Washington equivalents. Crozier increasingly took the side of those in the CIA and their front organisations who wanted to take a more blatant and aggressive line against communism, including action against those seen as “fellow-travellers”, a definition which for Crozier and his allies became stretched to include almost anyone who disagreed with them, including mainstream social democrats and even establishment figures in the civil service.

With CIA support at first provided via the immensely wealthy former US Ambassador in London, Jock Whitney, Crozier created a nominally independent news agency, Forum World Features. At the end of the 1960s Crozier decided to create a research centre, believing that existing organisations specialising in research on defence and foreign policy were taking too “soft” a line.

Crozier’s idea became the Institute for the Study of Conflict, and official records suggest that throughout the 1970s there was an ambiguous relationship between ISC and Western intelligence agencies who could see the advantages of his energetic propagandising but sometimes thought he was too aggressive and even paranoid.

This ambiguity also extended to Crozier’s links to European right-wingers in the “Pinay Circle”, whose leading members included several former fascists. Le Cercle’s chairman (and its real leader ever since it was formed in the early 1950s) was a French intelligence officer called Jean Violet, who was part of the fascistic Cagoule movement during the 1930s and whose post-war allies were often extreme right-wing Catholics in the secretive Opus Dei movement.

(In more recent years Le Cercle seems to have moved away from a radical right-wing approach and become closer to the mainstream of Western intelligence agencies.)

In particular, some intelligence bureaucrats were nervous about Crozier’s open contempt for democratic politics and his undisguised admiration for dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and Latin America, as well as his increasingly close relationship to South Africa’s apartheid regime and their very active propaganda and espionage agencies. Searchlight reported on some of ISC’s anti-democratic agenda in the mid-1970s, which seemed to be part of a dangerous pattern including “private armies” sponsored by the likes of George Kennedy Young, the rabid antisemite and former deputy chief of MI6. (Some of Young’s acolytes such as the far-right barrister Adrian Davies remain active in British fascist politics in the 2020s.)

It wasn’t only Labour and the trade unions who were attacked by these anti-democratic conspirators. It’s now known that Tory extremists close to Young and Crozier plotted against their own leader Edward Heath, Conservative Prime Minister from 1970 to 1974. Heath and Harold Wilson were bitter political rivals, but so far as Crozier and his friends were concerned, they both had to be smeared and cleared out of the way, so that a more hardline form of conservatism could take power, not only fighting communism abroad but wiping out every trace of socialism and even social democracy at home.

To this end the Tory MP and former MI6 officer Stephen Hastings (a friend and ally of G.K. Young) plotted with a Czech defector to spread a smear story alleging a homosexual connection between Heath and a Czech musician. Parts of this plot were investigated in 2012 by the BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera, but the core of the conspiracy was exposed by a Searchlight investigation as far back as 1975.

G K Young

Stephen Hastings

Hastings was the son of a Rhodesian tobacco farmer and MP. After Ian Smith’s racist government in Rhodesia illegally declared “independence” in 1965, Hastings took a leading role in the pro-Smith lobby in London, which also worked closely with the National Front from its creation in 1967.

It was perhaps because of these connections that some senior officials in Whitehall began to distance themselves from Crozier and Hastings as early as 1973, increasing their reciprocal hostility towards the Heath government. Almost half a century ago Searchlight obtained private letters sent by Young discussing some of his anti-Heath plotting. Now we have seen official documents from the period showing how some senior IRD, Foreign Office and MI5 officials started to drop Crozier, even while others in the right-wing faction of the intelligence world (and the Thatcher wing of the Conservative Party) maintained their links to him.

In June 1973 Home Office civil servant James Waddell wrote to Norman Reddaway, the Foreign Office official responsible for IRD, discussing top-level concerns about Crozier’s ISC project on “counter-subversion”. It seems that some people in Whitehall (and on the Heath wing of the Tory Party) shared the concerns later published in Searchlight about ISC’s work being anti-democratic.

Home Secretary Robert Carr and Defence Secretary Lord Carrington met and decided that the government should not associate itself in any way with this “counter-subversion” work, even though Hastings had privately lobbied Carr in Crozier’s support.

Reddaway cynically suggested that IRD could turn a blind eye and continue unattributable associations with Crozier, but MI5’s Director-General Sir Michael Hanley took a stronger anti-Crozier line writing that “we do not think it would be desirable to have any dealings with him at all” on the counter-subversion project.

By 1975 Hanley and MI5 were even more hostile to Crozier and seem to have cut him off completely, and it’s probably no coincidence that in this same year Crozier and his far-right faction of former intelligence officers started to build a close relationship with the new Tory leader Margaret Thatcher, for whom they created what they called the “Shield Committee”.

The reason why Thatcher was so nervous about Peter Wright’s revelations in Spycatcher was that in 1975 she had encouraged (in fact in Hastings’ words “commissioned”) a study of “counter-subversion” from the very same extremist faction led by Crozier who had been shunned by a Conservative government just two years earlier. Moreover, some of the individuals involved in that project (such as Hastings himself) were the same people whose conspiracies and smears against Heath had helped her topple him in the Tory leadership election of January 1975.

Although her shadow cabinet colleagues (notably Willie Whitelaw and Lord Carrington who were to become her first Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary respectively) had vetoed the idea of the “Shield Committee” being given any official recognition, Thatcher entertained Crozier, Hastings and two other former intelligence officers who had moved into City careers at a private lunch at Chequers just two months after taking office, on Sunday 15th July 1979. No civil servants were present, though they were joined at lunch by Thatcher’s husband Denis and son Mark. Their conversation continued through the afternoon.

The other two old spies present at the meeting were Nicholas Elliott (an old friend of G.K. Young’s at MI6 who had become a stockbroker and for four years a director of the mining company Lonrho which had extensive interests in Rhodesia and South Africa), and Harry Sporborg, a senior officer of the MI6 wartime spin-off SOE and a director of the merchant bank Hambros.

Nick Elliott

This hardline faction hoped that Thatcher’s government would promote their ideas, perhaps even reshaping the entire security and intelligence apparatus to reflect their agenda. They were to be disappointed. More cautious figures in Whitehall mobilised around Thatcher’s first Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington – who had opposed Crozier during the Heath years – and the outcome was that Crozier found himself ousted from his own organisation ISC.

In 1983 when Sir Geoffrey Howe (who the right hoped in vain might be more Thatcherite) became Foreign Secretary, Crozier’s friend Hastings yet again tried to lobby for Crozier to be brought back into the Foreign Office good books, and he was very much involved with Reagan’s CIA director William Casey and his semi-official efforts to circumvent US law and use international right-wing networks to arm the Nicaraguan “contras”.

But from 1979-80 until the end of his life, Crozier no longer enjoyed official Foreign Office or MI6 support. (He had lost MI5 support much earlier during 1973-75.)

Nevertheless, the newly released official papers confirm Searchlight’s assessment that while exiled from ISC and shunned by the Foreign Office, Brian Crozier and his far-right allies operating internationally as 6I or “The 61” remained close to Thatcher, who tried in various fields to run her own foreign policy separate from official channels and sometimes hostile to Foreign Office policy.

The file attacking Gerry Gable is a visible part of what was almost a parallel structure within government reporting directly to the Prime Minister. Nicholas Elliott, the MI6 officer who was portrayed as an affable toff in a recent ITV dramatisation of his friendship with Kim Philby, was for some time an important part of this far-right network among old spies.

Elliott left MI6 in 1969 during a purge of G.K. Young’s remaining right-wing allies. In 1975 he was part of the gang with Crozier and Hastings who met at Thatcher’s home in Flood Street to plot a “counter-subversion” strategy. Downing Street files show that Elliott and Crozier had tea with Thatcher on 2nd January 1982, again with no civil servants present, and again on 16th October 1982.

Having just returned from South Africa (where he had a private meeting with Foreign Minister Pik Botha) Elliott had another private meeting with Thatcher on 26th March 1986 to convey the apartheid regime’s appreciation of what Thatcher had “done to resist the pressures on sanctions particularly as they realise your difficulties”.

It’s significant that while Thatcher usually excluded civil servants from her meetings with these right-wing old spies, Charles Powell (who shared Thatcher’s views on South Africa) attended the 1986 meeting. Other documents reveal that Julian Amery, another old friend of Crozier and Elliott, was also used as a private channel between Thatcher and apartheid’s leaders. At one stage Amery seemed to favour the hardline faction in Pretoria led by General Magnus Malan who favoured a military crackdown on the ANC rather than constitutional concessions.

At least one old MI5 officer was still working closely with Crozier. His British Briefing newsletter that attacked Gerry Gable and Searchlight was edited by Charles Elwell, who was in charge of the “counter-subversion” section of MI5 known as F Branch from 1974 to 1979.

Charles Elwell

While his Director-General Sir Michael Hanley was opposed to Crozier, Elwell took a different view, and began working with Crozier almost as soon as he retired from MI5, even following Crozier after the 1979 split in ISC. This was yet another example of the extremist factionalism that plagued Britain’s security and intelligence services during the 1970s and 1980s. Elwell’s wife Ann was herself with MI5 during the war but spent the greater part of her career with IRD where she was a senior officer dealing with the Middle East.

The fact that extremist newsletters smearing Gerry were being quoted with approval by the Prime Minister herself is more disturbing evidence of how dangerously close the UK came to authoritarian politics.

One response on “Exclusive: How Margaret Thatcher approved right-wing smear sheet attacking Searchlight editor

  1. Jim Brown

    If you love fact based espionage thrillers, of which there are only a handful of decent ones, do try reading Bill Fairclough’s Beyond Enkription. It is an enthralling unadulterated fact based autobiographical spy thriller and a super read as long as you don’t expect John le Carré’s delicate diction, sophisticated syntax and placid plots.

    What is interesting is that this book is so different to any other espionage thrillers fact or fiction that I have ever read. It is extraordinarily memorable and unsurprisingly apparently mandatory reading in some countries’ intelligence agencies’ induction programs. Why?

    Maybe because the book has been heralded by those who should know as “being up there with My Silent War by Kim Philby and No Other Choice by George Blake”; maybe because Bill Fairclough (the author) deviously dissects unusual topics, for example, by using real situations relating to how much agents are kept in the dark by their spy-masters and (surprisingly) vice versa; and/or maybe because he has survived literally dozens of death defying experiences including 20 plus attempted murders.

    The action in Beyond Enkription is set in 1974 about a real maverick British accountant who worked in Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC) in London, Nassau, Miami and Port au Prince. Initially in 1974 he unwittingly worked for MI5 and MI6 based in London. Later he worked knowingly for the CIA in the Americas. In subsequent books yet to be published (when employed by Citicorp, Barclays, Reuters and others) he continued to work for several intelligence agencies. Fairclough has been justly likened to a posh version of Harry Palmer aka Michael Caine in the films based on Len Deighton’s spy novels.

    Beyond Enkription is a must read for espionage cognoscenti but whatever you do you must read some of the latest news articles (since August 2021) in TheBurlingtonFiles website before taking the plunge and getting stuck into Beyond Enkription. You’ll soon be immersed in a whole new world which you won’t want to exit. Intriguingly, the articles were released seven or more years after the book was published. TheBurlingtonFiles website itself is well worth a visit; it is a bit like a virtual espionage museum and refreshingly advert free. Don’t miss the articles about FaireSansDire.

    Returning to the intense and electrifying thriller Beyond Enkription, it has had mainly five star reviews so don’t be put off by Chapter 1 if you are squeamish. You can always miss the squeamish bits and just get the gist of what is going on in the first chapter. Mind you, infiltrating international state sponsored people and body part smuggling mobs isn’t a job for the squeamish! Thereafter don’t skip any of the text or you’ll lose the plots. The book is ever increasingly cerebral albeit pacy and action packed. Indeed, the twists and turns in the interwoven plots kept me guessing beyond the epilogue even on my second reading.

    The characters were wholesome, well-developed and beguiling to the extent that you’ll probably end up loving those you hated ab initio, particularly Sara Burlington. The author’s attention to detail added extra layers of authenticity to the narrative and above all else you can’t escape the realism. Unlike reading most spy thrillers, you will soon realise it actually happened to him. Don’t trust a soul.