A new book by Dr James Smith examines how leading figures in Britain’s literary scene fell under MI5 and Special Branch surveillance, and demonstrates the surprising extent to which writers became willing participants in the world of covert intelligence and propaganda.
Drawing on recently declassified material, British Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930-1960 shows the extent to which Britain’s domestic intelligence agencies maintained secret records on many left-wing writers after the First World War.
John Sutherland, New Statesman
Chapters devoted to W. H. Auden and his associates, theatre pioneers Ewan MacColl and Joan Littlewood, George Orwell and others describe methods used by MI5 to gather information through and about the cultural world. The book also investigates how these covert agencies assessed the political influence of such writers, providing scholars and students of twentieth-century British literature with an unprecedented account of clandestine operations in popular culture.
MI5 records have only recently become available, having been classified under the Official Secrets Act. Their recent release (over the past decade) offers rich new research material about individuals who attracted the attention of the intelligence services.
“a sober and scholarly attempt to tell the story straight”
Sam Leith, The Guardian
Writers feature prominently in these files. As Smith notes in his introductory chapter, this is because over the course of the 1930s “a range of important new left-wing writers, intellectual networks, and cultural associations emerged in Britain.” In contrast to the preceding movement of high modernism, many post-war writers actively sought to express and deal with urgent social issues. As these writers emerged – and with them organisations such as the Left Book Club – their activities and associations “rendered them subjects of interest in the world of intelligence and secret policing.” Smith uses the newly released archives to explore the intersections between writers and the systems of the state with which they were surrounded.
British Writers offers a series of case studies of particular individuals who shared a common link through their affiliation with the emerging left-wing cultural movements of the 1930s.
One such movement was the Auden circle, including authors such as Auden himself, Cecil Day-Lewis, Stephen Spender, and Christopher Isherwood.
Another chapter examines the surveillance of working-class theatre pioneers Ewan MacColl and Joan Littlewood. The latter came to fame through her Theatre Workshop, which agencies suspected of being silently supported by the Communist Party.
Finally, Smith reconsiders two of the best-known left-wing authors, George Orwell and Arthur Koestler. They undertook, he writes, “complicated rapprochements with the secret state.”
Beyond the intrinsic interest of the files in relation to these particular writers, British Writers and MI5 Surveillance offers a intervention in wider debates. Interestingly, whilst some left-wing writers were scrutinised in detail by MI5, others were not; the files therefore offer an insight into the historical perceptions of literary impact in its own time. Furthermore, the files offer fresh insights into the international connections between British authors, culture and the Soviet Union. Finally, the book reveals the ironic twist on the relationship between MI5 and British writers. Far from being cowed by the intelligence agencies, some writers tried to ingratiate themselves with the secret state, working within circles such as the British Society for Cultural Freedom which was covertly supported by British and American intelligence agencies. The implicitly anti-communist publications, art tours and conferences which emerged received added credibility through their association with once radical left-wing authors.