The Secret Twenties: British Intelligence, The Russians and the Jazz Age, by Timothy Phillips

Meticulous research makes this study of 1920s espionage a roaring success, finds Vin Arthey

There’s always great excitement at the National Archives’ annual release of a new batch of intelligence documents, declassified after 60, 70, even 100 years. The broadsheet newspapers feature double-page spreads of juicy items about peeresses who had affairs with Nazi or Soviet politicians and intelligence experts pick up new pieces of the ‘Cambridge Five’ jigsaw puzzle.

Timothy Phillips has not been one of those to rush into print. Year on year he has pored over the released papers, gone back over them, made links, and now he gives us a new perspective on the 1920s and on the part played by the British counterintelligence services, Special Branch and MI5. When the Soviet Union became established, the government found itself in a quandary: do we trade with it, or do we try to undermine it? For much of the decade it turned out to be trying to do both. A Soviet trade delegation arrived in London in 1921 to set up “The All-Russian Co-operative Society”, ARCOS, but the Home Office kept tabs on it. Then the authorities became concerned about Soviet culture, and went about banning screenings of films like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. MI5 carefully watched the groups that were interested in Soviet art, and of course infiltrated agents into the Communist Party of Great Britain. On one occasion this paid off, and led to the capture in Glasgow of the shadowy CPGB activist ‘George Brown,’ aka Soviet masterspy Mikhail Borodin who, after six months in Barlinnie and deportation, later served as Stalin’s key man in China.

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Phillips has not ignored the more salacious stories, such as the case of Winston Churchill’s cousin, the sculptress Clare Sheridan. She certainly enjoyed the company of important men, and had a fling with the senior Bolshevik Lev Kamenev, but there was never any evidence that she endangered national security. Then there was the undercover Communist International agent Jacob Kirchenstein, who came ashore in Northumberland and travelled by train to the north of Scotland. In Aberdeen, discovering that he had to create a new identity very quickly, he came up with the name Johnnie Walker, probably from the whisky advertisement he’d just seen.

The security services never captured ‘Johnnie Walker’ (his story emerged after a 1950s debrief in the USA), but there were other and more serious failures. As well as having their budgets cut back, MI5 and Special Branch were being overwhelmed by orders to tail amorous aristocrats, watch ordinary trade unionists or spend time in cinemas and art galleries. There were errors and oversights, such as when undercover officers followed a suspect who had been identified by a double agent only to find, months later, that they had been tailed by the suspect’s henchman. Not only that, the henchmen turned out to be former police officers who had been sacked six years previously.

Later, MI5 had a tip-off that military secrets were being passed through the ARCOS building. The raid on the premises, authorised by the Home Secretary, was probably illegal, and in the event nothing was found. Diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union were severed, and it can be of little surprise that during Stalin’s purges, victims were often accused of “spying for the British”.

Phillips has shone a new light on the 1920s and found some ugly images. The ARCOS raid shows a British government divided and a cabinet riven with political differences and personal animosity. The wriggling and lying in the official statements are contemptible. We see government ineptitude and officially sanctioned surveillance of ordinary people. Some nasty and dangerous people were being watched, true, but private letters and the most intimate conversations between blameless individuals were also being taken down and kept. The technology has changed but, sadly, 100 years on, things don’t seem so very different.

The Secret Twenties is published by Granta, £20