MI5 and the historians: time for an official apology
There will be few on the left who will have been surprised at The Guardian’s story on 24th October that MI5 spied on leading post-1945 historians such as Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm because, amongst other reasons, they had until the crisis of 1956 or just after been members of the Communist Party.
The Guardian story is here:
The reason for The Guardian story was that files have been newly opened up ( and some haven’t)detailing what MI5 knew about Hobsbawm and Hill.
The fact that the security services had kept tabs on them and prevented them from getting certain posts is well known already. It was part of the British Cold War when the old Soviet Union was regarded as an enemy of the UK. In practice as the work of John Le Carre amongst others has underlined there was little actual difference in practice between the way the two countries went on.
Beyond that, while, ironically, the Mi5 records are useful material for historians of the left, there was no genuine justification for keeping such distinguished historians under surveillance beyond the point that the British Establishment regarded anyone that did not share its small and large ‘C’ conservative views as suspect.
Hill went on to become Master of Balliol College Oxford and Hobsbawm was appointed a Companion of Honour. In other words they became pillars of the very Establishment that had been keeping tabs on them.
It might be argued that this demonstrates the genius of the British Establishment for incorporating its enemies. More realistically as the book Spycatcher indicated it proves that MI5 was an unaccountable law unto itself.
It is time for official apologies to the relatives of Hill and Hobsbawm for the fact the State peered into their lives in an unwarranted way.
It also begs the question of whether MI5 are still at it. I convene the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and organise the London Socialist Historians Group. Along with the Socialist History Society we stand as successor organisations to the old Communist Party Historians Group.
If MI5 want to know what I’m up to and who I’m talking to they can read The Guardian or check my twitter feed.