Even in the age of secret mass surveillance programmes such as theNSA’s Prism and GCHQ’s Tempora it is hard to imagine living in a society in which a historian could be seen as a threat to national security. It seems absurd that MI5 might today be amassing a file on the activities of David Starkey, be opening Lucy Worsley’s mail, tapping Simon Schama’s phone or sending an undercover agent to make notes on Niall Ferguson’s lectures.
Such a society nevertheless existed here in Britain less than 50 years ago during the cold war. And the latest release of MI5 historic files to the National Archives in Kew, south-west London, fills in some detail of how it was done.
Half a century ago, there were hardly three bigger names in academic history than Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill and AJP Taylor. Their books were standard reference and teaching texts for generations of students. Yet the released files reveal that all three were being monitored by MI5 on a regular basis. The release this week of several detailed files on Hobsbawm and Hill is a reminder of just how deeply the cold war penetrated into every nook and cranny of British academic life.
On one level, the attention devoted to Hobsbawm and Hill is easily explained. Neither of them was a Soviet agent. Both of them, however, were active and public members of the Communist party of Great Britain. And for MI5 that, quite simply, was enough. The fact that the pair were, in their ways, increasingly dissident Communists – both were critics of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Hill resigned from the party a year later – counted for nothing.
Hill, who died in 2003 at the age of 91, became famous in postwar Britain as the pre-eminent historian of 17th century England. His many books, which included a biography of Oliver Cromwell and a celebration of the radical millenarian groups of the period called The World Turned Upside Down, were widely read. And as the Master of Balliol College, Oxford, during the 1960s, he held one of the most prestigious posts in British university life.
Hobsbawm, who died two years ago aged 95 after a career teaching in Cambridge and London, was even more widely known in his later years than Hill. His books ranged widely, from economic histories such as his Industry and Empire to the bestselling sequence on the post-1789 world, beginning with the Age of Revolutions. For the last 20 years of his life he was also one of Britain’s most eminent public intellectuals, awarded the order of the companions of honour by Tony Blair.
None of this counted for anything in wartime and cold war Britain, however, when MI5 did its best to amass a comprehensive database on all Britain’s communists. According to the official history of MI5 by Christopher Andrew, by 1952 the agency had identified 90% of the party’s 35,000 members. That meant a lot of files, and a vast network of cross-referencing, as the information for the files was painstakingly gathered from agents, interceptions, bugging and trawling through public sources before being transcribed and copied into thousands of dossiers on members.
The material in the Hobsbawm and Hill files is rarely scandalous or even exciting. Most of it is prosaic and bureaucratic: records of names on lists, presence at meetings, mentions in intercepted correspondence. Academic disputes – Hobsbawm’s with Hugh Trevor-Roper, for instance – are dutifully monitored by the secret watchers. Upheavals in their private lives, such as the painful break-up of Hill’s first marriage, are solemnly recorded.
Starting in 1935, when he travelled to Russia as a student, MI5 had a file on Hill. When he returned from Russia, a Special Branch agent at Harwich reported: “He has the appearance of a communist; but his baggage, which was searched by HM Customs, did not contain any subversive literature.” Later, his telephone was tapped and his mail opened from the 1950s on. Given the difficulty of reading Hill’s handwriting, this must have been a labour-intensive task.
Hobsbawm, unlike Hill, spent the remainder of his life in the Communist party until it folded after the break up of the Soviet Union. Yet he was in most respects a more combative presence to party officials whose dealings with him are recorded in the files. Most of these internal; disagreements were explicitly political – though the files also record the communists’ frustration with Hobsbawm for writing about his beloved jazz in the Daily Mail and other bourgeois publications under a pseudonym.
The value of the two men to the Communist party is not in doubt. The files record the party leader John Gollan observing that he would not have done much to dissuade many of those who broke with the party after Hungary from leaving – “except Christopher Hill.” And no matter how irritating some of the party’s timeservers found Hobsbawm, smarter figures like Gollan always grasped that the historian was an asset whom they would be foolish to lose.