Mark Hollingsworth’s latest book, Agents of Influence, takes us back to the era of the Soviet Union, the Second World War and the Cold War, to the film noir world of murky, mysterious, romantic or sordid (take your pick) cafes and nightclubs in places like Vienna, Berlin and London’ s Soho where aristocrats, politicians, diplomats, civil servants, journalists and spies would exchange gossip and secrets over bottles of champagne while taking in the exotic (not to say erotic) floor show.*
It’s a book much more reminiscent of John le Carre, of Orson Wells as the Third Man, and of Rick’s gin joint in Casablanca, than of James Bond. The world depicted makes for good novels and cinema, but was and remains a thoroughly nasty and extremely dangerous place.
So it may come as a surprise to find some North East MPs, apparently far removed in every sense from such places and the deadly intrigues that unfolded there, playing their admittedly small parts in Hollingsworth’s story; for others like this contributor, it will jog memories of events long forgotten.
Lord Lambton: reds under the bed
Viscount Lambton (1922 – 2005) was Conservative MP for Berwick between 1951 and 1973 and a defence minister responsible for the RAF in the government of Edward Heath. In 1973 he was engulfed in scandal when he was revealed in a tabloid newspaper to be sleeping with the London prostitute Norma Levy, making him vulnerable to blackmail by the KGB, the Russian security and secret intelligence service.
Lambton resigned and according to Hollingsworth, later told an MI5 (British security service) officer, ludicrously:
“My job at the Ministry of Defence was so boring that the only way to relieve the tedium was sex and vigorous gardening.”
The satirical magazine Private Eye, this writer recalls, made fun of the affair with a front page of Lambton frolicking while speaking lines from the chorus of the traditional local song The Lambton Worm: “Whisht lads, haad yor gobs, A’ll tell ye’s all an awful story.”
The affair seems not to have had serious consequences for national security, though doubtless it did for Lambton and his family. It wasn’t funny either for the Conservative Party in Berwick. The byelection that followed Lambton’s resignation was won for the Liberals by Alan Beith, who held the seat until retiring in 2015. He was deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats between 1992 and 2003.
Will Owen, the Morpeth spy
Less well remembered, but more serious, is the case of Will Owen (1901-1981), Labour MP for Morpeth from 1954 until 1970. Owen was born in South Wales and started his working life as a miner. He worked himself up the political ladder, but after being elected for Morpeth never progressed beyond the back benches.
His story is not sexually sordid, like Lambton’s but perhaps even more discreditable: he spied for money.
Hollingsworth reports that in 1961 Patrick Gordon Walker, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, concerned about Communist and Soviet subversion of the party, passed on a list of 16 MPs who he believed to be members of the Communist Party pretending to be Labour members, or to be under Communist Party direction. Top of the list was Owen.
He stood trial in 1970 and admitted passing confidential information gained as a member of Parliament’s estimates committee to Czech intelligence, to receiving £2,300 from the Czechs which he had not declared for tax, that he had been a spy since 1955 and that he knew that his contact at the Czech Embassy was a senior spy.
Notwithstanding evidence that he leaked NATO documents, he was acquitted on the grounds that the information he had leaked was not covered by the Official Secrets Act. By 1974 he was sufficiently rehabilitated to be serving as chair of Carshalton and Wallington Labour Party in South London, according to Wikipedia.
Owen’s Czech handler Josef Frolik wrote in his memoirs, cited in Wikipedia, that Owen was “interested solely in the £500 a month retainer which we gave him .. In spite of the obvious danger, he was always demanding free holidays in Czechoslovakia so that he might save the expense of having to pay for the vacation himself. He even went as far as pocketing as many cigars as possible whenever he came to the embassy for a party.”**
Ernest Fernyhough, the Downing Street mole
Ernest Fernyhough (1908-1993) was Labour MP for Jarrow from 1947 until 1979 and occupied a key position in 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s parliamentary private secretary between 1964 and 1967. Like Owen, he was run by a Czech agent, Josef Piskula.
Hollingsworth reveals that Fernyhough, who also reported to the KGB, was able to pass on information about Wilson’s private telephone conversations with US president Lyndon Johnson about the Vietnam War and the devaluation of the pound.
Eventually, the KGB became suspicious that Fernyhough was informing the British government about their clandestine meetings and ended their six-year association. In spite of this, says, Hollingsworth, Piskula retained Fernyhough’s services and lavished him with gifts of chocolates and free holidays in Czechoslovakia until he was recalled to Prague in 1967.
Piskula, as well as Frolik, were sometime visitors to the up-market Eve Club in London, a centre for espionage activity. Whether Fernyhough ever went to the exotic venue run by a glamorous Romanian exile and MI5 informant is not known, but if he did it must have seemed a far cry from his constituency in Jarrow and his home in (if memory serves) Fenham, Newcastle.
Fernyhough’s role as a spy for the Soviet bloc was unknown to the public until 2019, 26 years after his death, when documents exposing him were unearthed by the Mail on Sunday.
Ted Short: the Swiss Bank account smear
The case of Ted Short was completely different that of the other North East MPs discussed here. He was neither a spy nor someone whose indiscretions made him vulnerable to blackmail, but the innocent victim of a smear.
Short (1912-2012) was Labour MP for Newcastle Central from 1951 until 1976, deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1972 to 1976 and deputy prime minister from 1972-1974. He later served in the House of Lords.
In 1974 a photocopy of a Swiss Bank Corporation account statement in Short’s name showing a credit balance of £23,000 was sent anonymously to journalists. Such an account would have been illegal at the time, but police soon established it was a forgery.
UK intelligence officers believed the smear was the work of the KGB but could never prove it. Short came through the experience with his reputation intact.
The new cold war
Hollingsworth’s book is a mainly a work of recent history, covering the whole range of KGB activities through most of the 20th century, including disinformation, fake news, honey traps, surveillance, smears, forgeries, blackmail and espionage. It is not a pretty story, though an intriguing one.
The fact that the initials KGB have now been dropped as the identifier of a Russian state institution should not lull us into complacency. The notorious security agency lives on in the shape of the Federal Security Service (FSB), an even more ruthless and murderous organisation serving, according to Hollingsworth, the will and personal power of President Vladimir Putin both at home in Russia and abroad.
It has new digital tools at its disposal for this new Cold War, spreading online chaos and confusion by swamping the world with disinformation and conspiracy theories, trolling opponents and hacking into the vital networks of its adversaries.
Its murderous tentacles extend even to the quiet English cathedral city of Salisbury, as we saw with the poisoning of Russian exile Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in 2018. They survived, but a British woman who was not an intended target was later poisoned and died. It was a thankfully quite rare example of Russian “active measures” to hit the headlines in Britain, but we should not kid ourselves: a constant unseen war is being waged against us, and wherever we are we could see it break out into real brutality at any time. Ask the Ukrainians.
*Mark Hollngsworth. Agents of Influence: How the KGB subverted Western Democracies (Oneworld Publications, 2023).
**Josef Frolik. The Frolik Defection (Corgi, 1976)