Statewatch article: RefNo# 2295
UK: MI5 historical files being destroyed
Statewatch bulletin, vol 8 no 1 (January-February 1998)
The Home Secretary said in a Commons written answer in January that the Security Service (MI5) applied the following criteria in deciding whether a record is likely to be of "historical interest" and thus eventually placed in the Public Records Office:

"(a) major investigations; (b) important subversive figures, terrorists and spies; (c) individuals involved in important historical events; (d) cause celebres in a security context; (e) files which contain original papers of historical interest; (f) major changes of Service policy, organisation or procedure; (g) files which are in some way "period pieces", e.g. they illustrate clearly Security Service attitudes/techniques of the time; (h) milestones in the Service's history."

This information followed on the heels of an informal briefing to journalists by Stephen Lander, head of MI5, that "MI5 is speeding up the destruction of thousands of files on individuals it once considered subversive as part of an attempt to modernise, Whitehall sources confirmed yesterday" (Guardian, 12.1.98).

The value of keeping all the files

In October last year files placed in the Public Records Office revealed that Harry Pollitt, leader of the British Communist Party for 30 years, had a MI5 undercover agent - Olga Gray - as his secretary in the 1930s. She was one of a number of women recruited by Maxwell Knight of MI5 to infiltrate suspect groups (Times, 10.10.97). Another woman recruited by Knight was Joan Miller whose autobiographical book "One Girl's War", published in Ireland in 1986 by Brandon Press, was not available in UK bookshops.

In November 1997 files released to the Public Records Office finally confirmed that Alice Wheeldon, a militant suffragette and socialist actively opposed to the introduction of conscription in the First World War, was set up by MI5. In 1917 Alice Wheeldon, her daughter Winnie Mason and her husband George Mason, were sentenced to 10 penal servitude, five years and seven years respectively for "plotting" to assassinate Lloyd George and other Cabinet Ministers. Alice Wheeldon went on hunger strike, was let out after two years and died in her early fifties shortly after her release in 1919. Mrs Wheeldon and her family were entrapped by Alex Gordon and Herbert Booth (known as "Comrade Bert") both agents of an MI5 branch called PMS2. They encouraged her to try and get four phials of curare, a deadly South American poison, from her son-in-law George Mason who was a chemist. The poison was intercepted in the post. In court the prosecution claimed she intended to assassinate the Prime Minister Lloyd George while he was playing golf by the use of a blow-pipe which would emit a small dart tipped with curare. The defence said the Wheeldons regularly helped conscientious objectors on the run. As guard dogs were used at the camps conscientious objectors were held in Gordon suggested that the poison be obtained to deal with them.

The case aroused great interest in 1917 and figures in many conventional histories of the police as the plot to assassinate Lloyd George. A pamphlet produced in 1933 by F W Chandler, "Political Spies and Provocative Agents", ensured that the Alice Wheeldon story did not disappear from the historical record. Socialist historian Raymond Challenor went back to the case in 1972 and 1977 as did Tony Bunyan in "The Political Police in Britain" in 1976. It was Sheila Rowbotham who delved deeper still and wrote a play "The Friends of Alice Wheeldon", first performed in Rotherham in 1980, and then included in her book of the same title in 1986. Eleven years later and fifty years after the event the release of MI5 files more than justify the interest of historians in questioning the perceived wisdom of mainstream contemporary accounts.

The idea that MI5 should be allowed to decide which of its files are of historical interest concerning "important subversive figures" or "cause celebres" is an affront to historical research an

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