A Salford University academic has uncovered evidence that senior MI5 officials believed black people should not be given roles in sensitive parts of Whitehall as they had ‘chips on their shoulders’ that made them a security risk.
Dr Dan Lomas has scoured declassified documents revealing for the first time the views of high level security officials as the Labour government considered introducing racial equality legislation in 1967.
Papers from the interdepartmental committee on security reveal a deepening concern in Whitehall at proposals making it illegal to refuse employment to a person on the grounds of colour, which would go on to be enshrined in the following year’s Race Relations Act.
Dr Lomas, lecturer in International History, says although it is widely known that MI5 had a deep distrust of Jews, there is a ‘surprising omission’ of any reference to security concerns about black people in the agency’s official history.
He explained: “Since the 1940s there were bans on communists and fascists working in government. In the 1950s this was extended to what was described as ‘character defects’ such as homosexuality, mental illness and alcoholism – on the grounds that this would make people vulnerable to blackmail – but these papers reveal the officials also saw race as a security issue.
The discussions around new legislation on racial discrimination being introduced in the 1960s seem to have presented a threat to the established, but unspoken, rule that black people risked national security.
“We already know MI5 had suspicions about British Jews, especially possible recruits of a ‘distinctly Jewish “appearance and demeanour”, thanks to MI5’s authorised history by Prof Christopher Andrew, but the history omits any reference to security concerns about black people – a surprising omission.
“It’s unclear how far these issues went, though we know that there remained a lack of black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) recruits – even today.”
By the 1960s, government departments had started to recruit black people into junior clerical or manual posts, but they were not trusted with secret documents, the files reveal.
The minutes state that MI5’s view was: ‘The question of access to classified information by coloured staff was, in the professional estimation of the Security Service … a major security problem’.
Minutes from the meeting, which took place in the Cabinet Office, and attended by the head of the Ministry Of Defence, the Director of GCHQ and a senior civil servant from the Treasury, reveal MI5’s concerns about members of the so-called Windrush generation and others living in the UK under the 1948 British Nationality Act.
Officials noted that since 1964 ‘coloured staff’ had to have been resident in the UK for 10 years or more for vetting purposes, and that ‘it did not amount to discrimination on grounds of colour, but this was the practical effect’.
hey were concerned that enabling members of ethnic minorities to apply for positions in secret posts would pose a security risk as they lacked the usual information for background checks.
The minutes of the meeting, also attended by MI5 Director-General Martin Furnival Jones, made it clear that the security issues went deeper than the amount of time spent in the UK.
MI5 believed the risks of employing ‘coloured staff’ stemmed ‘simply from the colour of a man’s skin, which gave him a chip on his shoulder. It would be a long time before this chip was removed’.
‘Even when a man was placed in a position of trust which ought to remove this chip, he and his wife and family might be subjected to public humiliation on grounds of colour in such a way as to make the chip reappear’.
Furnival Jones told the committee: ‘It must be assumed that the Communist Intelligence services were fully aware of the possibilities of recruiting agents from among disaffected coloured people in this country’. MI5 assessed the risk ‘a serious one’.
Dr Lomas said: “In the context of wider public views on race – this was just two years before Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech – it seems MI5 seriously believed that disaffected ‘coloured people’ could be recruited by the KGB to spy on Britain.
“However, there is nothing anywhere in MI5’s declassified files to suggest that there were ever any black British spying on Britain. Their relatively small numbers in Whitehall and junior positions would have made them of limited use to the KGB anyway.
“Perhaps ironically, the real threat had come from elite members of the British establishment, the so-called Cambridge spy ring who had been passing British secrets to the Soviets, or intelligence officials and civil servants who had been blackmailed or passed information for ideological or financial rewards. Nevertheless, the suggestion here is that MI5 simply did not employ black people.”