MI5, E.P.Thompson and the ‘Freeborn Englishman’
From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #59 (Autumn 2016).
The London Socialist Historians Group, which organises the Socialist History seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in central London, has said that the Home Secretary should apologise to the family of the late historian E.P. Thompson for intercepting his mail in the period 1943-1963 and possibly afterwards.
Some MI5 files on Thompson are now open at the Public Record Office. They cover the period from 1943 when he was in the British Army fighting fascism to 1963 when his landmark book the Making of the English Working Class was published.
Thompson was a member of the Communist Party - a legal political party - but famously walked out with others in 1956 after Khrushchev revealed details of Stalin’s crimes.
The historians say that there can be no excuse for MI5’s bugging of Thompson. It is clear from the released documents that they were interested in him not as a Communist activist-which he was in Yorkshire until 1956- but as a member of the Communist Party Historians Group, which produced some of the most well known British focused history of the post-1945 era. Further even after Thompson had quit the CP the surveillance appears to have continued.
LSHG Convenor Keith Flett said that 'the irony is that certainly during the 1950s the MI5 surveillance covered the period when Thompson was working on The Making of the English Working Class. One of the most well known parts of the book is the chapter on the ‘Freeborn Englishman’ on how popular democratic rights against overbearing authority were established in the UK. The Home Secretary should publicly apologise to Thompson’s family.'