Thatcher ‘utterly shattered’ by MI5 revelations in Spycatcher, files reveal | National Archives

Margaret Thatcher was “utterly shattered” by the revelations in Spycatcher, the memoirs of the retired MI5 officer Peter Wright, files released publicly for the first time reveal.

The files also reveal the dilemmas faced by Thatcher’s government in its futile battle to suppress the book, including whether to agree to the Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer mediating an out of court “solution”.

Allegations by Wright, a former assistant director of MI5 who retired to Tasmania, included that the security agency had bugged embassies, that a small group of agents had plotted against the prime minister Harold Wilson, and that Sir Roger Hollis, the director general of MI5 from 1956-65, had been a Soviet mole.

Black and white photo of Peter Wright sitting on a bench with a cane in his hand
Peter Wright in October 1987 Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Getty Images

The book, which was banned in the UK in 1985, was first published in Australia and the US after the government lost its long-running high-profile court case against Wright in Sydney in 1987.

The documents show the government losing control in a legal game of “whack-a-mole” as extracts popped up in newspapers and books appeared in shops and on library shelves around the world.

The government insisted the allegations were not new and had previously been investigated by MI5 and no evidence found, though Thatcher wrote on one document in October 1986: “I am utterly shattered by the revelations in the book. The consequences of publication would be enormous.”

The fear was that Wright, as an “insider”, could give the allegations greater credence, with the government seeking an injunction on the grounds of his “duty of confidentiality”, having signed the Official Secrets Act.

Offers by Wright to try to settle the case were made up to, and during, the Australian trial. As Sir Robert Armstrong, who was the cabinet secretary and the government witness in the case, was mid-evidence, Wright’s lawyer, Malcolm Turnbull, who would later become Australia’s prime minister, proposed a “solution” to be mediated by the Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer, the papers released by the National Archives show.

Kerry Packer sits at a desk in front of microphones
Kerry Packer was suggested as an unlikely mediator between lawyers for Wright and the UK government. Photograph: PA

Turnbull suggested that Thatcher would recognise the problems with “old spooks wanting to tell their stories”, and set up an inquiry to look into adopting the US system, which allowed CIA agents to seek permission to publish books, so allowing Wright to publish with permission.

In return, Armstrong reported, she would be seen as a “champion of freedom of expression and freedom of speech” and Turnbull would do his best to say that he, Armstrong, “did a splendid job”. “Very good of him, I must say,” Armstrong added.

Noting the judge’s last words that afternoon had been Timeō Danaōs et dōna ferentēs – roughly translated as “beware the Greeks even when bearing gifts” – Armstrong pondered Turnbull’s motives. There was “not much enthusiasm for starting down” the road of negotiating the terms, if “we do not trust our Greek”, he wrote. After Thatcher held a meeting of senior government ministers and officials, the offer was rejected.

When the government lost the case, the question turned to appeal. The downside, one adviser told Thatcher, was Wright, aged 70 and in ill health, might die before the appeal, and the government would be “accused of ‘killing’ him by our intransigent attitude”. But Sir Nigel Wicks, Thatcher’s principal private secretary, believed the case for appeal was “overwhelming”. She agreed, writing in the margin of his memo: “We must appeal.”

It proved largely irrelevant, though, as the government then learned a US publishing house was planning to publish, and was advised it could not succeed in legal action in the US. “Very disturbing,” wrote Thatcher.

The Spycatcher book being held
Peter Wright’s book was initially banned from being published in the UK but was printed in Australia and the US. Photograph: PA

Douglas Hurd, the home secretary, warned “seepage” could affect the Australian appeal, and other cases in which the government was seeking to uphold injunctions against the Guardian, the Observer and the Sunday Times to prevent publication of Wright’s material, as well as against the Dominion newspaper in New Zealand. The files, dense with legal analysis and advice, show other countries where action possibly might be needed included Italy, South Africa, Pakistan, Singapore and Hong Kong.

One disheartening memo, from the arts minister Richard Luce, warned of a forthcoming international library conference in the UK, “with many American librarians coming over … we know that at least one British librarian has arranged to receive a copy of Spycatcher from a colleague for his library”.

Labour MEPs read extracts of the book in the record at the European parliament, which was included in the parliament’s official journal, due to be distributed in the UK through HMSO, the government’s stationery office. It left the government looking “foolish”, Wicks told Thatcher. “Yes, we must do everything we can to ensure the one hand of the government does not distribute what the other hand is trying to stop,” she wrote. But there was nothing, legally, they could do.

The Treasury solicitor, meanwhile, was dispatched to the clerk of the Commons to ensure no MPs attempted to read extracts in parliament, which would allow newspapers to report them “in plain frustration of the purpose of the injunctions”.

The files show how Thatcher tried, and failed, to dissuade the former prime minister Jim Callaghan from calling for an inquiry, which she was determined to resist. Meanwhile, her famously blunt press secretary, Bernard Ingham, predicted any inquiry would be “doomed before it begins to eventual dismissal as a whitewash”.

He wrote: “I consider a far more effective remedy would be for the security services (who have, after all, largely got themselves into this mess) publicly to shut up and secretly to grit their teeth, pull themselves together and get on with it.”

The book was cleared for sale in the UK in 1988 after the law lords – who carried out the judicial work of the House of Lords – acknowledged it contained no secrets. Wright was barred from receiving royalties from UK sales – the one victory the government could claim. He died, aged 78 and a millionaire, in 1995.


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