One of the most prominent British politicians of the 20th century was targeted by MI5 – the UK’s Security Service which counters subversion, espionage and terrorism.
The investigation of Sir Keith Joseph – who was to serve in Conservative cabinets during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and was considered the closest political ally of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – caused panic among MI5 officers in the summer of 1948, though at the time Sir Keith was a little known financier, recently returned from war service.
So obscure was the future minister – eight years before being elected to Parliament – that MI5 staff resorted to looking him up in Who’s Who!
His name had come to their attention during MI5’s interception of correspondence between the Jewish Agency offices in London and the newly created state of Israel’s representative in the USA, Abba Eban.
Like Joseph, Eban was a young Jew who had served in the British Army during the Second World War – in Eban’s case as a secret liaison with Zionist agents working in cooperation with Britain’s Special Operations Executive – the ‘dirty tricks’ department of the British war effort.
Eban was regarded by MI5 as one of the most important operatives of an increasingly aggressive Zionist secret service engaged in propaganda, intelligence gathering, arms smuggling and even terrorism. He was allied to Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben Gurion and worked via the Jewish Agency.
British security and intelligence officers knew that for several years Ben Gurion and the Agency had coordinated terrorist and other subversive acts with rival Zionist groups including Menachem Begin’s Irgun and Yitzhak Shamir’s Stern Gang. At other times however Ben Gurion and allies such as Eban had been bitter enemies of Begin and Shamir (each of whom later became Israeli prime ministers in their turn, while Eban served as deputy prime minister from 1963 to 1966 and foreign minister from 1966 to 1974).
Hence Abba Eban and his Jewish Agency offices in London were a major surveillance target for MI5. In June 1946 the Agency’s offices in Palestine (then ruled as a British mandate) had been raided as part of Operation Agatha, a counter-terrorist operation by the British Army involving 2,700 arrests, including senior Agency personnel. British codebreakers had been reading the Jewish Agency’s secret communications, so MI5 and its sister service MI6 knew that Ben Gurion’s disavowal of involvement in terrorism was bogus.
It was against this background that MI5 officers opened a letter from the Jewish Agency to Eban, posted on 4th June 1948. Formerly top secret records just released by the UK authorities show that one paragraph in the letter was heavily underlined by the MI5 department specialising in Zionist terrorism, espionage and subversion. It read:
“Sir Keith Joseph has asked me to convey his kindest regards to you. He wanted to see you in connection with one or two matters which had come to the notice of his circle, and he thought they might be able to help us. I put him in touch with Mr Locker. I cannot give details here since he asked that they should not be disclosed in writing.”
Berl Locker was the chairman of the Jewish Agency’s board of directors, and a long time ally of Chaim Weizmann, newly installed as the first President of Israel.
An MI5 officer passed an urgent request to the service’s registry, which in those mostly pre-computer days kept a massive card index of spies, saboteurs, terrorists, and just about anybody regarded as dangerous to the security of the state: “Please look up Sir Keith Joseph everywhere you can think of – including Who’s Who!”
MI5’s Pamela Stiebel sent a memo to her colleague David Scherr, another young MI5 high flyer who had run cross border operations from Gibraltar against the German secret service. Postwar Scherr and Stiebel had become specialists on the new threat to Britain from the Zionist intelligence and terrorist organisations:
“David – What, if anything, can we do about the para side-lined re Sir Keith Joseph?”
Scherr replied that no action should yet be taken against Joseph, except to enter his name in MI5’s card index of Zionist suspects, and to copy the intercepted letter into the MI5 files on Abba Eban and Berl Locker.
An entry for Sir Keith was drawn from Who’s Who and added to the file, noting that he was a 30-year-old baronet who had inherited the title from his father, Bovis construction tycoon Sir Samuel Joseph, in 1944 while serving in the Middle East as a captain in the Royal Artillery. He had since become a barrister and Lloyds underwriter, and had begun to cement a position in the British establishment as a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and an Alderman of the City of London.
MI5 have not yet published any later records that they kept on Sir Keith, though it is certain they took an interest when a man who had featured in their counter-espionage files became Conservative MP for Leeds North East in 1956 and went on to serve as a minister in successive Conservative cabinets.
In 1974 after the Tory election defeat, Sir Keith even became Shadow Home Secretary, in line to take responsibility for MI5 itself had the party returned to government! Would this have been the first time that MI5 acquired a political boss who had once himself been a target of their investigations?
Perhaps fortunately, Sir Keith’s party was not to return to office for another five years, and he never got to run the Home Office. After briefly considering a campaign for the Conservative leadership, he stood aside to support the successful candidature of Margaret Thatcher and became her closest ideological ally in government, serving as Secretary of State for Industry from 1979 to 1981, then as Education Secretary from 1981 until his retirement in 1986.
Sir Keith Joseph stepped down as an MP in 1987 and was raised to the upper house as Lord Joseph of Portsoken (taking the title from his old ward on the City of London Council where he had started his postwar career). In their book and PBS series on the transformation of the world economy, Commanding Heights, economists Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw wrote:
“Arguably, Keith Joseph did as much as any other single person around the world to reshape the debate about government and marketplace, to take a variety of ideas and bind them together into a powerful critique of the mixed economy and, in the course of things, help shape them into a political program.”
This year his name has been dragged into the scandal over alleged paedophile abuse. Local newspaper editor Don Hale has claimed that Sir Keith Joseph was one of several politicians mentioned in a dossier on establishment paedophiles handed to him in 1984 by former cabinet minister Barbara Castle. The dossier was seized a few days later by Special Branch officers who called at Hale’s paper, the Bury Messenger.
Former Tory activist Anthony Gilberthorpe added to the controversy, claiming that at Conservative Party Conferences in 1983 and 1984 he had supplied rent boys for parties attended by Sir Keith and other senior politicians.
Such lurid claims are difficult – perhaps impossible – to document: but now that MI5’s longstanding interest in Sir Keith Joseph has been confirmed, official enquiries into the paedophile scandal will surely call on the Security Service to provide evidence, if only to help lay these rumours to rest.
© Thames House Books, 2014
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