A campaigning politician is wise to be ever-alive to the possibility of being set-up and made to look ridiculous. In the light of the Belgrano affair, I do not doubt that I have accumulated a large and distinguished number of enemies, who would be only too delighted to see me slip on the ice. If a campaigner is proved hideously wrong in one matter, those who wish to destroy his case can gleefully point to the possibility of error in a related matter. My interest in the callous death of Miss Hilda Murrell – for such I was left in no doubt that it was by the courteous and concerned officers of West Mercia Police – was kindled by an anonymous phone call. An authoritative voice came through to my Commons Office-cum-Cupboard, and rather peremptorily told me to read an article in the New Statesman, ‘The Death of Miss Murrell’ by Judith Cook. Some two days later, since I read the New Statesman and the London Review of Books on trains and aircraft between London and Scotland, I glanced at Mrs Cook’s piece, and was arrested by the following passage: ‘Yet the Police told Rob Green, Miss Murrell’s nephew, that his aunt’s body was found much later, and then that it was found at 7 a.m. Rob Green took voluntary redundancy from the Navy a short time ago, having been a high-ranking Naval Intelligence officer with a crucial role in the Falklands War, for which he received a special citation. He does not consider himself a fanciful person.’ It dawned on me why, in all probability, I had been told by my anonymous caller – I still have no notion who it was – to read Judith Cook’s article.
A Member of Parliament is in a dilemma on occasions of this sort, since he has neither the time nor the means to act as some latterday Sherlock Holmes. I have no hesitation myself in approaching journalists, to discuss their information. This works, provided the politician does not infringe the cardinal rule that one does not yield up one journalist’s story to another. From local and national journalists I was able to glean a mass of information about the circumstances of Hilda Murrell’s case, and the task was made easier by the fact that Shrewsbury has what I consider to be a quite outstandingly good evening newspaper in the Shropshire Star. At the same time, reliance on journalists, however assiduous and well-informed, was an insufficient bedrock on which to put two and two together, and suppose that the murder of Miss Murrell had anything to do with the activities of her Naval nephew during the Falklands War. Nor did my first Parliamentary Question to the Home Office in November, before the inquest on Miss Murrell, elicit anything more than a routine reply. I therefore had quietly to go to ‘friends’ to make inquiries.
In such situations I choose friends on the basis of their likely position to know, of their track record of accuracy in the past, and, above all, of their willingness to tell me bluntly if I am barking up the wrong tree. The truth is that unless he has friends who are prepared to play the kind of role that ‘Deep Throat’ played in the unfolding Watergate saga, the politician will get nowhere. An MP without contacts would simply be wasting his time floundering around in the dark, and would be vulnerable to being made an ass of. In essence, what one deep throat told me was this ... Towards the end of December 1983, Sir Robert Armstrong, as Secretary of the Cabinet, set up an inquiry into leaks, relating, inter alia, to GCHQ Cheltenham and Belgrano matters. Various people were checked out, either known or unbeknown to themselves. In March 1984 there was a ‘tremendous flap’ in Downing Street. My attention was drawn, in particular, to what Mr Heseltine, the Defence Secretary, had said publicly to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, concerning his own activities in middle and late March and his contact with Mrs Thatcher over how they should handle the Belgrano affair at that period of time.
One of the characteristics of deep throats is that they like to draw the attention of an MP to what is already in the public domain. I judge that this is partly to do with conscience, and the feeling that they are morally entitled to hint at what is important in the massive amount of material that is churned out by Whitehall and by Ministers: but it is also, and obviously, for the protection of their sources and of themselves, since the origin of references to the public domain is clearly less identifiable than information which could only have come from inside a Department – as in the case of what came to me from Clive Ponting.
A careful look at Michael Heseltine’s lengthy broadcast evidence shows what exactly was taking place in the Whitehall stratosphere during the month in which Hilda Murrell was murdered. On 6 March Denzil Davies wrote to the Prime Minister, about discrepancies in Mrs Thatcher’s explanations about the sinking of the Belgrano. On 16 March Mr Heseltine revealed that he’d received ‘alternative’ drafts, as to how to ‘deal with’ the letter. On 19 March, says Mr Heseltine, ‘Tam Dalyell wrote to me, asking nine detailed questions’ – including questions relating to changes in the Belgrano’s course. These ‘led me to take a view that the whole question that arose in connection with the Belgrano had got to be subjected to the most detailed scrutiny, because I had not got the personal knowledge or background, simply because I was not a Minister in the Department at the time.’ I raise an eyebrow in passing at the way in which Michael Heseltine took the opportunity to distance himself personally from the Belgrano affair. For a man whose paramount aim is to become Leader of the Conservative Party, there is a tightrope to walk between becoming too involved in Belgranalia and not being seen to be disloyal to Mrs Thatcher and her faction in the Party.
On 22 March – the day, incidentally, on which Mr Ian Scott, a Shropshire farmer, was counting his trees, with a view to felling, in the very coppice in which Miss Murrell’s body was to be found two days later – Mr Heseltine began his investigation into the documents which have come to be known as the Crown Jewels. On 29 March he received the Crown Jewels. What did the Secretary of State for Defence do then? In his own words to the Select Committee, ‘I immediately had an internal meeting and I had a meeting with the Prime Minister, and a further meeting on the Sunday because I was going to Nato on the Monday, in order to decide what advice I would give the Prime Minister as to how we should deal with these questions.’ Among the readers of the London Review of Books there must be a goodly number of people who know jolly well how the uppermost echelons of Government work in this country: how often, I ask them, in their experience, do they know of Defence Secretaries scurrying off to see the Prime Minister, particularly this prime minister, about how to answer an MP’s Questions. How often do they call inconvenient, short-notice Sunday meetings? Not unless there is good cause! A deep throat told me that in anticipation of all this Ministerial and Prime Ministerial activity, Intelligence was told to do everything possible to identify the origin of the leaks about the Belgrano.
I have no difficulty in imagining this scene. From 1964-70, I was the late Dick Crossman’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, and had a ringside seat which enabled me to witness how berserk Harold Wilson, as Prime Minister, would go about leaks. I suspect this is in the nature of prime ministers, particularly those who live in Number Ten – Harold was much better the second time round in 1974/76, when Mary Wilson had the good sense to make him stay at a house in Lord North Street.
Deep Throat told me that, under pressure to come up with information about the leaks, and remembering that there was the related row about trade union rights at GCHQ, Intelligence decided to ‘take a look’ at the house of the aunt of Commander Robert Green. Another deep throat added that the investigating police should not be content with the bland assurances given by Bernard Sheldon and others that Intelligence was not involved, but that they should cross-question Sir Robert Armstrong, Mr Peter Marychurch, and some of their subordinates – and indeed, the head of the Security Services, the Prime Minister – on how much they had been told of the Hilda Murrell case and when they were told it. I do appreciate that it is a bit of a tall order to suggest that a local Police Force, even one as courteous, competent and professional as I found West Mercia to be, should set about interviewing the Cabinet Secretary, let alone the Prime Minister. The truth of the matter is that a local Police Force should not be in a position of being asked by an MP to turn towards the most exalted figures in the land. What there should be is an authority to which those genuinely concerned about British Intelligence are able to turn, and this should be a Select Committee of the House of Commons – maybe composed of Privy Councillors. The need for such a thing is made all the more urgent by the Miners’ Strike.
I hesitate to regurgitate a Commons speech, but in order to be acquitted of cheap hindsight perhaps I might be allowed to quote this extract from my contribution to the Army Debate of 17 November 1983, four months before Corton Wood, and four months before the murder of Hilda Murrell.
The time has now come for the establishment of at least a British equivalent of the United States Senate intelligence committee. The proposal is neither way-out nor far-fetched. On 19 January 1983, the first report for the 1982-83 Session of the Liaison Committee on the Select Committee system was published. It stated: ‘One Government activity which already falls within the ambit of the departmental select committees is the work of the security services, and the question of their accountability to Parliament arises from time to time. The arguments against a wide Parliamentary discussion of these matters are well known, and have led the committees concerned to refrain from inquiries in this field. On the other hand, expenditure of public monies on a large scale should not go wholly unexamined, especially when an examination could be a spur to efficiency. Nor should it be overlooked that the security services, who are frequently criticised in the House, have not in the past had any Parliamentary opportunity of putting the record straight. With such a strong case on each side of the question, one thing is clear: the House, having given to the committees a wide and unambiguous duty of overseeing all the functions of the departments, has at present left them in each case to decide for themselves where the balance of the argument lies, and so whether or not to inquire into these matters.’ Timing is everything, as we know. This report was published the day after the Franks Committee report on the Falklands – whether by design or coincidence, far be it from me to say. It was swamped, and little has been heard of it since.
I emphasise that the concept of a Select Committee on Intelligence is not a nostrum dreamed up by me to suit a particular need of the moment. The concept of such a Committee was proposed as a matter of considered judgment by a most high-level Committee of Members of Parliament, which had been set up to consider the matter. Let it be resurrected.