The Labour Party’s surprise and decisive victory in the 1945 General Election handed the new prime minister, Clement Attlee, an unassailable 145-seat majority in the House of Commons.
The result brought to power a government pledging to establish a ‘Socialist Commonwealth’ through a ‘peaceful revolution’. That same year, while Britons celebrated the end of the Second World War, another conflict loomed close at hand. With East-West tensions steadily rising, a growing sense of dread permeated the institutions of British government. Its catalyst was a fear of international communism and of its domestic advocates and supporters. For many, the vision championed by Karl Marx now threatened the United Kingdom, risking the country’s very existence as an independent democracy. Leading the charge against this red menace was the newly appointed prime minister.
Alongside re-evaluating Clement Attlee’s legacy, A Very British Witch Hunt contributes to ongoing historiographical discussions over what exactly transpired in early Cold War Britain.
The times were strange indeed. Though regarded by Winston Churchill as ‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing’, Attlee proved himself a dedicated Cold War warrior and an enthusiastic hunter of communist sympathisers within British political life. In July 1945, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) had won just two parliamentary seats and garnering less than 1 percent of the popular vote.
Nevertheless, Attlee’s fear of communists was deep-seated and ever-present. Both the prime minister and the Labour Party leadership viewed the Marxist ideology as a false religion and a destructive creed that was turning Britons into fifth columnists waiting to strike. Recounting their rhetoric of the time, one can easily imagine proverbial barbarians ready to storm the gates of Westminster to drag the nation behind the newly erected Iron Curtain.
In Attlee’s estimation, communists sought to disrupt and impede his government’s two primary objectives: the founding of a ‘New Jerusalem’ and the continuation of the ‘Special Relationship’ with the United States.
Fundamentally, the newly-elected Labour government sought to transform post-war Britain into a more prosperous and equitable society – yet one based on capitalist principles – while also securing American cooperation in terms of Marshall Aid, atomic energy research, and intelligence sharing. British communist party members and supporters fundamentally disagreed with this vision.
Thus, Attlee believe they sought to disrupt his goals both by overt (strikes, demonstrations, protests) and covert (espionage, sabotage, treason) means. To man the ramparts against this peril, Attlee’s government systematically put in place measures to combat and curb communist influence.
With the emergence of a post-war housing shortage, displaced persons sought accommodations by squatting in abandoned buildings. Supporting their cause was the Communist Party of Great Britain. Attlee denounced the squatters as communist dupes and arrested CPGB members aiding the movement. He regarded their efforts as an attack on a socialist government striving to fix the problem.
In 1947, as strikes took hold in British coal mines and dockyards, and organised stoppages hit industries and commercial services, Attlee argued that these were brought on by sinister forces conspiring against the national interest. He discounted all Security Service (MI5) reports stating communists were not to blame.
Nor would he consider that industrial unrest was a reaction to injustices his new economic reforms could not entirely alleviate. Instead, Attlee instructed MI5 and other governmental agencies to devise ways to force communists out of the trade unions and to eliminate their influence within the movement.
Until now the British response to the ‘red menace’ of the period has attracted relatively little attention compared to the contemporaneous phenomenon of American McCarthyism.
Attlee saw ‘red’ again when protests erupted in the House of Common over his pro-American foreign policy. He believed opposition to these initiatives to come from from crypto-communists – Labour MPs who secretly supported the aims of the CPGB and were loyal to the Soviet Union. Seeking to root out these ‘lost sheep’, Attlee ordered MI5 to investigate elected members of parliament. While the service complied, there was concern that what the prime minister demanded was not legally within its mandate or purview. In 1949, three MPs suspected of crypto-communism — Konni Zilliacus, Leslie Solley and Lester Hutchinson — were expelled from the Labour Party and subsequently lost their seats in parliament.
The detection of atomic spies and high-placed traitors caused much consternation in the Atlantic World. Purges began in the United States to root out communists from governmental positions. Pressured to follow suit, Clement Attlee enacted similar sweeps to identify and expose Soviet sympathisers in the UK. Communists working in sensitive governmental departments were either dismissed or removed. In terms of scope, the British purge was limited compared to that enacted in the US. The differing scale of British investigations was prompted not by concern for civil liberties, but lack of resources for MI5 to investigate the entire civil service. Attlee himself sought a considerably expanded purge of communists from the government and key industries.
In 1948, to halt the ‘redding’ of Britain, the Attlee government began conducting a covert campaign to promote domestic anti-communism. Targeting the general public for this purpose was an entity set up inside the Foreign Office with the unassuming name of the Information Research Department (IRD). Its stated purpose was to conduct an ‘ideological offensive against Stalinism’. Initially, the IRD focused on exporting anti-communist propaganda to foreign audiences, but it soon sought to manipulate public opinion inside the UK as well.
In 1953, when denounced by the US Senator Joseph McCarthy as being a communist sympathiser, Attlee responded publicly in the American press:
‘The British Labour Party and I myself have been vigorously opposing the Communist Party in this country ever since its formation – long before Senator McCarthy was ever heard of.’ 
As Britain’s post-war prime minister, Clement Attlee sought to purge and prohibit communists from UK government jobs; halt their inclusion inside the democratic process; and limit their ability to travel. In addition, he questioned the patriotism and loyalty of all individuals with communist affiliations; and sought secretly to foster more ardent anti-communist opinion among the population. Contrary to the claims of McCarthy, the historical record reveals Attlee to have been an anti-communist cold war warrior.
Alongside re-evaluating Clement Attlee’s legacy, A Very British Witch Hunt, contributes to ongoing historiographical discussions over what transpired in early Cold War Britain. Primarily, it questions and revises our traditional understanding of the British response to a communist threat. This conventional narrative suggests that while Americans were gripped in an exaggerated fear of communism, their level-headed British cousins retained both their wits and their commitment to decency and fair play.
A Very British Witch Hunt disputes this notion. It argues that contemporaneous to the much-publicised McCarthyite response in the US, the British government likewise over-reacted to the supposed threat of domestic communism in the UK. Drawing a wide-range of primary sources (many only recently opened to the public), my book challenges a long-accepted picture of post-war domestic intelligence. It identifies that a red scare did indeed take place in Britain, albeit one that was not as visible or high-profile as that taking hold across the Atlantic.
Until now the British response to the ‘red menace’ of the period has attracted relatively little attention compared with American McCarthyism. Yet in Britain, just as in the United States, the communist issue was politicised post-war, with state intelligence, repression and ‘red-baiting’.
 Chicago Daily Tribune, 15 May 1953, p. 5.
About the Author
Dr Matthew Gerth is an associate professor in the School of Law and Political Sciences at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (USEK). A political and intelligence historian, Matthew’s research focuses on Atlantic World anti-communism during the Cold War.
He has recently published articles in this field with the Australian Journal of Politics and History, History: The Journal of the Historical Association.and International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. His new book (April 2023), Anti-Communism in Britain During the Early Cold War. A Very British Witch Hunt is now available in paperback and as free Open Access download from University of London Press and University of Chicago Press.
Following in Kim Philby’s footsteps, Matthew currently lives and works in Lebanon.
ABOUT THE NEW HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES SERIES
Matthew Gerth’s Anti-Communism in Britain During the Early Cold War: A Very British Witch Hunt is the 16th title in the Royal Historical Society’s New Historical Perspectives book series for early career historians within 10 years of completing their PhD. The full list of titles in the series is available here.
Books in the series are published in print and free Open Access, with all costs covered by the NHP partners, the Royal Historical Society, Institute of Historical Research and the University of London Press. Authors also receive mentoring and a workshop to develop their book manuscript prior to submission. For more details of the Series and how to submit a proposal, please see here.
New Historical Perspectives titles include monographs and edited collections. The series co-editors welcome submissions covering all chronologies and regions of historical research. Recent and forthcoming titles include:
- Women’s Voices and Historical Silences in South Africa. Young Women and Youth Activism in the Anti-Apartheid Struggle, by Rachel E. Johnson (forthcoming 2023)
- Gender, Emotions and Power, 1750–2020, eds Hannah Parker and Josh Doble (forthcoming 2023)
- Anti-Communism in Britain During the Early Cold War. A Very British Witch Hunt, by Matthew Gerth (April 2023)
- The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy: Scotland and Caribbean Slavery, 1775–1838, by Stephen Mullen (November 2022)
- The Poets Laureate of the Long Eighteenth Century, 1668–1813: Courting the Public, by Leo Shipp (September 2022)
- Providing for the Poor. The Old Poor Law, 1750–1834, eds. Peter Collinge and Louise Falcini (August 2022)