Column 88: Searchlight's Homunculus

In May 1975, four months after their relaunch as a magazine, Searchlight entered the lists with their first major scoop. This was a detailed treatment of 'Column 88' (hereafter C88) described as a well organised Nazi group whose "long-term objectives are to have their members in places of influence across the whole spectrum of the Right, from Monday Club to the National Front, and to slowly but surely make sure National Socialism is not only not forgotten but also hedges ahead bit by bit within these groups." [2] The only media coverage of C88 I have been able to find before this date are three articles in a local paper, the Western Daily Press in April, just before Searchlight's May issue went to print. [3] In content they are very similar to Searchlight, clearly derived from each other or some other common (secret) source. There is a major difference between the local press coverage and Searchlight though: while the newspaper explicitly stated much of their information came from "a man helping Special Branch with their enquiries." [4] this was not something Searchlight told their readers. Yet if Searchlight was a genuinely independent magazine, as opposed to a satellite publication, surely they would have told their readers the source of their story was a state asset. In April 1976 C88 hit the national headlines in a big way when it was revealed a unit had carried out joint military exercises with members of Britain's reserve (Territorial) Army in the Savernake forest a few months earlier, in November 1975. One source of these allegations was unquestionably Dave Roberts, Searchlight's [Page 3] first disclosed 'star agent.' [5] That Searchlight were not coy in trumpeting their own role 'exposing' C88 in this way is made plain in all the relevant newspaper articles. In the follow up issue of May 1976, Searchlight boasted of their "scoop on the activities of Column 88 and a Unit of the Territorial Army... the many stories that have resulted from Searchlight's research into the extreme right Column 88." [6]

At this time, Searchlight was estimating C88 membership as "in the region of 200-300" and again describing "the long-term aim of C88 to provide a highly trained and efficient cadre for a national socialist party of the future." [7] Searchlight concluded by pompously stating C88 is a private army. It is illegal. There is no legitimate reason why it should be allowed to continue. [8] Roberts, like Gable another former CPGB member only 'came out' as an agent after he was caught in the act and convicted in March 1976 for trying to assault the staff of an Indian Restaurant after a botched arson attempt on nearby Communist Party premises in Birmingham. [9] His co-defendants, when it came to sentencing, issued (implausible) statements denying his involvement, leading to him receiving only a suspended sentence (later served for a public order offence). The facts of Roberts' presence and role are undeniable: without a police patrol stumbling across the scene he would never have been caught, and his co-defendants were so convinced he was as complicit as they were that one entrusted to Roberts the task of visiting his home address and removing documents for safekeeping. [10] Searchlight returned to the topic of C88 in May 1978, implying very strongly that contemporary attacks on Black, Left and Community bookshops were "co-ordinated on a national scale... Whatever the name used, C88 or 11th Hour Brigade; they all come from the same stable, with an interchangeable personnel." [11]

These extracts don't quite do justice to the flurry of TV and other Media stories covering C88, nor the way the whole phenomenon captivated anti-fascists. As late as October 1980 a Searchlight written story in Left magazine The Leveller depicted C88 as "by far the nastiest group... thought to have 250 members organised into small cells.... Currently lying low, their potential more worrying than the reality." [12] Without Searchlight's lurid 1975 coverage and subsequent follow up in April and May [Page 4] 1976, there would not have been any national C88 story. This fact is of great significance, as we shall see. The other story Searchlight pushed with all their might at this time was a reprise of the themes in the anonymous 'Monday Club' document mentioned earlier: exaggerating the political clout of George Kennedy-Young (former deputy head of MI6) and various associated, the height of whose influence had been a failed attempt to take over the Monday Club in September 1973. Particularly noteworthy was 'The Men In The Shadows' issue (November 1976) crammed full of primary source material intended to illustrate "the growing trend towards a military/political involvement on the right which bodes ill for democracy in Britain" (p. 4). It was thus MI6 connected initiatives or sideshows/irrelevant failures who attention was being focussed on. That this occurred while Ludmer was still the editor, and it was he who initially 'controlled' both Dave Roberts and Sonia Hochfelder (see below) makes me highly suspicious of his lack of integrity. A fitting epitaph for Ludmer is provided by the fact that according to Gable at the very moment he died Ludmer was on the telephone to a "senior Special Branch officer." [13]

As we now know, the key murky secret state activity of the mid 1970s was MI5's efforts to use the situation in Northern Ireland to their own advantage, and even undermine Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. [14] MI5 did not make the slightest appearance in either of the Searchlight-hyped stories, which is a chilling omission. C88 never added up to much, [15] and neither, frankly, did George Kennedy-Young and his friends. As I stated in 1993, "by the Left (and media) concentrating contemporaneously on the agenda Searchlight were pushing... the more dangerous strategies and personnel constructing them were left in peace unmolested." [16] Searchlight can thus, in the politically charged and volatile 1970s, be seen to have performed a very useful function as a 'distractor', diverting potentially prying eyes away from what was really going on.