This is a superb account of a piece of almost certainly fake news. Bennett is a very astute and experienced historian whose cv includes thirty years in the Foreign Office as the chief official historian. Her previous books were received with acclaim by scholars. She like most reputable historians destroys the myth that the letter lost the Labour Party the 1924 General Election. The affair has been called the great British conspiracy.
Her engaging book based on many years of research is a mix of history, anecdote and historiography. The letter has never gone away despite the passing of 94 years. In 1924, ISIS (then a secret body) got a decoded telegram from its Riga station. It appeared to be an English translation of a communication from Grigori Zinoviev, the propaganda chief of the Bolsheviks to the British communist party. The letter said the election of a Labour government would cement relations between Russia and Britain. This would not happen it said if the Conservatives won. The British Communist party was chided for not doing enough to foster Bolshevik -British relations. The letter was passed on to the FO, Scotland Yard, M15, the Admiralty and the War Office. The Daily Mail also obtained a copy and published it on 25 October., four days prior to the election. It was widely welcomed as a means of finishing off Labour. This book focuses on why the letter continues to be referred to and whether or not the letter was a fake . In 1924 relations with the Bolsheviks were strained because the government in Russia was dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism by propaganda, subversion and espionage. The letter seemed to be a typical example of these tactics. Zinoviev had sent similar letters to communist parties around the world. What was surprising about the 15 September letter was its timing. The first Labour government, in power since January 1924, was in trouble. It had been defeated on a Liberal amendment to a Tory censure motion and the PM, MacDonald , had asked the King to dissolve Parliament so that an election could be held.
Labour polled a million more votes than in December 1923 but still.lost the election heavily. The letter harmed Labour but it did not lose them the election. Of course, Labour and the unions took a different view. A steady stream of scandals kept the story alive.
Bennett relates a tale that would not be out of place in a comic film. The cast includes the hapless Ramsay MacDonald who was PM and foreign secretary at the time, retired mandarins, Bolsheviks, and chancers galore. The letter was very probably a forgery written by a White Russian but Bennett admits she cannot be certain in spite of having read all the relevant files on the issue in Moscow. Labour held its own enquiry and the Commons debated it. Since then the matter has raised its head many times, for example in 1928, 1945, 1967, 1981 , in the Falklands war, and during the recent referendum campaign. When Tony Benn was trying to become deputy leader of the Labour Party it again raised its head.
It is an intriguing story told by a first class historian with clarity and verve. The story has haunted British politics and the career of the author. During her 40 years with the FCO she investigated historical conspiracies. The Zinoviev letter was one . This book is an expanded account of her 1999 report done on the request of Robin Cook the Foreign Secretary. Nothing ever published has solved the mystery. Labour has always been keen to see it remain on the table. As the author says, there has always been an element in the Labour Party who wanted to get on well with the Soviets. It is known that the latter including Stalin were far happier dealing with the Conservatives than they were with Labour. They regarded moderate Labour leaders as traitors.
If there is one weakness in this account it is the failure to emphasise how genuine and severe was the Bolshevik threat in 1924. Lenin was an odious man whose reign of terror heralded that of Stalin five years later. He and the Bolsheviks were planning the overthrow of capitalism, funding the IRA and supporting the formation of a British Red Army to support a communist uprising. Dupes like MacDonald praised Lenin. Similar dupes still exist in the Labour Party today. The view that, under Lenin, Russia posed a serious threat to democratic states in Europe was well founded. o The letter clearly retains its power to intrigue.