An extract from "SpyCatcher" on the death of Hugh Gaitskell

page 362-363, "SpyCatcher", Peter Wright with Paul Greengrass, paperback, Heinemann Australia, 1987 ISBN 0-85561-166-9

This was the context which shaped the fraught relations between MI5 and the Prime Minister for much of this period. Much has been written about Harold Wilson and MI5, some of it wildly inaccurate. But as far as I am concerned, the story started with the premature death of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963. Gaitskell was Wilson's predecessor as Leader of the Labor Party. I knew him personally and admired him greatly. I had met him and his family at the Blackwater Sailing Club, and I recall about a month before he died he told me that he was going to Russia.

After he died his doctor got in touch with MI5 and asked to see somebody from the Service. Arthur Martin, as the head of Russian Counterespionage, went to see him. The doctor explained that he was disturbed by the manner of Gaitskell's death. He said that Gaitskell had died of a disease called lupus disseminata, which attacks the body's organs. He said that it was rare in temperate climates and that there was no evidence that Gaitskell had been anywhere recently where he could have contracted the disease.

Arthur Martin suggested that I should go to Porton Down, the chemical and microbiological laboratory for the Ministry of Defense. I went to see the chief doctor in the chemical warfare laboratory, Dr. Ladell, and asked his advice. He said that nobody knew how one contracted lupus. There was some suspicion that it might be a form of fungus and he did hot have the foggiest idea how one would infect somebody with the disease. I came back and made my report in these terms.

The next development was that Golitsin told us quite independently that during the last few years of his service he had had some contacts with Department 13, which was known as the Department of Wet Affairs in the KGB. This department was responsible for organizing assassinations. He said that just before he left he knew that the KGB were planning a high-level political assassination in Europe in order to get their man into the top place. He did not know which country it was planned in but he pointed out that the chief of Department 13 was a man called General Rodin, who had been in Britain for many years and had just returned on promotion to take up the job, so he would have had good knowledge of the political scene in England.

We did not know where to go next because Ladell had said that it wasn't known how the disease was contracted. I consulted Jim Angleton about the problem. He said that he would get a search made of Russian scientific papers to see whether there was any hint of what the Russians knew about this disease. A month or two later he sent us a paper about lupus which he had had translated from a Russian scientific journal. The paper was several years old and Angleton reported that there were no other papers in the Russian literature that they could find. This paper described the use of a special chemical which the Russians had found would induced lupus in experimental rats. However, it was unlikely that this particular chemical could have been used to murder Gaitskell because the quantities required to produce lupus were considerable and had to be given repeatedly. I took the paper to Ladell and, while surprised by this area of Soviet expertise, he confirmed that it was unlikely that Gaitskell could have been poisoned by the coffee and biscuits. But he pointed out that the paper was seven years old and if the Russians had continued to work on it they might have found a much better form of the chemical which would require much smaller doses and perhaps work as a one-shot drug. He told me there was no way of proving it without doing a lot of scientific work and Porton was unable to do the necessary work as it was already overloaded.

Clarion foot notes

The text above was transcribed by Clarion directly from a printed copy of the book

Note how the above has been written in such a way that although it does not claim that Gaitskell visited Russia before he died, it avoids disabusing those who are already under the impression that he did.

Another interesting point is the odd reference to "the coffee and biscuits" in the last paragraph quoted above. No coffee and biscuits have been previously mentioned in the whole chapter.

For more on the death of Hugh Gaitskell, see Clarion's dossier