March 29, 2017, by Charlotte Anscombe
Uncovered: Spying on the Royals
The University of Nottingham’s Dr Rory Cormac and his co-author Prof Richard Aldrich (University of Warwick) have uncovered startling documents about Special Branch, MI5, and the abdication of King Edward VIII. Over 80 years after the unprecedented events of 1936, the truth finally comes out in their new Channel 4 documentary.
In late 1936, an MI5 officer, Tar Robertson, found himself listening to something extraordinary: King Edward VIII discussing his forthcoming abdication. The King assumed it was a private conversation about one of the most sensitive matters of the day. But he was wrong. MI5 had bugged the phone lines coming in and out of royal residences in one of the most astonishing intelligence operations of modern times.
The British government has long denied spying on the Royal Family. But new documents reveal that back in the 1930s, MI5 did just that. And the operation was not conducted by some over-enthusiastic amateur or rogue intelligence officer. It can be traced back to Number 10 Downing Street and the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, himself.
Spying on the head of state is one of the most controversial decisions a government can take. It raises fundamental questions about the role of intelligence services and whom they serve.
Why did they do it? And was it justified?
Edward’s father King George V had grown increasingly concerned about his son’s temperament. Notoriously more interested in women than duty, the so-called Playboy Prince did not appear a natural heir to the throne. Shortly afterwards Special Branch began to monitor Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee and Edward’s lover.
The intelligence operation soon escalated and Simpson found herself subjected to more in-depth surveillance. Attempting to understand the dynamics of this most unorthodox of relationships, officers even questioned those who had encountered the couple.
The stakes escalated when George V died in January 1936. Edward was now King and Emperor. His determination to marry Wallis Simpson threatened to tear Baldwin’s government apart. These were uncertain times. Hitler was on the rise and debates over appeasement circled the political landscape. A constitutional crisis was the last thing the Prime Minister wanted.
More than this, Number 10 increasingly saw Edward as a security risk. Suspicious of the expensive gifts he lavished on Wallis, officials feared he was being blackmailed by nefarious foreign agents. They worried about his association with known right-wing personalities such as Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. They grew paranoid that supporters of the King might undermine a government set on abdication. They worried that strikes, riots, and violence might break out across the country.
Against this background, Downing Street asked MI5 to spy on the King. The upper echelons of government wanted insight into his state of mind and thoughts on abdication. Tapping the phone lines was the best way to uncover the King’s true intentions. The secret state certainly had the means to do it. But the key question was whether the King’s personal life threatened national security. Spying on the Royal Family, and the Head of State, a highly controversial action, can only be justified in these circumstances. The long-serving head of MI5, Vernon Kell, was not immediately convinced. He feared it was a political or personal issue rather than one of security. Eventually, however, the board at MI5 talked him around and agreed to conduct the operation.
Was it justified? Viewers will have to judge for themselves.
Spying on the Royals will be broadcast on Channel 4, Sunday 2 April 2017 at 8pm