The Crown: Did people really think Prime Minister Harold Wilson was a Soviet agent?

Buckingham Palace is full of rumours about Harold Wilson as the Labour leader comes to power in season 3 of The Crown

Jason Watkins plays Harold Wilson in The Crown

The first episode of The Crown season three is titled ‘OLDINGS’ – a reference to the codename the Soviet Union assigned to Labour leader Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins), who became Prime Minister in 1964.

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The Crown

Here’s the real-life history:


Who was Harold Wilson? 

Born in 1916 to a political (but not hugely wealthy) family in Yorkshire, Wilson went to grammar school and then to Oxford. He remained an academic and developed a passionate interest in statistics and economics; despite volunteering to serve in the Second World War, he was kept within the civil service. Wilson was elected as a Labour MP in 1945 and became a rising star in the Party.

Having stepped into Hugh Gaitskell’s shoes after the Labour leader’s sudden death in 1963, Wilson became Prime Minister in 1964. It was a role he held until 1970, when he lost the general election to Tory leader Ted Heath; he remained as Leader of the Opposition, and in 1974 he returned as Prime Minister for a second stint in office.

However, in 1976 he suddenly stepped down for good, with Labour MP James Callaghan taking over as Prime Minister.


Was Harold Wilson really suspected of being a KGB agent?

Jason Watkins as Harold Wilson in The Crown
Jason Watkins as Harold Wilson in The Crown (Netflix)

Yes, there were whisperings!

Harold Wilson seemed very friendly towards the Soviet Union early on in his political career, and it is true that the KGB did consider him as a potential target for recruitment. MI5 also kept a close eye on him in the years before he became Prime Minister – and a Soviet defector did come up with an implausible story about Wilson assassinating Hugh Gaitskell – so it’s plausible that the Queen would have heard rumours leaking out of the security services.

However, there is no credible evidence that Harold Wilson was ever a Soviet agent. Here’s what we know:


Did the KGB try to recruit Harold Wilson?

They did! Documents smuggled out of the USSR in the 1990s by KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin reveal that the Soviet secret service opened an “agent development file” on Wilson, giving him the codename OLDING in 1956.

In his book The Mitrokhin Archive, the ex-archivist and his co-author Christopher Andrews explain: “The most important British politician identified in the files noted by Mitrokhin as a target for KGB recruitment was Harold Wilson. Given the extent of his contacts with the Soviet Union, unusual for a Western politician in the early years of the Cold War, Wilson was an almost inevitable target.”

But before anyone gets too excited, the file also notes the KGB’s ultimate failure to bring Wilson on board: “The development did not come to fruition.”

However, you can see why they earmarked him as a potential recruit. As a cabinet member from 1947 to 1951 and President of the Board of Trade, Wilson was keen to promote trade with the USSR (despite the Cold War) and paid three official visits to Moscow; in fact, he was the first major British politician to travel to Russia after 1948 Berlin Blockade and the 1953 death of Stalin, meeting key figures including Soviet foreign minister Molotov (of “Molotov cocktail” fame) and returning to the UK to brief his colleagues about what was going on behind the Iron Curtain.

Olivia Colman in Netflix's The Crown

In turn, his thoughts and information on British politics were noted down by undercover KGB agents and passed up all the way to the Politburo – though there was nothing particularly confidential or useful about the “political gossip” shared by Wilson.

It was during a trip to Russia in 1956 that Wilson met (and was impressed by) Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, commenting on his return: “the West must not underestimate this man.” The Russians must also have been pleased when Wilson refused to join his colleagues in condemning the USSR for invading Hungary to suppress an anti-communist uprising in that same year.

During Labour’s time in opposition, Wilson also took on private consultancy work for companies trading with the USSR, including a Soviet timber importer – and even his biographer Philip Ziegler admits he may have strayed into a grey legal area (or beyond it) in his business dealings with the Soviets. In 1952, Wilson also published a pamphlet titled In Place of Dollars, urging the UK government to defy the Americans and relax controls on “strategic” exports to the USSR.


Did MI5 suspect Harold Wilson of being a Soviet agent?

Harold Wilson (right) in Russia in 1968
Harold Wilson (right) in Russia in 1968 (Getty)

Secret service MI5 did actually open a file on Harold Wilson soon after he was first elected to Parliament in 1945; because of its sensitivity, the file was kept under the pseudonym “Norman John Worthington”. MI5 kept track of “Norman” and his encounters with known undercover KGB officers as well as his business dealings and his thoughts about communists, “which suggest an identity or similarity of political outlook”. However, they found no actual evidence he was a spy, or that he acted on anything other than his own convictions.

But things really heated up when former KGB agent and Soviet defector Anatoli Golitsyn pointed the finger at Harold Wilson. Perhaps knowing about the existence of the “agent development file” in Moscow, Golitsyn claimed in 1961 that Wilson was a Soviet mole working within the Labour Party. Then, when Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell died suddenly in 1963, Golitsyn went even further.


Was there a rumour that Harold Wilson plotted to kill Hugh Gaitskell?

Jason Watkins plays Harold Wilson in The Crown S3

As Mitrokhin and Andrews write, “Allegations that Wilson was ever a KGB agent derive not from credible evidence but from unfounded conspiracy theories… When Gaitskell died suddenly in 1963, Golitsyn developed the bizarrely improbably theory that he had been poisoned by the KGB to enable Wilson to succeed him as leader.

“Sadly, a minority of British and American intelligence officers with a penchant for conspiracy theory – among them James Angleton of the CIA and Peter Wright of MI5 – were seduced by Golitsyn’s fantasies. Wright went on to devise several conspiracy theories of his own, among them the claim that thirty MI5 officers later conspired against Harold Wilson.”

Golitsyn – who had worked for the euphemistic “Department of Wet Affairs” responsible for organising assassinations – claimed that just before he left, he’d heard that the KGB were planning a high-level political assassination in Europe in order to install their agent as leader. He was convinced that the victim was Gaitskell, and that Wilson was involved in a plot to kill him.

The vast majority within the secret service found Golitsyn’s testimony unconvincing and implausible. But MI5’s Peter Wright took the theory and ran with it, with the support of the CIA’s James Jesus Angleton.

In his unauthorised memoir Spycatcher, Wright wrote: “I knew him [Gaitskell] 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.”

The late Labour leader had apparently visited the Soviet embassy just before his illness to apply for a visa, and had been given coffee and biscuits. Angleton and Wright were convinced he’d been given an experimental Soviet drug to reproduce the fatal heart and kidney symptoms of lupus – killing him and leaving the way open for Wilson to take power and swing his party to the Left.

HOWEVER, there are some big holes in this theory. For one thing, Wilson was not expected to become the new Labour Party leader after Gaitskell’s death; it was almost certainly going to be George Brown. But the entry of a third candidate in the race (James Callaghan) and some major miscalculations by Brown led to a surprise victory for Wilson; it was an unpredictable race it would have been impossible for the Soviets to engineer.

Secondly, Wilson was no longer the Soviets’ dream pick; his politics had moved further towards the centre after the 1950s, and he was pledging to stand firmly by NATO and the “Western Alliance” and the Americans. When he became Shadow Foreign Secretary in 1962 he was much more guarded in his praise of the USSR, and annoyed them by denouncing the East German state; and after he became Prime Minister in 1964, the KGB actually planted articles in the media attacking him for being too right-wing.

Thirdly, Gaitskell had actually been badly ill with the flu before he visited the Soviet Union in December 1962; being unwell already, his condition deteriorated after he contracted another virus and had a flare-up of the autoimmune disease lupus (which can lie dormant for years), affecting his heart and kidneys and then every critical organ before his death in January 1963. There is absolutely no evidence that his death was caused by poison.


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The Crown season 3 is available on Netflix now.