Attlee’s atomic secret

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In January 1947 Clement Attlee took the momentous decision that Britain would develop her own atomic weapon in complete secrecy. He also manipulated the Government Estimates to conceal £100 million pounds of expenditure from Parliament. The House of Commons was not to learn of his decision until May 1948.

Part of Attlee’s reason for keeping his decision secret was that it would be extremely unpopular with the left wing of his own party, where there were powerful voices in favour of disarmament. It would also disappoint those in the party and country who had championed the provision of free welfare services – eye tests, glasses, hearing aids, dentures. All these services would have to be cut back to pay for the atomic bomb. Another consequence was the formation by Attlee and Morrison of the clandestine Briefing Group on Rearmament – a secret propaganda unit whose task was to pump out PR about why spending £100 million on arms was wiser that spending it on the welfare of British people.

Also in 1947, The Attlee government formed two more secret propaganda organisations. The first was known as the Economic Information Unit, led by Clem Leslie, Herbert Morrison’s wartime director or public relations. Amongst other things this unit was able to insert Government newsreel footage and government stories into the commercial newsreels showing at cinemas throughout Britain as though they were independent.

Christopher Mayhew, Morrison’s former PPS, Christopher Mayhew set up an even more secret organisation, known as the Information Research Department. The true nature of its work was described by Mayhew; ‘IRD’s material, well researched and authoritative, was now finding a ready market. We had representatives in all British embassies and high commissions abroad, who fed this material into friendly and receptive hands. At home, our service was offered to and accepted by, large numbers of selected MPs, journalists, trade union leaders and others, and was often used by the BBC’s External Services.’

Those journalists favoured to be included on IRD’s secret list were told as little as possible about the Department. Material was sent to their homes under plain cover. Correspondence was marked ‘personal’ and carried no departmental identification or reference that would give away its official origin.

Journalists were told documents were ‘prepared’ in the FCO primarily for members of the diplomatic service, but are allowed to give them on a personal basis to a few people outside the service who might find them of interest. They are not statements of official policy and should not be attributed to HMG, nor should the titles themselves be quoted in discussion or in print. The papers should not be shown to anyone else and they should be destroyed when no longer needed.

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