Britain’s internal spying apparatus, the MI5, viewed black people as security risk and refused to give them sensitive positions, the agency’s declassified documents have revealed.
After scouring through papers released by the interdepartmental committee on security, Dan Lomas, a University of Salford professor, that the racial discrimination within the MI5’s senior officials dated back to the 1960s.
The papers, which belong to a period when then-Labour government considered introducing racial equality legislation in 1967, revealed increasing concerns within the agency’s ranks about proposed laws that made it illegal to not employ a person on the grounds of color.
Those proposals went on to become enshrined in the 1968 Race Relations Act.
British security chiefs feared that allowing people from ethnic minorities to get positions in secretive agencies posed a security risk because they allegedly lacked the information required for background checks.
MI5 specifically was under the impression that “the color of a man’s skin” was the main issue because it “gave him a chip on his shoulder. It would be a long time before this chip was removed.”
According to The Guardian, the “chip” referred to the possibility that the racial disparity dominating the British society meant that black people were more likely to become disaffected and therefore persuaded to spy for other countries.
Lomas, who teaches international history, said while the MI5 had acknowledged its history of distrust for Jewish people, he had found a “surprising omission” of any references to the security concerns about blacks in the agency’s official history.
“Since the 1940s, there were bans on communists and fascists working in government. In the 1950s, this was extended to what was described as ‘character defects’, such as homosexuality, mental illness and alcoholism – on the grounds that this would make people vulnerable to blackmail – but these papers reveal the officials also saw race as a security issue,” he said.
“The discussions around new legislation on racial discrimination being introduced in the 1960s seem to have presented a threat to the established, but unspoken, rule that black people risked national security,” the academic argued.
Although the government had started to recruit black people for junior clerical or manual roles by the 1960s, the racial minority was still not trusted with secret documents and serious intelligence-related posts, the files revealed.
Jabeer Butt, the chief executive of the Race Equality Foundation, said the findings were in no way surprising given the UK intelligence community’s record.
“Various investigations into the civil service as well as a recent report have all pointed towards the lack of diversity,” he said.
British spy agencies – Mi5, MI6 and GCHQ – have long been criticized for their lack of black leaders.
In July, a report from the parliamentary intelligence and security committee revealed that these agencies rarely appointed black and Asian staff to senior positions.
The report further revealed that neither the MI6, which is in charge of overseas intelligence affairs, nor the MI5 had any people from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds in top posts in 2016-17.
In fact, the GCHQ was the only British spying agency that at some point had hired any senior level staff from a BAME background.
“To discover that this has been a long-running issue is not surprising considering what the recent report said. It shows yet again that things are not changing and haven’t for a very long time,” Butt said.
“They [the papers] show that identity has always been a big part of who has been appointed, yet history shows those who have gone on to betray the country have nearly always been white British men,” he added.