Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Donaldson files

Back in the halcyon days when, by sheer luck, I hadn't yet been banned by the delightful Stormfront-lite website Political Betting for the heinous crime of being both left-wing and Scottish (I'm merely one of the many offenders who were eventually weeded out), I used to be repeatedly taken to task by the rather more upstanding contributors, who to this day continue to prove their indispensable value to the site by displaying the wholesome PB virtues of abusiveness and casual racism. One point they often used to make was that I am, let's face it, a bit of a Nazi - because I'm both a "nationalist" and a "socialist". (Yes, their jibes were that original.) It's a fair cop, guv - so that'll be me, Clement Attlee and Mahatma Gandhi, all happily goose-stepping together in the Nazi gang.

Their favourite piece of supporting "evidence" for this 2 + 2 = 22 theory about the nature of Scottish nationalism was the extremely brief internment without trial in 1941 of future SNP leader Arthur Donaldson. A few militant anti-independence publications have also occasionally experienced flurries of excitement about this obscure historical episode, but it's never really gone anywhere, because the inconvenient fact they can't shake off is that Donaldson was released after just six weeks on the order of Scottish Secretary Tom Johnston, who seems to have been distinctly unimpressed by an internment that was provisionally authorised without a shred of credible evidence. But Donaldson was, of course, the easiest of targets for an authoritarian London government that had suspended habeas corpus - he opposed conscription, supported neutrality, and wanted to see the democratic dissolution of the British state. That hardly made him a Nazi, but it did offer a flimsy pretext for the detention of someone who the establishment had every interest in putting out of the way.

By contrast, it was psychologically very hard for the establishment to send any of their own to jail - and yet they did so, and for much, much longer periods than Donaldson's six weeks, because they really had no choice. If you want to know which high-profile British politicians were authentic 'National Socialists', you won't find them in any SNP membership lists. You will, of course, find them in both the Tory and Labour ranks -

Archibald Ramsay was Conservative (or technically Scottish Unionist) MP for Peebles and Southern Midlothian. He was the founder of the antisemitic and explicitly pro-Nazi 'Right Club'. He came within a whisker of costing Britain the war through his association with Right Club member Tyler Kent, who stole documents from the US Embassy which, if publicised, would have destroyed the credibility of Roosevelt and made limited American support for the war effort impossible. Ramsay was arrested in the nick of time, and interned for over four years - but throughout that time remained an MP.

Sir Oswald Mosley was a Conservative MP between 1918 and 1922, and a Labour MP between 1924 and 1931. As Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, he was arguably the most senior non-Cabinet minister in Ramsay MacDonald's second Labour government. Just one year after leaving Labour, he was leading an openly fascist movement that went on to call for Britain to become an ally of Nazi Germany. He was interned without trial for three-and-a-half years during the war (and subsequently placed under house arrest), because his parliamentary experience with both of the major London parties made him the obvious candidate to lead a puppet government after any successful German invasion.

In complete contrast to Arthur Donaldson, both men listed above could perfectly reasonably be described as 'National Socialists', because, quite simply, they were fascists. Both Labour and Tory parties seemed to be breeding grounds for such beliefs in the 1920s and 30s.

* * *

As regular readers will know, Marcia and her friend Tom helped me a few weeks ago to look through the files relating to Arthur Donaldson's internment that are held at the National Archives in Kew, and also some other historical documents relating to farcical government snooping on the SNP and the wider national movement. My original plan was simply to transcribe the highlights, but then I got cold feet because I wasn't 100% sure about the copyright rules. My next plan was to write a post summarising the story that the files tell, but that would be an enormous undertaking, and I've been putting it off for so long now that I'm beginning to think I might never get round to it. So I'm going to go back to Plan A. I've read up on the copyright rules as best I can - as far as I can see, the files are covered by crown copyright, and it's allowable to reproduce crown copyright material without seeking specific permission, as long as the National Archives are listed as the source and the document reference given. However, if anyone reading this has good reason to think I'm wrong about that, I beseech you to let me know as soon as possible. I'm thinking about prescheduling a whole batch of these (I might even space them out between now and the referendum date), and the last thing I need is to get myself into an unnecessary pickle!

Letter from Tom Johnston to Arthur Donaldson's wife (11/6/41) -

My Secretary wrote to you on the 2nd June, promising that I would let you have a reply in a few days to your letter of the 10th May about your husband's detention under Defence Regulation 18B.

I have gone very fully into all the circumstances of the case, and after careful consideration I have, as you will know by the time you receive this letter, come to the conclusion that I would not be justified in ordering your husband's continued detention under Regulation 18B. I am proposing to make a statement, of which I enclose a copy, to this effect in the House of Commons tomorrow.

Yours faithfully,


Letter from Tom Johnston to the Earl of Rosebery (11/6/41) -

I am writing in confirmation of our telephone conversation to let you know that, after the most careful consideration and examination of all the available material, I came to the conclusion that I would not be justified in ordering the continued detention of Arthur Donaldson under Regulation 18B. For the reasons with which you are familiar, the decision in this case was a particularly difficult one to come to, and, in the end, I had to choose between compromising a police informer on the one hand, with a fair presumption that by so doing the Advisory Committee would still not recommend Donaldson's continued detention, and on the other hand releasing him from prison. I hope you will agree, that in the difficult choice, I reached the right conclusion.

Undated document -

Sir David Petrie.

Case of Arthur Donaldson.

You are familiar with the history of the recent case of Arthur Donaldson, against whom the Scottish Regional Commissioner made an Order of Detention under Regulation 18B which, on consideration of the case in consultation with the Home Secretary the Secretary of State for Scotland did not feel able to confirm. The case raised a number of points of unusual difficulty and, as I think you know, caused, and may still cause, a certain amount of Parliamentary trouble in addition to a good deal of protest on the part of people in Scotland with Nationalist sympathies.

The Secretary of State for Scotland has been in communication with the Home Secretary about the position; and with the concurrence of the Home Office I am writing about two special aspects of the case, which we feel ought to be followed up with a view to preventing a recurrence of the same kind of difficulty.

In the first place, trouble in connection with the case arose from the publication in the Press of reports of the simultaneous searches, carried out in a number of police areas in Scotland, of the houses or premises of 17 members of the Scottish Nationalist (sic) Party. These searches were, I understand, initiated and concerted by MI5 and while the Scottish Law Officers were aware that a number of them were in contemplation, they were not aware of their full extent. The result of the searches was, I understand, to reveal comparatively little evidence of real value from the security point of view.

We fully appreciate, of course, that in arranging for the searches, MI5 were not directly concerned with the Scottish Nationalist sympathies of the persons involved. It seems clear, however, that police searches on the scale in question against people of known Nationalist sympathies could not have failed to produce a good deal of political trouble for which the Secretary of State, as the Minister responsible for the Police in Scotland, would have to answer in Parliament. In these circumstances it would, we feel, have made the subsequent difficulties very much less for all concerned if the Secretary of State had been informed beforehand of the action proposed and had had an opportunity of making suggestions as to the most circumspect way of handling a situation of some difficulty.

Might I suggest, therefore, that in any comparable circumstances in the future the Scottish Home Department in Edinburgh, through which the Secretary of State's functions in relation to the Police are discharged, should be confidentially consulted in advance before MI5 initiate police action.

The Donaldson case also raised in an acute form the question of giving away the identity of a police agent, and Brooman-White was good enough to send us a copy of the letter you addressed to Newsam of the Home Office on 10th June about this question. We understand it is the view of MI5 that, except in the most special circumstances, the identity of their agent should not be given away to a suspected person as a result of the particulars with which the Chairman of the Advisory Committee under Regulation 18B is required to furnish him. In the case of Arthur Donaldson, it would not have been possible to state these particulars without compromising the police agent, as he and another witness, who was regarded as quite unreliable, were the only two people in a position to testify to one of the main allegations against Donaldson. This was the consideration that caused us the greatest difficulty in dealing with the Donaldson case. Lord Rosebery has asked the Lord Advocate, who advises him in these matters in Scotland, to let him have his views on the lessons of the case, and, after discussion with the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Home Secretary the Lord Advocate has written to Lord Rosebery in the terms enclosed.

Source : The National Archives.  Document reference : HO 45/23801


  1. Morning James.

    Very interesting stuff on Donaldson. Though to be frank if it's something the bigots and racists on PB rant about that's always a sure sign they are on very flimsy ground.

    You might be interested to know that out of the blue Smithson decided to ban me this morning and delete my very first post. With absolutely no warning or explanation obviously. So I think it's fair to say you've certainly touched a nerve somewhere.

    If you're interested I can of course fill you in on some of the frankly bizarre things that have being going on over at PB of late though I suspect Stuart would be able do so as well.

    Needless to say they are not only hilarious but incredibly revealing.

  2. You will be fine. Just saw a book published recently that has all the relevant Battalion War diaries for the 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. All the Battalion & Divisional diaries transcribed from the NA files. I wish I had thought of that first.

  3. Bravo.

    I look forward to reading this series.

    And thank you for the hard work you put in to your articles.

  4. Thanks, Tris.

    Mick : Sorry to hear you've been banned yet again (the bans must be in the 90s by now?) and I certainly hope Smithson's latest tantrum wasn't triggered by this post. Yes, by all means feel free to let me know what's been going on if you have the time - I've barely even visited PB over the last few weeks.

  5. Point of order James.

    Habeas corpus does not, and never has applied to Scotland.

  6. OK, I stand corrected. According to Wikipedia : "The Parliament of Scotland passed a law to have the same effect as habeas corpus in the 18th century. This now known as the Criminal Procedure Act 1701 c.6.[19] It was originally called "the Act for preventing wrongful imprisonment and against undue delays in trials". It is still in force although certain parts have been repealed."

  7. When you read the correspondence its clear that Tom Johnson felt on pretty thin ice around the detention.

    We should not dismiss the level of paranoia and alarm during the start of WW2, so to have a cool head then was probably unusual.

  8. Tom Johnston seems to have been a pretty honourable man.

  9. Good work, thanks for your transcription, and to those who extricated them from the archives. They speak volumes about the times, and the character of the men involved. Nice to see some good historical investigation.