Michael Randle is Chair of the Commonweal Trustees. In this two-part post, we share some of the details of his extraordinary life and work.
Read Part 1 here
Can you comment on your involvement in helping the spy George Blake to escape? Why did you do that?
George Blake was born in the Netherlands – his mother was Dutch and his father Egyptian, though his father had British citizenship, as did George.
As a young man he joined the Dutch resistance to the German occupation, but he had to flee to Spain via Belgium and France to Spain in 1941. He first came to Britain that year and joined the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.
In 1961 he was sentenced to an unprecedented 42 years’ imprisonment for passing classified information to the Russians, including the names of some British agents operating in Eastern Europe.
I and other members of the Committee of 100 met him in Wormwood Scrubs prison when we were serving an 18-month sentence for organising an occupation and sit-down obstruction at Wethersfield air base in Essex.
Although no one from our group agreed with what he had done, we felt that his sentence was disproportionate and wrong, especially given some of the outrageous special operations undertaken by British and US agents – as well as by Soviet agents.
For example, the CIA and MI6 jointly organised a coup in Iran in 1953 that overthrew the elected Mosaddegh government with the loss of around a hundred lives.
The maximum penalty laid down by Parliament for espionage was 14 years. The authorities got round that by charging Blake with five separate offences under the Act. He was given the maximum sentence on each count, two to run concurrently, three consecutively.
Pat Pottle and I got to know him quite well during our time in the Scrubs.
After I left, I sent Christmas cards to George and to another prisoner, Sean Bourke, who had been in the same workshop as Pat in the prison and attended the same evening classes in music and English as myself.
In 1966 I got a call from Sean to say he would like to come and see me. He explained that he was on a release scheme where long-term prisoners coming towards the end of their sentence work outside the prison during the day and are freed on bail at weekends.
I asked how George was and he said, ‘We’re going to spring him – that’s why I’m here, it’s all planned.’
Soon afterwards, I saw Pat Pottle and told him about the plan. Sean wasn’t asking us to play an active role in the escape but needed some money to buy a car and equipment. As we had two young children and were living on a student grant, Anne and I had no spare money but I agreed to try to raise some from friends.
To cut short a long story, the escape happened on 22 October 1966, followed by a massive police hunt.
The supposedly self-contained flat near the prison rented by Sean as a bolthole turned out to be a bedsit with shared facilities and a landlady who cleaned the room once a week.
Pat, Anne and I found that out the night after the escape, when I found a doctor willing to treat George’s broken wrist. (He broke it jumping down from the prison perimeter wall.)
For the next week or so we scrambled around finding friends prepared to harbour George for a day or two. Finally, Pat agreed to put both George and Sean up and I got a friend to build a secret compartment in a campervan.
On 17 December Anne and I, with our two children, who were aged four and two and a half, drove across Belgium and West Germany to the autobahn linking West Germany to Berlin, then still under four-power occupation.
We dropped George off close to the East German checkpoint and drove on to West Berlin. Sean Bourke followed George to Berlin and then to Moscow, on Pat’s passport, which we doctored so that Sean’s photo replaced the original one of Pat.
Sean remained in Moscow for two years before returning to his native Ireland, where he published a book in 1970 entitled The Springing of George Blake, which gave strong clues to the identity of Pat, Anne and myself. In 1987, we were as good as named in a book, George Blake, Superspy, by a former MI5 officer, and publicly identified in a lead article in the Sunday Times.
Finally, to scotch all sorts of rumours about who else had been involved, Pat and I wrote our own account – The Blake Escape: How We Freed George Blake – and Why.
We were arrested within a week, and eventually came to trial at the Old Bailey in June 1991. We defended ourselves, arguing that there are some circumstances in which it is right to break the letter of the law, a point acknowledged by the legal defence of necessity.
The judge ruled out that defence in the circumstances of our case, but the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on the three counts on which we had been indicted.
Do any other activist events you’ve been involved with over the years really stand out?
There was the massive demonstration in London in 1963, organised by the Save Greece Now Committee and the Committee of 100 against the visit of King Constantine and Queen Frederica, and the occupation of the Greek Embassy on 21 April 1967, following the Colonel’s coup of that year to forestall the expected victory in the elections the following week of the centre-left Centre Union Party.
There was also the Support Czechoslovakia action by War Resisters International in 1968, when international teams of protesters held simultaneous demonstrations in Moscow, Warsaw, Budapest and Sofia against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.
April Carter initiated that project, and she and I were its main coordinators – I was chair of WRI at the time. She was on the team that went to Budapest and was arrested and imprisoned there for several days before being expelled. I wasn’t a member of any of the teams, but was in charge of handling the media and enquiries in London.
All those who took part in the actions were arrested, but, with the exception of those in Budapest, were quickly expelled from the various countries. The teams comprised people from the UK, the US, West Germany, Italy and Denmark.
An account of the project was published in pamphlet form in November 1968 by Housmans, London, edited by April Carter and myself.
The action had a longer-term spin-off in that it led to a link-up with an exiled Czech dissident studying in London, Jan Kavan, who had been head of the student union in Prague at the time of the Russian intervention.
He met April at a conference a couple of years later and, on the strength of the Support Czechoslovakia action, talked to her about setting up a clandestine courier service between London and Prague.
In 1971, I drove an initial consignment of radical books and pamphlets that had been prohibited in Czechoslovakia to Brno in the concealed compartment of a campervan. On the next trip, two other people drove the same campervan to Czechoslovakia with a duplicating machine.
The courier service brought information and materials to the democratic opposition in Czechoslovakia, and information out to inform the Western media and sympathetic groups, and it continued for ten years before being betrayed to the Czechoslovakian authorities.
Jan Kavan set up Palach Press in London, which publicised political and social developments in Czechoslovakia. He was also a sponsor of Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, which, in the 1970s and 1980s, carried information about developments in Eastern Europe as a whole, and he was subsequently one of the editors of East European Reporter, which first appeared in the spring of 1985.
During the Blake escape trial in 1991, Jan flew over from Prague to take the stand as a character witness for me. In 1998 he became the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic and invited those of us who had assisted the opposition during the communist years to come to Prague and meet the members of the newly formed Social Democratic government. April and I are still in touch with him.
Also very important was the setting up, on April Carter’s initiative, of the Alternative Defence Commission, a body that brought together people of different political affiliations, which set out defence options for a Britain and Western Europe without nuclear weapons.
Who are the most memorable figures you have collaborated with, Michael?
I have already named several!
- April Carter has produced enduring academic intellectual work on civil resistance and nonviolence as well as participating in campaigning activities, notably as secretary of the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War, and for a time as Chair of CND.
- Reverend Michael Scott was well known in his day, though not so much now. A good biography of him by Anne Yates and Lewes Chester, with a foreword by Desmond Tutu, was published by Aurum in 2006. He founded the Africa Bureau in London and played an important role in preventing South West Africa (now Namibia) from being incorporated into South Africa.
- Hugh Brock, although not a household name, was an important person in the nonviolence movement in this country.
- Pat Arrowsmith was involved in much activism over the years, was the original secretary of DAC, and was fearless in her campaigning activities.
- Adam Roberts, another leading academic specialist in the field of civil resistance studies, worked for Peace News when I was there for a spell.
- The Committee of 100 had a number of well-known personalities. The dramatist John Arden wrote a number of plays, including the widely acclaimed Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, and his wife, Margaretta D’Arcy, was also a playwright. I’m still in touch with her – she is also quite fearless, and was arrested only a couple of years ago at a sit-down protest at an air base in Ireland that the US airforce was using for some of its operations in Iraq. During the Committee of 100 period, a lot of well-known writers were imprisoned in the open prison at Drake Hall for a month in 1961, included the playwrights Arnold Wesker and Robert Bolt, the poet Christopher Logue, and the author of The Joy of Sex, Alex Comfort.
- Albert Hunt, who died a couple of years ago, found me a teaching post at the Regional College of Art in Bradford in 1969, where he was head of Complementary Studies. I had met him while campaigning with the Direct Action Committee against the Thor rocket base at RAF North Pickenham.
- Dr Nigel Young is a former Peace Studies Lecturer who was largely responsible for getting Commonweal moved to Bradford University and was Editor in Chief of the four-volume Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace.
- I corresponded with, but don’t think I ever met, April Carter’s cousin David Hoggett, Commonweal’s founder.
My apologies to people whose names I can’t immediately recall!
What do you think are the priorities for nonviolence activists now?
The danger of war, especially nuclear war, hasn’t disappeared. The danger is different today in some respects.
In place of two superpowers, the US and the USSR, facing each other and threatening all-out nuclear war, there are now a number of states with nuclear weapons, and several others with the capacity to manufacture them.
But probably the most immediate danger arises from the proxy wars in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, from President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the international agreement with Iran to curtail its nuclear programme, and from his decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to the putative capital of a future Palestinian state in Jerusalem.
The movement against nuclear weapons is still very important, and civil resistance as a means of resisting war remains just as important as in the time of the Vietnam War.
But civil resistance also has a potentially crucial role to play in broader emancipatory movements against discrimination and oppression.
Why do you feel it is important that Commonweal, which turns 60 this year, continues its work?
It is a resource for people involved in anti-war activism and also action against various forms of oppression – of gay people, women, poor people, people with learning or physical difficulties.
Commonweal’s physical collection of books and journals is now complemented by its online resources and by the online Guide to Civil Resistance.
The more people who know and see the possibilities of nonviolent action, the more chance there is of it snowballing and positive change being achieved.
Thank you very much, Michael!
Read Part 1 here.
Want to know more?
Hear Michael speak at the Bradford Literature Festival event ‘Bradford vs The Bomb’, 4th July 2018