The Colonel B Four

The four MPs who gave the real name of ‘Colonel B’ in the House of Commons on 20 April 1978. L–R: Jo Richardson, Chris Price, Robert Kilroy-Silk, Ron Thomas. Pics from the Times Guide to the House of Commons, October 1974.

At last week’s launch of the Crispin Aubrey Archive, held in the MayDay Rooms in Fleet Street, a colleague and I were reminiscing about the ABC campaign and we realised that neither of us could recall the names of all four backbench Labour MPs who named Colonel B in a House of Commons debate.

Googling this was no use and neither was Wikipedia, although I was able to establish that it happened in April 1978. I then went through that month’s debates on the wonderful Historic Hansard website, which revealed that the naming happened during Business Questions on 20 April 1978. This was the day after the Director of Public Prosecutions had tried to block discussion of various motions mentioning the Colonel’s real name at the National Union of Journalists conference in Whitley Bay, Northumberland. The naming occurred in the form of questions about the order of business put to Michael Foot, who at the time rejoiced in the full title of Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons. They weren’t all asked in a continuous sequence, so I have pasted in below the transcript of each one, as recorded in Hansard, leaving out the other questions.

The first was asked by Jo Richardson, then MP for Barking, and also a member of the NCCL’s Executive Committee. She later became Shadow Minister for Women, but died in 1994 before Labour came to power.

Miss Richardson Will my right hon. Friend try to find time, next week if possible, for a debate on Press freedom, in view of the restrictions on Press freedom in connection with the case of Colonel Johnstone, otherwise known as Colonel B?
Mr. Foot I cannot promise any debate on that subject in the near future.

She was followed by Chris Price, the MP for Lewisham West. He was also on the left of the party and had a long-standing interest in civil liberties. He lost his seat in 1983 and died in 2015.

Mr. Christopher Price Will my right hon. Friend say when we are to get a White Paper on official secrets and a debate on the subject in view of the crisis that has emerged between the Government and the NUJ over the Colonel Johnstone affair?
Mr. Foot I cannot give my hon. Friend a promise about the date of the White Paper. I am not sure that the two matters he refers to could be dealt with together. Of course, Questions can be put down in the House on these matters, but I do not think that we should necessarily say that the two subjects should be discussed together.

Next to get in on the act was Robert Kilroy-Silk, at that point the MP for Ormskirk. He was never regarded as being on the left of the party, and was often seen by his colleagues as a bit of a careerist. He later became a Shadow Home Affairs spokesperson under Neil Kinnock’s leadership. He resigned his seat in 1986 in order to take up the presentation of his own TV show Kilroy, later going back into politics as a UKIP MEP. He then left UKIP and set up his own new party, Veritas.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is great disappointment in the country at the Government’s failure to implement their manifesto commitment to legislate on official secrets and a freedom of information Bill? Will he give an assurance that the Government will legislate in this Session and that we shall not have a continuation of cases of the sort that have surrounded the publication of Colonel Johnstone’s name?
Mr. Foot I can give no promise that we could legislate in this Session. The House has had indications that we do not believe that it would be possible to legislate in this Session in such a far-reaching matter. I have said — and I believe my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has indicated this to the House — that there will be a White Paper and that it will be debated. We shall have to see then how we should proceed. I am not saying that there is not considerable interest in the subject in many quarters, but I suggest that what I have proposed is the best way to proceed now.

The final MP was Ron Thomas, MP for Bristol North West for one parliament only, between the October 1974 and 1979 elections.

Mr. Ron Thomas If it is not possible to have a debate on Press freedom, could the House at least have a statement on what to all intents and purposes looks like interference by the Attorney-General in the democratic proceedings of the National Union of Journalists annual conference in regard to the activities of Colonel B, who the whole world knows is Colonel Johnstone?
Mr. Foot I would not accept my hon. Friend’s description of what has occurred. In view of the legal position, I doubt very much whether a debate in the House is the best way in which to proceed. I have no doubt that some of my hon. Friends who wish to make representations will make their representations to the Government on this matter.

Because Colonel Johnstone had been named under parliamentary privilege, the mainstream media now published his real name, with it being reported on both main national TV news bulletins that evening and making headlines in the press the following day. The whole Colonel B affair was another example of the ham-fisted prosecution of the ABC case, which would reach its final act in the Old Bailey a few months later.