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Harry letters affair

Harry has developed a sudden enthusiasm for litigation. What with North Hull Harry wants a fair buzz of legal activity. Harry's financial problems apparently have been solved and he's in a generous mood.

Extract from a "Harry" letter, dated 2 February 1966, just after the Labour Party's by-election victory in Hull North[1]

The "Harry" letters, written by Peter Benenson, founder of the international human rights group Amnesty International, detail the funding during 1966 of Amnesty's mission in the Rhodesian capital of Salisbury by somebody or something referred to as "Harry", commonly interpreted as code for the British government, then headed by Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The letters were made public in March 1967 by Polly Toynbee, an Englishwoman who had worked for Amnesty in Salisbury while a 19-year-old gap year student during early 1966. Scandal resulted within both the British government and Amnesty; Benenson left the group soon after.

While with Amnesty in Rhodesia, Toynbee became suspicious of the disproportionately large amounts of money apparently at the disposal of Amnesty's mission there, as well as the modest scale of Amnesty's operations in both Rhodesia and Nigeria. Toynbee asked Benenson about the origin of the money, and pressed him on rumours that Britain was funding Amnesty's mission in Salisbury; according to her, he admitted it, and referred to it as "Operation Lordship". This ran at odds with Amnesty's claimed apolitical stance. Toynbee subsequently acquired a set of letters that appeared to confirm her suspicions. Addressed to an Amnesty official in Salisbury, they described efforts to gain external financing for the Rhodesia mission. Toynbee made the existence of the letters public in March 1967, concurrently alleging that Amnesty had been "bought off"[2] by Whitehall.

When questioned in parliament on payments by the government to Amnesty, Wilson said that his administration had indeed been "approached by a member of the organisation",[3] and had given a list of possible financial donors in response. Amnesty claimed that any such activities had been unilaterally conducted by Benenson on his own accord, and denied any collective wrongdoing. Benenson held that the money had been intended for Rhodesian political prisoners and their families, and said that the British government had wished for the payments to be kept secret for political reasons. The relationship between Whitehall and Amnesty was ended as a result of the affair, with Amnesty reaffirming its official impartiality.


  • Rhodesia mission 1
  • Toynbee reveals the letters 2
  • Fallout 3
  • References 4

Rhodesia mission

Polly Toynbee in 2005

In early 1966, during her gap year from studies at Oxford University, Polly Toynbee served as the secretary for the peer and former West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine, on an Amnesty International mission to Nigeria and Rhodesia,[1][4] two countries in Africa.[n 1] In Lagos, the Nigerian capital, Toynbee and the other Amnesty members were supposed to helping political detainees, but Toynbee recalled that "We sat around drinking and entertaining the press. We must have spent an enormous amount but we never achieved anything. We never saw anyone important. We just got vague assurances that the prisoners were all right."[1] The mission then went on to Rhodesia, where the predominantly white minority government, headed by Ian Smith, had unilaterally declared independence the previous November. Since the declaration of independence there had been reports of mass arrests of black nationalist leaders.[1]

During Toynbee's six weeks in [6] When Amnesty founder Peter Benenson visited the group in Salisbury, Toynbee asked him where the funds came from, saying there were rumours flying around the city that it was coming from Whitehall, the British government. According to Toynbee, Benenson said the British government was indeed supplying money.[1] He reportedly described the transactions as "Operation Lordship".[6]

Toynbee reveals the letters

Toynbee and others were expelled from Rhodesia in March 1966 for refusing information to the police.[7] While she was there, however, she acquired some letters that she said had been abandoned in a safe. The letters appeared to been written in London by Benenson between January and March 1966; some were typed, while others were in his handwriting. Alternately signed "Margaret" or "Peter", and addressed to the Amnesty representative in Salisbury, they contained frequent references to somebody or something called "Harry", which Toynbee interpreted as code for the UK government.[1]

Many of the letters contained detailed requests for payments and funding. One of them, dated 2 February 1966, included the passage "What with North Hull Harry wants a fair buzz of legal activity. Harry's financial problems apparently have been solved and he's in a generous mood."[1] Toynbee construed this as a reference to the Hull North by-election of the previous month, which had increased the Labour government's majority in the House of Commons from three to four members.[1] Toynbee's interest was aroused as Amnesty took pride in its declared apolitical stance, a concept very much at odds with the idea of funding from a national government.[2]

On 5 March 1967, Toynbee revealed the existence of the letters in newspaper interviews.[6] She claimed that Amnesty had been "bought off" by the British government; "Instead of dealing with legal test cases," she said, "it is wasting its time on welfare work which could equally well be done by the Red Cross".[2]


Harold Wilson looks up and to the viewer's right, looking somewhat indignant.
British Prime Minister Harold Wilson admitted Whitehall's involvement in the affair in the House of Commons.[3]

The letters' public appearance caused a scandal.[1] Amnesty distanced itself from the Rhodesia mission, claiming that any such activities had been unilaterally undertaken by Benenson alone.[6] On 9 March, in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister [3]

Benenson contended that the money had been for the prisoners and their families, and had not been gifted to Amnesty by the government. He insisted that the British government had wished the payments to remain secret for political reasons.[1] A private letter written by Benenson two months before Toynbee's interviews said that a third party, the hotelier Charles Forte, had been asked by Whitehall to provide £10,000 for the Rhodesia mission. In his letter, Benenson appeared to imply that Forte's donation might lead to an honour from the British government. Benenson later returned the money so as not to jeopardise the political reputation of the British government members involved in the payments.[7]

Following a state of crisis, Amnesty held a meeting in Denmark in March 1967, where Benenson's resignation was accepted. Benenson resigned on the grounds that Amnesty's offices had been bugged by the British government. In a report, Amnesty chairman Seán MacBride referred to Beneson's "erratic activities" and "unilateral decisions". Benenson responded by demanding MacBride's resignation, pointing out that the American Central Intelligence Agency had funded the International Commission of Jurists, of which MacBride was Secretary-General. The relationship between Amnesty and the British government was thereupon suspended. Amnesty vowed future impartiality, saying that it "must not only be independent and impartial but it must not be put into a position where anything else could even be alleged".[7] Whitehall's concurrently switched its stance towards Amnesty from one of co-operation to "one of reserve".[7]


  1. ^ Following its 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence, Rhodesia regarded itself as an independent country, while Britain and the United Nations held that it was still a British colony.[5]
  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Power, Jonathan (17 May 2001). Like Water on Stone: The Story of Amnesty International. UPNE. pp. 129–130.  
  2. ^ a b c "Spiller of Beans".  
  3. ^ a b c d "Amnesty International (Donations)". Hansard. Retrieved 2012-11-18. 
  4. ^ McSmith, Andy (26 November 2006). "Polly Toynbee: Reborn, as a lady of the right". The Independent (London). 
  5. ^ Palley, Claire (1966). The constitutional history and law of Southern Rhodesia 1888–1965, with special reference to Imperial control (First ed.). Oxford:  
  6. ^ a b c d Wong, Wendy H. (2008). Centralizing Principles: How Amnesty International Shaped Human Rights Politics Through Its Transnational Network. ProQuest. pp. 126–127.  
  7. ^ a b c d Forsythe, David P. (11 August 2009). Encyclopedia of Human Rights. Oxford University Press. pp. 164–165.  
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