The British obsession with spies and spycatchers continues to seethe. Books thud from the press and you cannot get a seat at the National Theatre for Alan Bennett’s Single Spies, an evening consisting of two short plays, one about Guy Burgess, the other about Anthony Blunt. Bennett belongs to that remarkable generation of John Osborne, Harold Pinter, and Michael Frayn, and is as gifted as any of them. He has a marvelous ear and is as merciless to the pompous as he is understanding of the failures in life. A series of monologues he wrote for television (each an hour-long talking head, the TV producer’s nightmare) was so admired that it has just been repeated; and one of them, Mrs. Silly, was recently shown on American television.
Bennett’s piece on Blunt is, perhaps, more of a charade than a play. It begins with the art historian lecturing on pentimenti and displaying on the screen an X-ray photograph of a work by Titian. This reveals that this painting of two men contained a third man that was painted out; and on the verso is the head of a fourth man. The scene moves to Buckingham Palace, where, as surveyor of the royal pictures, Blunt (played by Bennett) is removing a painting from the wall. In his view it has been wrongly attributed. By chance the Queen walks that way. Does the Queen know what Blunt really is? Their ambiguous dialogue is a delight. No, she wouldn’t much care to sit for a portrait by Francis Bacon. “I might come out as a screaming queen.” Prunella Scales is given marvelous lines by Bennett and she gives a dazzling performance as Her Majesty.
Bennett’s play about Burgess began as a television drama based on a real encounter. In 1958 Michael Redgrave and Coral Browne found themselves in Moscow playing Hamlet. In the TV version Guy Burgess (Alan Bates), in exile in Moscow, lurches into her dressing room, is sick in the basin, and subsequently makes off with her soap and cigarettes. But he leaves a note inviting her to lunch. Coral Browne did in fact go to see him. She is an Australian and renowned in the theater for her unbridled language. She endures hours of Burgess asking after Cyril Connolly, Harold Nicolson, Auden, and others whom she has never met, and has to listen three or four times to his record of Jack Buchanan singing “Who Stole My Heart Away?” As she leaves she lets fly and tells him that she, at any rate, among the people he has charmed, is not conned. “You pissed in our soup and we drank it.” Still, she agrees to do what he asks because she is sorry for him and his ghastly loneliness.
What he asks her to do when she gets back to London is to order him a suit, shoes, pajamas, and an Old Etonian tie. Burgess’s Savile Row tailor is courtesy itself. Mum’s the word she says to him: “Mum is always the word here, madam, Moscow or Maidenhead.” But when she goes to the store for pajamas, Bennett puts the other side of the case. She is met by an affronted refusal and she says,
You were quite happy to serve this client when he was one of the most notorious buggers in London. Only then he was in the Foreign Office. “Red piping on the sleeve, Mr. Burgess, but of course. A discreet monogram on the pocket, Mr. Burgess. Certainly. And perhaps you would be gracious enough to lower your trousers Mr. Burgess: and we could plunge our tongue between the cheeks of your arse.”…I tell you, it’s pricks like you that make us understand why he went. Thank Christ I’m not English.
Alan Bennett shares her irritation. In the program note he says he finds it hard to drum up patriotic indignation against any of the spies. What harm did they really do?—except perhaps Philby, who sent a few agents to their deaths. Anyway, even he was quite a congenial figure: clubbable, a good drinker, and popular with journalists. Bennett puts into Burgess’s mouth the words: “I can say I love London, I can say I love England, I can’t say I love my country because I don’t know what it means.” He thinks that is a fair statement of what many people feel—and that the Falklands war made them think that way. He’s probably right in believing that to be so. The Falklands war, more than any other issue, enraged the intelligentsia, who considered that Margaret Thatcher sent men to their death to avenge the government’s blunders and to save her own face. (The “country”—government and opposition in Parliament and the majority of ordinary people—of course, thought otherwise.)
The reaction to the spies, however, has changed. John le Carré has encouraged people to believe that spies and spycatchers resemble each other whichever side they work for. Originally the Cambridge spies excited righteous indignation. Andrew Boyle, the man who first exposed Blunt, and the journalists who pursued him, were outraged by his treachery. Today the spies are no longer the prime target. The prime target now is the British establishment and the upper classes. Both they and the security and intelligence services (MI5 and MI6) are represented as more corrupt than the spies. Do they not conceal the guilt of their contemporaries regardless of the damage the spies might still be doing? Did they not cover up the inefficiency of the services and the cowboys in them? Did they not mislead their American allies, concealing the facts about the spies for fear that Washington would cut off collaboration? Hardly surprising. For this was an upper class that had grown effete but maintained its power through the strength of the public-school network, the Oxbridge network, and the homosexual network. At the first sign of trouble they drew up the drawbridge and retreated within their castle, manning the walls of secrecy and disinformation to repel honest journalists who were trying to penetrate to the truth.
This is the line John Costello takes. He loathes the spies and thinks they did untold damage. He accepts Peter Wright’s assertion that the British establishment “was en masse penetrated by the Russians”—by agents, recruited as early as the 1920s, many of them from the intelligentsia. He has established beyond reasonable doubt that Blunt was not the fourth but the first man, and the moving spirit among the Cambridge spies. The result is a changed picture of Anthony Blunt. Burgess did not recruit him; he recruited Burgess. “The major key to his success was sexual blackmail and his network of homosexual contacts within the British Establishment.” It was Blunt who wormed his way into British intelligence and inserted Communist agents in the State Department and OSS; as a result the CIA hired agents who in fact were working for the Soviet Union. When Blunt was in MI5, he had the job of rifling the diplomatic pouches of Allied embassies. From information Blunt gave the Russians from this source they were able to liquidate nationals in Eastern Europe who were hostile to them. Then in 1951 Blunt helped Burgess and Maclean to escape and covered their tracks.
But Costello’s book is no mere biography of Blunt. It covers the activities of all the British spies as well as the upheavals in America aroused by the testimony of Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers. The documentation is prodigious. Costello’s editor told him to dig in the archives before he interviewed sources, and he did both to considerable effect. His book is a formidable achievement, as comprehensive a review as exists of the operations and exposure of the pre and postwar Soviet spy rings. Whatever reservations I have about his methods and conclusions, no praise can be too high for his research.
Nevertheless I have grave reservations. The author is not the sober historian Costello, coauthor of Admiral Layton’s account of Pearl Harbor and Midway.1 He is Costello the journalist writing at the top of his voice. None of the spies is mentioned without a thunderous epithet: they are deceitful, cynical, self-centered, “unashamed in their elitism,” devoid of political conviction. The men in Blunt’s field-service section remembered how he never turned a hair escaping in 1940 from Boulogne in a tiny boat packed with explosives when it was bombed and strafed by German aircraft. But Costello will not allow that he was brave. “His disregard for his own safety was not personal courage directed towards any heroic military objective.” The effect of such constant denigration is to turn each spy into a pantomime demon king. It is true that Blunt was arrogant and cold at heart. But he was also a fascinator: mercurial, witty, excellent company, always ready with wonderful gossip and inside knowledge of a mildly scandalous nature. Nearly all his pupils and colleagues revered him. His friends admired him as a moralist—someone whose judgment about affairs of the heart or dilemmas in politics they accepted.
Moreover it is simply untrue to say that the Cambridge spies were motivated solely by arrogance and “elitism” and had no political convictions. They had strong political convictions. Maclean in particular was a dedicated Communist, and his puritanical upbringing gave him the conviction of James Hogg’s Justified Sinner that he must be right.2 No doubt all sorts of emotions inspired them—bravado, love of mischief, and secrecy—but die-hard communists are not those who have their noses in the sacred texts or agonize about the theory of surplus value. Costello has done excellent work in digging among Blunt’s contemporaries. He shows that Marxism took root in Cambridge after the failure of the general strike, well before the Depression. But he does not appreciate that during the Thirties two conflicting winds billowed among undergraduates. Certainly one was the Marxist wind—and understandably it blew stronger as my generation watched war coming ever closer while to our helpless fury Chamberlain followed his blind, self-satisfied policy of appeasement. No wonder even non-Marxists sympathized with the Soviet Union. It was the only European power to recognize that Hitler and Mussolini were sending arms and troops to Franco, the only power to send arms to Republican Spain.
But the wind did not blow only from the left. There was the mistral of pacifism, which seemed to blow from every direction. And there was the most constant wind of all, the wind behind the agnostics in politics who mocked the Marxists as prigs and dolts for urging Britain to stand up to Hitler and, simultaneously, to oppose rearmament. The public-school–Oxbridge elite which Costello derides as riddled with Communism and buggery did after all fight in the war; and it was a war against Hitler. When Costello expresses amazement that Goronwy Rees, who had been a Communist sympathizer, should have been commissioned as an officer, he seems to forget that Britain was not fighting a war against Stalin. The bitter divisions in the Thirties between New York intellectuals—between Stalinists, Trotskyists, and their critics—were genuine, but they were ideological disputes. No one in New York was facing imminent war. The British were. Even Churchill against his upbringing and instincts backed the Spanish Republicans.
Costello’s thesis that there was a gigantic conspiracy whose ramifications spread throughout British government depends on a theory of networks. Networking is an enjoyable game. You can show in most European countries fifty years ago that most upper-class families were related by marriage—at any rate à la mode de Bretagne through second and third cousins. Or, amused by scandal, you can construct a daisy chain like Schnitzler’s Reigen connecting who slept with whom in café society. But the inferences that can be drawn are limited. Costello seems to think that if A is homo-sexual and knows B, who is a Marxist, and that if B is friendly with C, who is a spy, then both A and B are likely also to have been suborned. What begins as a surmise ends as a fact. Blunt was mercilessly bullied in his two first terms at his public school. Then the bullies stopped. Why? Robert Cecil wondered whether he might have found out that the bullies were masturbating some small boy and Blunt got them to lay off bullying him by blackmailing them. (The same scenario was used by Adrian Mitchell in his play Another Country, about Burgess and John Cornford.) Costello quotes Cecil’s surmise on page 68. On page 86 we are told Blunt “had learned the secrets of sexual blackmail.” The conjecture has become a fact. Elsewhere Costello suggests that Edward, Prince of Wales, was homo-sexual. He was a compulsive womanizer. And Mountbatten? Philip Ziegler, Mountbatten’s biographer, scrupulously examined the gossip and dismissed the charge. Not good enough for Costello; didn’t Mountbatten know a lot of homo-sexuals like Noel Coward?
It is, of course, part of Costello’s case that Communists infested every institution, and many were spies. You might think that since Peter Wright, when he was assigned to investigate former intelligence agents, cleared Robin Zaehner, a respected Orientalist at All Souls’, Costello would accept it. But no: “Wright may have exonerated the professor too hastily: the answer may never be resolved satisfactorily.” Or consider the case of George Barnes. Before 1939 Barnes was a senior producer for the BBC. After the war he invented the famous highbrow radio channel the Third Programme, and subsequently became the BBC’s first director of television. Barnes was a wily liberal conservative, a churchman trusted by John Reith and the bien pensants and therefore able to edge the BBC toward becoming a little less stuffy. (He persuaded the court and the Church to televise the coronation.) It was he who in the Thirties hired Guy Burgess as a producer of BBC talk shows; and Burgess was a success. For the first time a trade unionist gave a talk on the BBC, and John Hilton, a professor of industrial relations, also came on the air. At long last orthodox Labour party supporters took part in BBC programs. To Costello this is sinister and there must be an explanation. He repeats a story that “Barnes was one of the few men who successfully kept a boy and a mistress at the same time”; and this would have given Burgess a secret hold over him. In fact Barnes was mildly keen on girls, never a homosexual, and Burgess was always beholden to him.
Or again Roger Fulford, a homosexual, was “significantly recruited” by Roger Hollis, the MI5 official “later suspected of being the Soviets’ most secret mole.” If Costello followed Wright in believing Hollis to be the fifth man, it might possibly be significant. But he doesn’t believe him—he has his own candidate. Or again when Blunt’s treachery was discovered, Arthur Martin and Peter Wright of MI5 interviewed many people in public life who knew him. Costello reels off the names of these “potential spies.” He admits that they nearly all denied they were spies. Yet anyone reading the passage will realize that this is part of the device to picture British society as corrupted by treachery.
It is one of Costello’s main points that although the British thought their prize possession of Ultra—the German armed forces’ signals deciphered from the Enigma machine—was secure, Blunt “consistently conspired to betray [Ultra] to the Soviets.” It must have been easy for Blunt to do because a young Cambridge undergraduate, Leo Long, whom he had recruited was actually in MI4, the German section in the War Office that received Ultra over the teleprinter. Blunt, he concludes, “received and examined most of the important Enigma decrypts.” He did nothing of the sort. Costello confuses raw Enigma (the deciphered signals in German telegraphese) with Ultra, the same telegraphese translated into English and subtly scrambled so as partially to conceal how it was obtained. If Blunt was so successful why was Stalin so unprepared for the German offensive in 1941?
But was there not another mole actually in the unit at Bletchley that worked on Ultra? In fact, there was one, John Cairncross, who admitted to being a Soviet spy. There he was, Costello says, working in the highly sensitive sections of Hut 3 and Hut 6 at Bletchley. He would have heard “confidences shared over meals in the canteen.” No one that I know who worked in Hut 3 can remember ever seeing Cairncross. In any case no one in Hut 3 could have copied material in Hut 6 and vice versa. Nor did people exchange confidences in the canteen. Security was so much part of working at Bletchley that anyone who did so would have been sent to the equivalent of a cryptographic Siberia.
Ah! but was not Cairncross “well placed to obtain technical data from Turing, who was vulnerable to blackmail because his homosexuality made him a security risk”? Anyone who tried to blackmail Alan Turing, one of the two mathematical geniuses in the organization, would have been met by an icy, puzzled smile. Turing never believed homosexuality to be a crime; so little so that after the war, when a boy he befriended stole from him, he went to the police outraged that love should have been betrayed. Subsequently convicted and sentenced to receive hormone treatment, he grew breasts and later killed himself in disgust with life.
Well, but did not Cairncross receive secret congratulations from his Soviet control for informing him of the German order of battle before the battle of Kursk? It was hardly odd that the Soviet High Command received this information. By 1943 some Ultra was being passed to the Russians through an official link. Wing Commander Asher Lee used to hand to an NKVD colonel in the Russian embassy the latest information Ultra provided on the German army’s dispositions.
Bletchley was run on the principle that you were told only what you “needed to know” for your own work. People like to pretend they know everything; no one in Bletchley knew everything. Practically everyone who worked there had tunnel vision. All Blunt could ever have seen were Abwehr decrypts and the Sicherheitsdienst material Leo Long worked on. Long admitted giving Blunt the weekly MI14 summary which in its banality resembled the surmises of the Times military correspondent.
Costello does not realize that spymasters and the high command want to have proof, documentary proof if possible, that the intelligence they receive is cast-iron. Such proof is often unobtainable. Gossip and conjecture, however intelligent, rarely convince; that is why Soviet spymasters want photostat documents. Nevertheless intelligence chiefs are reluctant to provide such proof. They fear some general or politician will blab and their source will be compromised. In the first years of the war the security surrounding Ultra was so intense that commanders, and even the general staff in London, were skeptical of the information derived from it because it was so skillfully disguised in order to protect the fact that Ultra existed. Had he known how cast-iron Ultra was the British general Freyberg in Crete could have wiped out the German paratroop division when it landed by concentrating his forces around the airfield. It was only later, in Montgomery’s day, that commanders learned to trust this source.
Jean Howard, one of the young women who worked in Hut 3, remembered a group of generals in June 1941 coming to inspect the war map of the Russian front and questioning the number of pins and flags representing the massed German divisions. Surely there were too many, surely these civilians who worked in Hut 3 had got it wrong? They were taken aback when Jean Howard remarked that her training as an opera singer ill-equipped her to invent an order of battle.
An intelligence officer has a harder task than a historian in sifting evidence. On his desk are two trays. The in-tray contains information of every description from press cuttings and reports from C3 agents (unreliable information obtained third hand) to those from A1 sources (well-placed observers with a reputation for accuracy). The officer evaluates it; and most of it goes into the wastepaper basket. The out-tray contains his assessment of worthwhile material and the inferences he can draw from it. Costello’s book is his in-tray. Everything is recorded, and unwarrantable inferences are drawn. Peter Wright is cited time and time again as a first-rate source. Yet we know that Wright was obsessed and gulled by James Angleton and had every reason to multiply the numbers of those he interrogated who “confessed” or “made a partial confession.” We are told that one of Blunt’s Cambridge contemporaries, Andrew Cohen, “began to play a critical role in moulding views that set the stage for the dismantling of Britain’s Empire in Africa”—as if this too was part of the Communist plot. All one can say is: good for Sir Andrew to have brought the colonial service to its senses long before the old play-actor Harold Macmillan made his speech about the wind of change in Africa.
Costello is keen to show how members of the British ruling class exonerated themselves. They even suggested that the terrible losses in the First World War had deprived the country of its real leaders. Costello cites Robert Wohl to show that in fact these casualties were nowhere near as damaging as another scholar, J.M. Winter, made out. Unfortunately Winter was correcting Wohl and not Wohl Winter. It does not matter that Costello thinks E.M. Forster wrote Maurice under the influence of A Shropshire Lad, or that Osbert is confused with Sacheverell Sitwell, or that academic qualifications ever governed election to the Cambridge Apostles. Mistakes of this kind are bound to occur in an enterprise of this kind and it is impressive that there are so few. But it does matter that Costello does not appreciate the British dislike of intrusion into their private lives or their skepticism where spies and spycatchers are concerned. The rule of law protects spies. Blunt and Philby both knew that no case against them would ever have stood up in court. It is too easy to imagine what a Queen’s Counsel would have done to the Soviet defector Golitsyn, on whom Angleton relied for some of his allegations, in the witness box. MI5 was to be humiliated in the courts when Giuseppe Martelli of the Atomic Energy Authority was acquitted by a jury who took the curious view that to own spy equipment and be in contact with the KGB was insufficient evidence of spying.
Costello is right to accuse the British of sloth when Burgess and Maclean decamped for the USSR. He is right to judge that both Labour and Conservatives were reluctant to institute a thorough purge. Labour feared that numbers of their best men might be identified as having been Communists in the Thirties and smeared as spies. Conservatives disliked seeing that the public-school–Oxbridge elite proved to have contained rotten apples. Both Eden and Macmillan resisted a public inquiry into the case of the missing diplomats. And we shall see why.
Costello has an explanation for MI5’s “blunders…ostrich-like indifference…criminal negligence…etc.” It had been penetrated by a master spy. He rejects the candidate of Wright and Angleton, Roger Hollis, and also the candidate of the journalist Nigel West, Graham Mitchell. Costello argues for Guy Liddell, the deputy director of MI5. Everyone who knew Liddell thinks this absurd, but then so did everyone who knew Blunt. There is, however, another possibility Costello does not face: there never was a fifth man. Gordievski, the British agent in the KGB who came in from the cold, said the laughter of the KGB rang around the Kremlin when they heard that Peter Wright had spent years examining MI5’s navel searching for the missing spy “Elli” and throwing the organization into turmoil. It is at least as likely that Elli was Philby.
However that may be, Philby did nothing to enlighten the London Sunday Times reporter Phillip Knightley on the matter before he died. Like the good journalist he is Knightley had not lost touch with the man whom twenty years ago he called the spy who betrayed a generation. Realizing death was closing in on him Philby, sharp as ever, saw that here was a potential author of his apologia. During his weeks in Moscow Knightley filled his notebooks. Old Kaspar’s work was done, and he before his cottage door was sitting in the sun. What mellow reminiscences are these as he answers little Peterkin’s questions! There are no revelations in Knightley’s book. What we are given is a mixture concocted with all Philby’s old skill of boasts about his achievements, digs at old enemies whom he wished to slight or discredit—and disinformation. At times Knightley likes to show that he realized Philby might try to mislead him, but he passes on without comment Philby’s canard that MI6 deliberately encouraged him to defect just as they helped George Blake to escape from prison. Philby knew his man.
Knightley too is an Australian with all Coral Browne’s dislike of British snootiness and hierarchies. Knightley had welcomed Spycatcher because it destroyed public confidence in both MI5 and MI6. Perhaps, swigging down the vodka and chuckling over the incompetence of the authorities, he felt that it would be indecent to ask Philby in these days of glasnost how he felt about working for Stalin and Beria, or how the Soviet class structure of the apparatchiki, buying their delicacies in special shops, differed from the British class system.
Knightley prepares us for Alice’s adventures. In David Leigh’s book The Wilson Plot we step through the looking glass and find ourselves like Alice in Wonderland in a world where the villains in Costello’s book become monstrously wronged men and women, and the heroes who take the Soviet threat seriously become knaves. For Leigh the cold war is a meaningless operation, and we can see where sympathies lie when he says that Greece in 1947 had a puppet government shored up by the British and the Americans. Leigh thinks it intolerable that someone who made contact with Markos and his guerrillas should fall under suspicion. Britain too was a puppet that meekly obeyed an American demand to initiate a huge rearmament program when the Korean war exploded. Profumo was a victim of a KGB entrapment exercise; and the Tory minister Tony Lambton, who was photographed in bed with two prostitutes and forced to resign, was framed by MI5 for no apparent reason. The plots reach beyond Britain. Gough Whitlam’s fall in Australia was engineered by the officials of the CIA. Enraged by his closing down their listening posts, they called in the British governor general to use “an archaic constitutional right” to dismiss him. Willy Brandt was next brought down by a campaign of defamation that followed the exposure of a Soviet spy, Gunther Guillaume, in his office.
Nevertheless, although author and publisher make sensational claims for their book (“How the Spycatchers and Their American Allies Tried to Overthrow the British Government”), Leigh’s research is time and again sober and sobering. He shows how some officers in MI5 and the CIA—again at the urging of James Angleton—set out to discredit Harold Wilson, and destroy him as prime minister. Some convinced themselves that Wilson was a Soviet agent. The reason is simple. When minister for overseas trade in Attlee’s government between 1947 and 1951, Wilson went on trips to Moscow to negotiate a contentious deal, selling British jet aircraft engines to the Soviet Union in return for desperately needed timber. This was not to the liking of the chiefs of staff or the Foreign Office, but Stafford Cripps backed Wilson. Wilson followed Bevan in resigning over the issue of health-service charges and thereafter became identified with the left wing of the Labour party. He refused to protest the Soviet occupation of Hungary and opposed the use of West Berlin as a coldwar base. It was in these years that some of Wilson’s friends, Joe Kagan and Rudy Sternberg, came under suspicion for their frequent trips to Eastern Europe. One might think that when Wilson became prime minister his almost undeviating support for American policy in Vietnam and elsewhere would have convinced even the most jaundiced spycatchers. But no; and when the miners’ union brought down Heath’s government, the distrust of Wilson in some intelligent circles became paranoid. (Still, Leigh does not claim that the allegations circulated against Wilson in those circles caused him to resign in 1976.)
Leigh has turned the tables on Peter Wright by obtaining his letters to journalists and colleagues in intelligence to whom he had been leaking material that never found its way into Spycatcher. Wright appears as an even nastier man than he emerged in his own book. There he portrayed himself as an innocent spectator of the plot organized by thirty officers of MI5 to destabilize Wilson. He later admitted on television that he had been the ringleader and scaled down his accomplices to a bare half-dozen. In fact Leigh shows that for thirteen years this venomous fanatic collected material to prove Wilson was a Soviet agent aided by the cleverest of all gulls, James Angleton, in Washington.
Leigh also catalogs the deliberate lies Wright concocted in his book. He shows how much Wright was involved with the riffraff of the extreme right. Some of them were in the secret services. George Young, at one time vice-chief of MI6, an anti-Semite with a contempt for foreigners and blacks, was one of them. Young expelled from MI6 officers whose moderate views, based on the study of evidence, did not match his views. He used to preach that the secret services owed loyalty only to the crown, not to the government of the day. They should persuade the Queen to dismiss “corrupt and revolutionary ministers.” The smears were spread through journalists—particularly through Private Eye, which specialized in exposing the sex lives of the prominent and libeling innocent people who were often too poor to sue. Leigh shows that five ministers of Wilson’s government were targets for Wright and his crew and that several were badly damaged. Niall Macdermot, one of the most promising, was forced out when his Russian-born wife was suspected. Ministers who belonged to the left wing of the party such as Judith Hart and Stephen Swingler were denounced to Wilson, and Swingler’s promotion was blocked. Meanwhile the obsessional Angleton in Washington tried to prove that Wilson had got the KGB to poison Gaitskell so that he could become the leader of the Labour party.
Truth is on neither side of the looking glass. Costello blames the British government for its spineless, dilatory search for spies; Leigh regards officers of MI5 who follow up leads as infamous busy-bodies. He considers it an outrage that MI5 should have had doubts about the leaders of great trade unions such as Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones (who fought in Spain), but he does not refer to the fact that ever since Lenin came to power the Soviets have regarded the trade union movement as one of their main targets for subversion; and for years militant left-wing cells have been ready with the gas can whenever a dispute smolders in a key industry. One union militant, who became known as Red Robbo, went some way to bringing the main British automobile corporation to its knees in the Sixties and Seventies. It is hardly surprising after the exposure of the Cambridge spies that the security service checked on those members of the left who kept up their connections with the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Some of Wilson’s acquaintances were beyond doubt fishy characters. The young minister John Stonehouse ended up in jail, for financial fraud. So did Kagan, after Wilson had made him a peer.
But Costello underestimates how revolted British public opinion was by the spectacle of Senator McCarthy. The British saw the careers of innocent American public servants and professors in universities being destroyed by a drunken bum. They saw Owen Lattimore, Moses Finley, and others coming to England to continue their academic work and were astonished that Eisenhower did so little to halt McCarthy. Years later Macmillan was to say that
espionage in a policy department is not very important. What does he give them? Government memoranda never come down on one side of the question or the other. The really dangerous espionage is technical. Some machine which probably has a life of what—a year at most? I think it’s all rather exaggerated.
Macmillan was wrong about Philby, and Costello may think that this proves his point that the establishment closed ranks to conceal their incompetence, thus enabling Philby and the other spies to escape justice. But perhaps Macmillan’s patrician instinct was wiser than it had any right to be. David Leigh shows what happened when Peter Wright set about unmasking what Costello calls the “potential spies”—the friends of Anthony Blunt before the war in Cambridge.
Leigh’s investigation is devastating. He shows how rumors emerge as positive traces on the record of these suspects, rumors that are blown up by Wright, whose career by then depended on identifying them as active spies. He never identified one, not even Alister Watson, who consistently denied the imputation. Leigh argues that even Bernard Floud, whose suicide Wright thought was sure proof that he would not face the music, was never a Soviet agent. He was a Communist, yes—right through the war until Stalin’s breach with Tito. He frankly admitted that an attempt was made to recruit him. But his very openness about his past, before and after he became a member of Parliament, makes it unlikely that he agreed to become a spy. Floud committed suicide because he fell into a clinical depression after his wife’s death. He was being treated for this before his interrogation. Leigh’s analysis of the case and his examination of the crucial dates are convincing.
The chiefs of MI5 after Sir Dick White left to take over MI6 have a good deal to answer for. Leigh does not suggest that they were responsible for orchestrating the leaks in the campaign against Harold Wilson. But they must have known, or at least suspected, what was going on. Hollis seems to have been hypnotized like a rabbit before a stoat by Wright’s activities on the Fluency Committee, the group formed to assess the evidence that there were as-yet-unidentified moles in the security services. When Angleton began to insinuate that William Colby was a Soviet spy, Colby fired him. Hollis let Wright build up a case against him. Martin Furnival Jones and Michael Hanley did the security service great harm by not investigating what Wright was up to.
Having wasted £3.5 million of taxpayers’ money on their inept attempt to stop the publication of Spycatcher Thatcher’s government has begun to revise the system of supervising the security and intelligence services. The supervision is to continue to be internal. Whenever there is a serious breach of security, the Security Commission, an internal body headed by a judge, will meet. A judge of the high court is now to review the work of the security service. Whether he will hear complaints from officers in the services who believe that injustice is being done or a scandal is brewing is uncertain. Furthermore a panel of three lawyers will be appointed to hear appeals from citizens who consider that the security service was wrong in refusing to clear them as security risks.
None of this goes to the heart of the matter. In North America it is now accepted that there has to be some external supervision of intelligence services, which will reassure the public that these services are accountable. Officers in American intelligence maintain that, so far from impairing the efficiency of these services, such accountability enhances their value. They become credible, get more resources from government, and are enabled to recover more quickly from mistakes. It would be too much to expect the British to adopt the system by which American Congressional committees can compel any secret agency to disclose even covert operations before or after they have taken place. But one might have hoped that the Canadian practice would have been acceptable. In Canada an extraparliamentary commission of five former officials and judges working under oath of confidentiality aided by a small staff makes reports to Parliament and holds public hearings.
That is not acceptable to Margaret Thatcher; and the British press is alarmed by one provision of the reform of the arrangements for the security services, announced in November of last year. This is the provision that is intended to prevent another Spycatcher fiasco. In the future, as now, no member of the secret services will be permitted to publish anything that has not been vetted by the service to which he belongs. But it will also be a criminal offense for anyone else to publish disclosures about matters connected with the security of the state; and it will be no defense to plead that such disclosure is in the public interest. This might mean that neither David Leigh nor John Costello could ever publish in Britain a book of the kind they have written; nor could any newspaper serialize it. Nor could a newspaper editor report whatever came to his ears about the activities of the security and intelligence services.
It would be interesting to see what would happen if a sufficiently grave accusation were made by a writer and yet the jury were instructed that public interest was no defense; would the jury convict? In the case of Clive Ponting, a civil servant who leaked to Parliament a government memo concerning the sinking of an Argentine battleship during the Falklands war, the judge and every legal pundit thought he was clearly guilty in law. The jury acquitted him.
Such is the state of affairs that the activities of the Cambridge spies have brought about. With all the distaste of the artist for those who are in politics or are concerned with affairs of state, Alan Bennett is skeptical about the damage Blunt, Philby, and the rest did to their country. He should not be skeptical about the damage they did to their friends. And not only their friends. Those who shared the same enthusiasms in their student days were to be exposed by the spies to suspicion, interrogation, rumor, and loss of respect and trust.
But for Bennett, as for other writers, D.H. Lawrence’s famous dictum remains true. “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of the critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” Whatever the generous sympathies of the artist toward Burgess in his loneliness in Moscow and toward the bold tricheur Blunt, Bennett’s plays tell a different tale. “I’m sorry you think my poor painting a fake,” says the Queen to Blunt. “Oh no! Not a fake, ma’am: merely a wrong attribution.” “What is a fake?” A brief pause. “An enigma,” replies Blunt. “That is the sophisticated view,” says the Queen. The unsophisticated will continue to think the spies scoundrels.
April 13, 1989