BETRAYAL OF THE LEFT
New Times, November 1999
The recent outburst of spy mania needs to be taken with a large dose of salt, writes Paul Anderson. But we should resist the notion that Soviet intelligence agents in Britain were harmless saps
It almost goes without saying that you have to be highly sceptical about the recent spate of hysteria in the media about British subjects who acted – or are alleged to have acted – as agents and informers for Soviet bloc intelligence services during the latter stages of the cold war.
After the publication of The Mitrokhin Archive by Christopher Andrew and Vasily Mitrokhin and the screening of David Rose’s BBC Two series The Spying Game, newspaper editors fell over one another in the rush to publish juicy tales of intrigue and deception, taking little care to ensure the veracity of their sources.
Some of the claims that appeared are outrageous smears – in particular the suggestions that Dick Clements and Bruce Kent were “agents of influence”.
Clements, as editor of Tribune from 1959 to 1982, certainly had contacts among Soviet bloc embassy staff whom he knew were intelligence officers – just like scores of other journalists, myself included. (My contact at the Czech embassy, Jan Sarkocy, was thrown out of the country for espionage in 1989.) He also encouraged Soviet bloc press agencies to advertise in his cash-strapped paper. We did the same when I was Tribune’s reviews editor in the late 1980s.
But the idea that he was an “agent of influence”, as claimed by the Sunday Times, is preposterous. Journalists are public figures by definition. Their “influence” comes down to what they write or, as editors, publish by other writers. And Clements is, and always has been, a democratic socialist with libertarian leanings.
His first published pieces in Tribune were on the plight of anarchist political prisoners in Franco’s Spain. Under his editorship, the paper took a principled stance against Soviet totalitarianism, backing the dissidents in the Soviet Union itself, the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia and the demands of Solidarity in Poland. One contributor to the Clements Tribune, Ken Coates, even managed to compile a book attacking the anti-democratic “socialism” of the Soviet bloc from his contributions to the paper.
Similarly, Kent, as general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at its height in the 1980s, took a less critical position on the Soviet Union than many people in the European Nuclear Disarmament group – myself included -would have liked.
But the suggestion that he was a tool of Moscow is incredible. He was a founder supporter of END, which was hated in official Soviet circles because of its support for dissidents and its criticisms of Soviet militarism. Under his leadership, CND consistently maintained its opposition to the nuclear weapons of both sides in the cold war.
Even where there is evidence to support the spying allegations – and it is significant that Clements and Kent are not named in The Mitrokhin Archive and were not mentioned in The Spying Game – there are plenty of reasons for taking the stories with a large dose of salt.
Of the Britons alleged for the first time to be spies in the book and the TV series, only one, Melita Norwood, had any access to state secrets – and it is by no means clear that the information she passed to the KGB made any significant difference to the Soviet atom bomb programme or indeed anything else.
Neither Tom Driberg nor Raymond Fletcher, the two Labour MPs named as agents in The Mitrokhin Archive – somewhat implausibly given Driberg’s love for unreliable gossip and Fletcher’s dipsomania – had significant influence in the Labour Party.
Vic Allen, the Leeds University professor who passed on information about CND to the East Germans, was not a “CND leader” – as the Sunday Times had it and The Spying Game implied – but merely the most prominent member of a tiny pro-Soviet faction in the organisation that had little influence on its policy and was distrusted by everyone else.
As for Robin Pearson, the Hull University economic historian accused of reporting on fellow academics to the East German Stasi, there is no evidence to suggest he handed over anything that was not already in the public sphere.
Perhaps most important, all the material on which the stories are based is tainted. As historical sources, intelligence and secret police files are notoriously unreliable by their very nature, if only because the reports on fellow they contain were written by people with a vested interest in exaggerating their own successes to their superiors.
To make matters worse, the material from the KGB archives copied and smuggled out of the Lubianka by Vasily Mitrokhin has also been vetted by the British intelligence services to ensure that the book contains nothing they do not want revealed.
With all due qualifications, there is much in the book that is new and fascinating, in particular on the activities of the NKVD (the predecessor of the KGB) in Spain during the civil war in the 1930s, on the KGB’s reliance on Western communist parties after 1945 and on its role in Eastern Europe as the Soviet system entered its death throes in the 1980s. (On Britain, incidentally, contrary to the impression given by the newspapers, the picture Mitrokhin and Andrew paint of the KGB’s operations after the early 1950s is largely one of incompetence and failure except in the case of scientific and technical espionage.)
The work done by journalist David Rose for The Spying Game is much closer to home. Although the series is open to criticism for taking at face value the accounts given by spooks on both sides of the cold war concerning their own influence on events, Rose has unveiled a lot of important material – especially from the archives of the Stasi- about the 1980s.
As a one-time deputy editor of END Journal, END’s magazine, I was particularly struck by what he has found out about the exhaustive information gathering by communist states’ intelligence agencies on everyone from the West involved in contact with dissident groups in the East.
END was set up in 1980 by Edward Thompson, Mary Kaldor, Ken Coates and others to campaign for a nuclear-free Europe “from Poland to Portugal”. It made a point of its opposition to Soviet nuclear arms and of its support for independent movements in the Soviet bloc set up to oppose them. Throughout the 1980s, its supporters regularly visited eastern Europe to engage in face-to-face dialogue with dissidents and independent peace groups.
I was a minor player in all this. I went on one such trip, visiting East Berlin and Budapest in early 1985. In Berlin, after going to a conference in the West of the city, I went to a single meeting in the East with an independent peace group whose members subsequently became the core of the movement that toppled Erich Honecker in 1989. I then spent a week in Budapest wandering around the city visiting dissidents and independent peaceniks. When I got home, I wrote reports of my conversations for END’s co-ordinating committee and its working groups on the German Democratic Republic and Hungary.
Like every other ENDer involved in dialogue with dissidents, I worked on the assumption that I was being monitored by the security services. (In Budapest, I was tailed for one day by two men in large white macs, just like in the movies.) I also assumed that there were certain people in Britain who would pass on anything they could find out about the dissidents – the dwindling band of Stalinist supporters of “actually existing socialism” and the employees of the Soviet bloc embassies.
But I did not for a moment think that Soviet bloc security services had penetrated END. Yet that is what Rose discovered while researching The Spying Game. In the Stasi archives he found a substantial collection of END materials – among them my reports on my 1985 trip – that could only have come from an END member in Britain.
Precisely what happened as a direct result of this Stasi mole’s activities is impossible to tell. I doubt that many END contacts in the Soviet bloc were arrested, beaten up or intimidated by the secret police simply because the secret police had lots of boring END documents in their possession. I am sure that the mole thought the same at the time and does so now. But we both know we could be wrong – and, such was the publicity surrounding persecution of dissidents in the Soviet bloc, the mole must have known at the time too.
I find it difficult to get worked up about someone who, in the mistaken belief that the Soviet Union was a socialist Utopia, handed over scientific documents that might or might not have had a marginal impact on the Soviet atom bomb programme. But to hand over material to a secret police force that could only be of use in the persecution of fellow human beings is an unforgivable act of betrayal.