Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 31 August 2001

So Melita Norwood, the south-east London granny who was revealed a couple of years ago to have spent 40 years spying for the Soviet Union, is to publish her memoirs. The news needs to be taken with just a pinch of salt. It appeared, after all, on the front page of the Sunday Times, which has made a habit of getting it wrong in this line of business. Most notoriously, six years ago after it falsely claimed that Michael Foot had been KGB Agent Boot it was forced to issue a grovelling apology and pay him substantial damages (some of which he gave to Tribune).

But let’s assume that the Sunday Times has got its facts right this time. What will Norwood, formerly Agent Hola, say? Well, to be honest, I haven’t a clue. I’ve never spoken to her, and I don’t know the identity of 88-year-old Melita’s “socialist” friend who is apparently co-writing her book. All I know is that her friends say precisely the same as the papers did when she was first unmasked as a spy: she’s a lovely old dear who just happens to be an unapologetic hardcore Stalinist – OK, I agree the two don’t sit easily together – and she regrets nothing.

Of course, it’s possible that her book will be a sensational exposé of Soviet espionage during the cold war, revealing the names of dozens of agents, detailing hundreds of spectacular operations and showing that the Communist Party of Great Britain, of which Norwood was a member, played a crucial role in doing the covert dirty work of the totalitarian regime in Russia.

But I have a sneaking suspicion it won’t be anything of the sort. For a start, I’m prepared to bet that Norwood is writing not so much to set the historical record straight as to explain the nobility of her motives in passing military secrets to a vicious police state – the usual communist mendacity about the late and unlamented Soviet Union being a force for peace and progress that deserved any help it could get. If she does know about anything other than her own spying operation, which is unlikely, I don’t think she’ll spill the beans.

More important, though, it’s a moot point whether there are many more beans to spill. On the available evidence, it would be a big surprise if the CP did much more for Moscow in the line of espionage than we already know about (except possibly in Spain in the 1930s and in the 1980s peace movement). The CP was certainly a subsidised servant of the Soviet Union for most of its life – but its role was above all propagandist, and propagandist organisations by their very nature do not provide good cover for spying. It would be less surprising to discover hitherto-unknown Soviet intelligence operations or hitherto-unmasked agents. But there is little reason to believe either that Britain was crawling with Soviet spies during the cold war or that those that were here did much that is not already familiar.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Norwood affair, however, is the nonchalant way in which nearly everyone has treated “the spy who came in from the garden”, as one paper dubbed her. Apart from a couple of right-wing Tory MPs and a handful of columnists of the same bent, no one called for her immediate arrest and trial when she was first exposed. The general consensus is that Norwood’s spying happened a long time ago in different political circumstances, and that it’s not really fair to subject an old lady to the full force of the law. Although there is little sign that the British appetite for tales of Soviet espionage has disappeared, it seems that most Brits think it was all a bit of a joke.

This attitude is a far cry from that prevailing in the United States, where the issue is as contentious as it ever was – largely because of the release in recent years of hitherto secret materials, both in the US and in Russia, that cast light on some of the most controversial spying cases of the Cold War, notably those of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Alger Hiss.

The Rosenbergs were members of the Communist Party of the USA who were executed in 1953 after being found guilty of passing American nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union; Hiss, a senior figure in the Roosevelt administration, was jailed in 1950 for perjury after denying claims that he was a secret communist and spy. Both the Rosenbergs and Hiss strongly protested their innocence at the time, and they became left-wing causes celebres as the most prominent victims of the anti-communist hysteria whipped up by Senator Joe McCarthy and others.

The material released in the past few years, however, shows that both the Rosenbergs and Hiss were guilty as charged. Or at least that’s the view of one group of polemicists, mainly but not all on the Right, including the onetime left-wing journalist David Horowitz and the ex-communist historian Ron Radosh, whose sour memoir of the CPUSA, Commies, has just been published. Their critics, mainly on the left, argue with equal force that their evidence is inadequate, if not on the Rosenbergs at least on Hiss – a point put brilliantly in the left-wing weekly The Nation last month by its former editor, Victor Navasky, a veteran anti-McCarthyite.

There is something unsettling about the vehemence with which the American argument is being conducted, and the attempt of by some on the Right to use it as a means of rehabilitating McCarthy is shocking. But the seriousness of the American debate is salutary. The KGB and its predecessors were not at all funny. I don’t think Norwood should be prosecuted or that she can be held personally responsible for all the KGB’s crimes – but we should not forget that she was a member of an organisation that killed thousands of people and ruined millions of lives.

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