I spy a moral problem that didn't exist in the old days

`Working away at the files we peeked. Of course we did; security was always a joke'
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OH, WHAT a tangled web we weave. The first spies I ever saw, or didn't see, were the ones who from time to time strode the corridors of the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office, or were rumoured to. They came in for their briefings and debriefings. They were the reason, or so we supposed, why at intervals security swept through the building and made us clerical assistants turn our faces to the wall in case we saw something it were better we did not. "Watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by." That was in the early Fifties.

For every Miss Moneypenny there are always a dozen girls like us, working away at the files. We peeked, of course we did; security was always a laugh. But the best we ever saw was a trench-coated back disappearing down a corridor, a Homburg hat tipped over the eyes, and all the more glamorous for it.

By the mid-Fifties the smugglers of myth, legend and poetry - brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk - had turned into 007s, stealing secrets from the enemy. In our silly heads they were romantic heroes, brave men who loved their country and would die for it, young, handsome and virile. War was over, but in the cause of right these few men were licensed to kill, and were trustworthy. Or so we thought.

Those were easier days. We knew whose side we were on. We were patriots; our country right or wrong. This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England - all that. But the James Bonds turned out to be neurotics, Burgesses and Macleans, Philbys and Sir Anthony Blunts, traitors and double- dealers all, pathetic as people, whose loyalty went where it was least expected. The biting of the hand that fed turned out to be the real compulsion of the spy, if they weren't just doing it for the money. They were ineffably seedy, they drank too much, they were dandruffy. And now we, who once had our romantic gentlemen, are left with Mrs Melita Norwood, aged 87, the little old lady of little old ladies, who for 18 years of the Cold War sold our atom secrets to the then enemy, and is not to be prosecuted for it.

There will be silence because Mrs Norwood, like the Rosenbergs and Pinochet, believed that she was doing the right thing, and these are days in which ethics are to be respected - so long, that is, as they drift in from the left not the right. And because we spend a lot of time trying to persuade dissident Iraqis, and dissident Serbs, to spy against their own leaders and their own countries - and what is sauce for the goose is beginning to feel like sauce for the gander.

Put a very old person in prison and it brings to our attention once again the problem of what exactly prison is for - and this is something else we find difficult to face. Is it to take away our freedom so as to teach us better next time, or as a warning to others, or to make us suffer and thus our victims feel better? Why should age or frailty make a difference? To us, it does. Are we to let out the IRA terrorists to put trembly Mrs Norwood behind bars? Can't we just forget it?

No, not quite. We have a Tomb to the Unknown Soldier and at least we pay it lip-service once a year, though the causes he was blown to bits for are long undone. There is no memorial to the Unknown Secret Agents, those men and women who were asked to go on fighting a secret war in the name of liberty and truth, and did, and who were betrayed by their friends, by their own "side" - how old-fashioned it sounds - and who died horribly, often by torture, and no doubt bitterly. I imagine some were motivated by money, but I don't suppose all. Some looked at Stalin the tyrant and saw Hitler, and knew Communism must be stopped; just as some, like Mrs Norwood, looked at "capitalism" and saw the woes it created as evil, and wanted to put an end to that. Yet just to overlook it is to wrong the victims.

The ethical is a difficult business, once it is unhooked from religion. God, king and country won't do any more as a scale of obligation. Is it better to render the workers of British Aerospace unemployed, or to support the freedom fighters of East Timor? Is it the least worst option to drop cluster bombs in Kosovo for children to pick up, or to let Milosovic get away with it? Morality, even at the best of times, tends to be a matter of what you can afford. As we grow more prosperous, societies can afford more. These days we stretch right-thinking to its very limits, which is something - if expensive for taxpayers - as we, the old CND-ers, put our weapons where our mouths are.

"Watch the wall, my darling" is from Kipling's poem "Them that ask no questions isn't told a lie". Nowadays, one suspects, the lies come zooming in unasked; one is grateful for a tactful silence.