This elderly Stalinist is just a relic of a bygone age
`Sometimes it seems to me the entire intelligence business is just one gigantic practical joke'
Tuesday 14 September 1999
I could easily have been dandled on Melita Norwood's knee. She was (I learnt this week) recruited to the British Communist Party by old Andrew Rothstein, a man with a Homburg hat and a white moustache, who lived up the hill from me, and who'd met Lenin. Dusty tomes penned by the elderly Rothstein were to be found on our bookshelves at home, often marked with dissenting comments by my dad. (Rothstein's wife, Edith, was a much nicer person than he, and loved discussing Dickens with 11-year-olds.) When I was little I met many Melitas, but most of them were not spies. They just lacked imagination.
Lacked imagination? What kind of a way is that to describe someone who gave atomic secrets (even if she didn't know that's what they were) to a hostile totalitarian power? She was a traitor! She betrayed her country to an enemy. The fact that she did it from conviction, rather than from greed, is not mitigation; the act was the same. End of story.
No, beginning of story. And let's start in, say, 1931. My grandfather, Moishe, was a second-hand clothes repairer in London's East End. He was barely literate. The family inhabited two rooms just off Cable Street, in one of which Moishe pressed and renovated old clothes. For this he was paid a piece rate by the clothes-sellers. One day my father, then aged 11 or so, accompanied his father when he went to negotiate the rates with those who paid him. They too were Jews, but they were Jews, my dad recalled, with fur collars. These men - these men in good clothes with nice houses and fat children - beat down the price paid to a poor man with hungry children. Everybody, it seemed to my dad, was on the fur collar side: the newspapers, the police, the politicians. Everybody except the Communist Party. So he joined up.
Nothing is as dreadful for the children of Communists to contemplate, as the terrible blindness of their parents towards the Soviet Union. Some, like my father, did dislike the way in which the domestic movement was subordinated to the requirements of Russia. He didn't speak out, though. As the poet Jacky Kay has written about her CP dad, he too disagreed with the Soviet Union, but didn't want to share that disagreement with anti-Communists. It would have seemed disloyal. It would have given heart to those who wanted to maintain imperial rule over India, who sought to diminish the rights and living standards of workers, who opposed social medicine, who supported a monarchy and a parasitic ruling class, who tolerated Franco, Salazar, Papadopoulos, Diem, Duvalier and Verwoerd.
We also had a copy of the transcripts of the Moscow show trials on our shelves, next to the Rothsteins and Lenin's What is to be Done. Looking at it now, it is hard to see how anyone could possibly have been fooled by its absurd evil. But many of them were, because they trusted the Beaverbrooks and the Rothermeres even less. There was a battle, and it was a battle between the workers and the bosses, between the masses and the oppressors, a battle in which nationality was secondary. Some caught on only in 1956 with Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin, some after the Hungarian uprising, some after Czechoslovakia, and some - like our Melita - never caught on at all. For them, the world in 1989 was essentially the world of 1931.
Is Melita a traitor to her country? I suppose so. If Vasili Metrokhin and Oleg Gordievsky are traitors, then she is one too. For 60 years our two nations spent millions deliberately trying to suborn the nationals of other countries into betraying their governments. That's why we had honey-traps (the story of the absurd Mr Symonds, the KGB stud, being merely the most surreal of these), bribes, blackmail operations, the lot. Melita was part of the great game, used because she believed.
But she appears to me to be a relict of an age gone by. And let's recall that we know about the Soviets because their files are open; ours remain closed, and - indeed - there is even the threat that they may be destroyed. She was not a traitor to her conscience, or (some would argue) to her class. She was not a traitor to her age, any more than the members of the Rote Kappelle, operating in Berlin, were, in warning of the Nazi invasion of Russia; or the Sorge outfit in Tokyo, who gave notice of the Kursk offensive.
Strangely, those whom she most betrayed were her own comrades. In Kevin Morgan's biography of the Communist leader Harry Pollitt, he recounts how Pollitt received the news that his national organiser, Dave Springhall (an inveterate Stalinist) had been caught acquiring army intelligence for the Kremlin.
"So furious was Pollitt," says Morgan, "that he spent that night cursing the Russians in his sleepless rage. What, after all, did they care for his efforts if they could behave in such a scandalous and irresponsible fashion?"
In the end, though, does it matter? They did it; we did it. They had Melita; we had preposterous characters such as David Shayler and Peter Wright. Now we've moved on, only to have this absurd "who was the 10th man" rubbish resurface every five years, when the latest book is published. Sometimes it seems to me that the entire intelligence business is one gigantic practical joke played on the rest of us by an international gaggle of schoolboys who have never grown up. First they spy on us, then they sell us their memoirs.
But before I go, I do want to take up one challenge that has been laid down this week. One newspaper yesterday argued that there was "another group of people who deserved to share the public pillory of the spies". These were those leftists who saw "a moral equivalence between Washington and Moscow in the global struggle. They have never said sorry."
My dad's dead, and I'll have to do it for him. I'm sorry that he excused what the Russians did, or was insufficiently tough on them. He couldn't see through the fur on the collars.
Is the comedy album making a comeback?comedy
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