Cold War veterans come clean

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The grey suits of old-fashioned British diplomacy gathered yesterday to confess to the errors of the Cold War. Louise Jury heard the Russian ambassador add his voice to the discussion.

The names were the names of a bygone era, an era so different from today it seemed like a history lesson to the younger participants. Lord Callaghan, once British prime minister, spoke of the former Soviet leaders Brezhnev and Khrushchev. Lord Healey, former defence secretary recalled sharing jokes with the Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko.

The ageing cast of British Cold War diplomacy gathered yesterday in the grand and gilded surroundings of the Foreign Office for the launch of two volumes revealing the behind-the-scenes discussions of the late 60s and early 70s. In a move welcomed by Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, as a clear indication of the Government's commitment to openness, the volumes for the first time publish information - including intelligence documents - in advance of the 30-year rule governing the release of all official papers.

They include the expulsion of 105 spies in 1971 after detailed evidence that the KGB had penetrated departments including the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence and secured secrets on projects including Concorde.

Dozens of former diplomats, historians and even Yuri Fokine, the Russian ambassador and former aide to Gromyko, were invited to a seminar yesterday to mull over the implications. Lord Callaghan said the volumes, Britain and the Soviet Union 1968-1972, and The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe 1972 -1975, had told him a great deal he had not known at the time - "and I was supposed to be in charge of policy".

And he said there were obvious lessons on how to treat a totalitarian regime - whether to be hardline or whether to seek closer relations to influence policy. "The lesson for today's diplomats is how do we deal with China." He added that the documents clearly showed that the 30-year rule was "quite absurd".

It was a sentiment shared by Lord Healey who said: "The breach in the 30-year rule must now be extended." It had been devised during the Cold War to stop secrets being revealed, but the reason for it was gone. He said the publication was both "important and interesting.

The one mistake everyone held their hands up to was underestimating the importance of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which ended in the signing of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. Sir Nicholas Henderson, a retired diplomat, said it was impossible to exaggerate the impact of Helskini because the emphasis on human rights had had a significant effect on the future of the countries behind the Iron Curtain.

The final word fell to Yuri Fokine, the Russian ambassador. He warned of the dangers of paying too much note to documents alone. They could not, he said, reflect the Gromyko frown, or his stare, or his lopsided smile. He recalled an occasion at Helskini when the talks were delayed for an age by the Maltese delegation. "Gromyko said, 'What should we do? Assassination maybe?' That was his normal black humour." And in the spirit of detente yesterday, everybody laughed.