Lord Bethell - Obituaries - News - The Independent

Lord Bethell

MEP, historian and campaigner


Nicholas William Bethell, writer, historian and politician: born 19 July 1938; a Lord in Waiting 1970-71; MEP (Conservative) 1975-79, for London North-West 1979-94, for the London Region 1999-2003; succeeded 1967 as 4th Baron Bethell; married 1964 Cecilia Honeyman (died 1977, marriage dissolved 1971; two sons), 1992 Bryony Griffiths (one son); died 8 September 2007.

Nicholas Bethell was a long-serving and influential Member of the European Parliament and a freelance historian of considerable distinction. But he will be remembered principally for his passionate belief in human rights and for the campaigns he waged on behalf of dissidents everywhere, but chiefly in the Soviet Union.

A brilliant linguist, fluent in both Russian and Polish, he made many journeys to Communist Russia, often it is believed at some personal risk, and made friends with the leading dissidents Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky and Alexander Ginsburg. He interviewed them and campaigned for the release of those in prison. He was credited with the release of Sakharov from internal exile in 1986. He had played a leading part in creating the Sakharov Prize, awarded annually by the European Parliament, a year earlier in 1985.

Bethell was to translate several of their works, including Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward (1968) and The Love Girl and the Innocent (1969). The first of these publications led to a blazing row with the author. A Czech dissident, Pavel Licko, had passed the manuscript of Cancer Ward to Bethell, and after vain efforts to contact Solzhenitsyn, he collaborated in the translation that was published by Bodley Head. After he left the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn insisted that Licko was a Soviet stooge and that he had no right to do what he did. The affair almost reached the courts, but was only to surface in public when Solzhenitsyn renewed the attack in his memoirs.

Bethell hit back hard, insisting that Licko, who had died a year earlier, was being unfairly maligned and that Solzhenitsyn had subsequently ratified the agreement with Bodley Head and benefited from the royalties. He was particularly wounded by the unfairness of the attack on a dead man, and irritated by Solzhenitsyn's criticism of the quality of the translation. Later, in his memoir Spies and Other Secrets (1994), he recounted the consequences for his own political career, a veto on his nomination for the European Parliament on the advice of MI5 and MI6, while at the same time he was under attack in the Czech press as an agent of MI6. "It was a sad state to be in", he wrote, "accused by both sides in the Cold War of working for the secret intelligence of the other." However, a change in the leadership of the Conservative Party repaired his political fortunes.

Bethell was a fine wordsmith. He published several historical works and at least three have lasting value. Perhaps the most notable was The Last Secret: forcible repatriation to Russia 1944-7 (1974), which opened up what to many people remains a lasting stain on Britain's war record, the forcible repatriation to the Soviet Union of those Russians who had fought with the German army. Among them were many who had never been Soviet citizens and Bethell concluded that this must have been a deliberate decision. Subsequent controversy has centred on the elaboration of that charge by Count Nikolai Tolstoy and its rebuttal by the Cowgill report, but it is notable that the bulk of Bethell's findings have stood the test of time and subsequent research.

The Palestine Triangle: the struggle between the British, the Jews and the Arabs 1935-48 (1979) remains a considerable contribution to the study of the politics of the Middle East, while Betrayed (1984), which dealt with Anglo-American efforts to extract Albania from the Soviet sphere, provided a fascinating insight into the activities of MI5 and the results of Kim Philby's betrayal of them. It is possible to think that he exaggerated Philby's role in this major intelligence fiasco, while still appreciating the importance of Bethell's study.

Nicholas William Bethell was born in 1938, son of the Hon William Bethell (third son of the first Baron Bethell) and his wife Ann. He was educated at Harrow and Pembroke College, Cambridge. He had learnt Russian during National Service and at Cambridge read Oriental Languages. He mastered Arabic and Persian and was subsequently to marry the daughter of a distinguished Arabist, Professor A.M. Honeyman. However, it was his friendship with Polish undergraduates at Cambridge that largely determined his later life. On leaving Cambridge, he spent two years writing for the Times Literary Supplement and in 1964 joined the BBC's radio drama department as a script editor specialising in East European drama.

Bethell succeeded his cousin as the 4th Baron Bethell in December 1967 and took the Conservative whip. He was immediately preoccupied with the Czechoslovak crisis, blaming the Soviet invasion on their fear that "the germ of freedom" would spread across the Soviet bloc. Briefly he was a whip himself in the Heath government but stood down in 1971 to fight a libel action against Private Eye. Auberon Waugh had suggested that the unauthorised publication of Cancer Ward had been done deliberately to make it possible for Solzhenitsyn to be prosecuted and that Bethell was a KGB agent.

Bethell won but was not recalled to government. The minister in charge of security accepted that he was a security risk, although believing him only an inadvertent agent of the KGB. Subsequently Heath vetoed his inclusion on the list of Conservatives nominated to the European Parliament and refused to meet him when Bethell sought to clear his name. In fact he was staunchly anti-Communist and was subsequently identified by some on the left as a member of the intelligence services.

A strong supporter of British membership of the European Economic Community, he was nominated to the European Parliament in 1975 and when the first direct elections took place was elected MEP for London North-West, holding that seat until he was defeated in 1994. After five years' absence he returned to Strasbourg as one of London's MEPs in 1999, but was finally compelled by his increasing ill-health to stand down in 2003.

He had first noticed the symptoms of Parkinson's in 1995, but once the illness was diagnosed, it was brought under control with drugs, and Bethell did not let it affect his activities in the House of Lords and in the European Parliament. But even his courage was not proof against the debilitating course of the disease when it progressed after a lengthy period in which his condition was stable.

In addition to the books listed above, Bethell completed a translation of Chingiz Aitmatov's Ascent of Mount Fuji in 1975. His first historical work, published in 1969, had been a biography, Gomulka: his Poland and his Communism. He had then completed The War Hitler Won, September 1939 (1972) and also published Russia Besieged (1977).

Nick Bethell was a congenial companion, a member of the Garrick and Pratt's, and he listed the playing of poker among his hobbies.

John Barnes

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