So what if he was

Paul Foot

  • No Other Choice by George Blake
    Cape, 288 pp, £12.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 224 03067 1
  • Inside Intelligence by Anthony Cavendish
    Collins, 181 pp, £12.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 00 215742 X

Here are two more spy books from authors who worked long ago for British Intelligence. George Blake was very left-wing, and is now slightly less so. Anthony Cavendish has always been very right-wing. Both authors write of their profound respect for one of their former bosses, George K. Young. Young, who died recently, was deputy head of MI6 until he joined the merchant bankers Kleinwort Benson in 1961. One of the very few revelations in George Blake’s book is a memorandum which George Young circulated among his admiring agents in the mid-Fifties. It starts by castigating the ‘ceaseless talk’ about the ‘spread of democratic processes’. ‘The reality,’ it went on, ‘is quite the opposite.’ There then followed this illuminating passage:

The nuclear stalemate is matched by the moral stalemate. It is the spy who has been called upon to remedy the situation created by the deficiencies of ministers, diplomats, generals and priests ... We spies ... do perhaps live closer to the realities and hard facts of international relations than other practitioners of government. We are relatively free of the problems of status, of precedence, departmental attitudes and evasions of personal responsibility which create the official cast of mind. We do not have to develop, like the Parliamentarians conditioned by a lifetime, the ability to produce the ready phrase, the smart reply and the flashing smile. And so it is not surprising these days that the spy finds himself the main guardian of intellectual integrity.

I met George Young once, and have written about him several times in the last 25 years. The intellectual integrity which he guarded most assiduously was that of the Far Right. He was a racialist to his very core. He detested black people, whose immigration into this country in the Fifties and Sixties drove him into paroxysms of fury. He took the side of the Arabs in the Middle East for the only reason which has never been justified: their antagonists were Jews. He believed that the postwar Tory Party was riddled with treacherous moderates, crypto-Communists and homosexuals. He spent many years fighting in the Tory Party for a leadership which stood up for the Old Order he believed in. He was chairman of Tory Action, which campaigned so successfully in 1974 and 1975 to remove Edward Heath as Tory leader and replace him with Thatcher. He even stood for Parliament himself. But he was, as the memo makes clear, deeply suspicious of anything which smacked of democracy. It threw up waverers, compromisers, ready phrases and flashing smiles.

One of the saddest features of George Blake’s book is that it does not deal in detail with the politics of his former contemporaries in MI6, though he himself, as much as any of the people they smeared, was their victim. He was recruited to the British secret service at the end of the war, after he had escaped with some aplomb from occupied Europe. No doubt the atmosphere in the secret services at that time was slightly less openly right-wing than it had been before the last war (though one of Blake’s first jobs was to recruit suitable Fascist officers from the German Navy to spy on the new Communist enemy). Blake’s conversion started when he read the books provided for him by the SIS to prove the nastiness of Communism. His Marxist education started in earnest in a prison camp in North Korea after he and other agents had been captured as a result of typical MI6 bungling. He had nothing to read except Das Capital and State and Revolution in Russian. They worked wonders. So Blake, SIS man, became a Communist. What to do then?

He calls his book No Other Choice, but of course, as he concedes himself, there were plenty of choices: ‘No doubt to leave the Service and openly join the Communist Movement was the most honourable and at the same time less dangerous course. The man who fights openly for what he believes to be right is a more attractive and respected figure than the one who acts in secret and wears a mask. But I could not hide from myself that the contribution I could make to the cause by adopting the third course’ – spying for Russia in the SIS – ‘would be incomparably greater.’ So Blake made secret contact with the Russians, spent six or seven years working at the top level of British Intelligence in Europe and the Middle East and handed over to the Russians a hefty slice of all the important British Intelligence information in both areas. None of this made the slightest difference to the plight of humanity. A Communist Party branch in Clapham would have done ten times as much, even if it had encouraged only one group of workers to form a union, or helped save only one tenant from eviction. Blake’s fantastic argument – like that of all the ‘ideological spies’ – was that the best thing they could do for socialism was to spy for Stalin, and in the process to conceal every vestige of their socialist commitment from everyone except Stalin’s agents. Such a notion flowed naturally from the élitist, sheltered and complacent world of the British Intelligence service.

The decision, once made, could not be reversed. George Blake was trapped in the dreary cycle of finding things out for Britain, photographing them and handing them over to Russia. Inevitably, he was caught. Shocked at the sheer volume of secrets he had revealed, the judge sentenced him three times for the same offence. He went to prison for 42 years. There he met Pat Pottle and Michael Randle, who had been sent to prison for their illegal protests against nuclear weapons. They had put their commitment to much better use than Blake had. They had campaigned openly for a peaceful world. They were shocked at Blake’s sentence and helped him escape. But they weren’t at all interested in supporting one side of the Cold War against another. Their last message to Blake as he crossed to safety in East Germany was to urge him to do his best to free the dissenters Sinyavsky and Daniel (a task in which Blake was singularly unsuccessful).

Blake’s book ends with a sad admission that what he believed to be Communism has failed. Russia today is not at all what he hoped it would be: ‘This universal rudeness and the sullen tired look of the crowds in the streets are the result of the strain of daily life, the constant irritation and exhaustion caused by the queues and the frustration engendered by the endless obstacles which the bureaucratic machinery, without which nothing can be done, puts in the way of solving the most ordinary everyday problem.’

The book dribbles away in the usual incantations to free enterprise and moral principle, but nowhere admits that that ‘sullen tired look’ could be seen on the faces of Russian workers long before Blake decided to take the secret road to socialism. If he had based his commitment on the experience of real people, not on the fantastic claims of a ruthless dictatorship, he might have done himself some justice and at the same time helped to expose the lunacies of the British Intelligence services.

This last job is done more effectively, and more improbably, by Anthony Cavendish. He decided to write his book, he tells us, for one reason only: to clear the name of his former friend and boss, Sir Maurice Oldfield. He claims that before the Peter Wright fiasco, and before the 1989 Official Secrets Act, there was no general duty of confidentiality on former intelligence officers. Provided what they wrote or said fitted the absurd images created of themselves by the intelligence services, their reflections were welcomed. Books about the security services, when they fitted such fiction and were written by ‘safe’ journalists like Chapman Pincher or Nigel West, were received enthusiastically. It was only when the former MI5 agent Peter Wright, in a fit of pique, suddenly blurted out the truth that a gang in MI5 used their enormous irresponsible powers against the elected government of the day; and that Harold Wilson, author of the famous phrase ‘tightly-knit group of politically-motivated men’, was the victim of just such a group in his own intelligence services – that the Establishment in one great shout cried ‘Halt.’ Wright himself became a millionaire from the banning of his book by the British Government. Anthony Cavendish was, and I fear will be, less fortunate. But the Government moved relentlessly against his book as well, not because it tells a single secret which would damage a single agent, or because a single person’s security is for one moment threatened by it, but because it reveals that the MI5 gang exposed by Wright was not just smearing and subverting the government – it was smearing and subverting its own boss.

Sir Maurice Oldfield was appointed ‘C’ (head of MI6) in 1973. The first two years he was in charge were marked by a ferocious battle in Northern Ireland between MI6 (who were in charge of intelligence in foreign countries, including Eire) and MI5, who believed they should be in charge of all intelligence to do with the North of Ireland. The most appalling things were done in the name of intelligence during this feud. All the crimes for which people like George Blake are blamed – the naming of agents to the other side, the use of assassinations to rub out intelligence rivals, the swapping of intelligence with enemy agents – all these were committed indiscriminately. No effort was spared by MI5 to investigate the sexual histories of their rivals’ leaders. During the next five years (Oldfield resigned from MI6 in 1978) someone discovered that the MI6 boss had had some homosexual encounters in his youth, and had not declared them when he was positively vetted. This, says Cavendish, was quite normal. There was an obligation only to disclose anything which might have endangered national security. Nothing was said about it, and, without knowing that these inquiries had been made about him, Oldfield retired at the age of 65, in 1978.

The following year, Mrs Thatcher, the new prime minister, was appalled at the intelligence mess in Northern Ireland and called Sir Maurice out of retirement to sort it out. In the few months he acted as ‘supremo’, he was the victim of a smear campaign so vile and well-informed that it could only have come from MI5. Newspaper photographers were posted outside Oldfield’s London flat. Waiters who took him meals there were photographed. Sir John Junor, then a columnist for the Sunday Express, now boasts that he was told by Sir David McNee, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, that Oldfield was a homosexual. Junor passed this on to the Prime Minister in a private letter. Eventually, someone (probably the old grass Lord Rothschild, a former intelligence chief who was prepared to go to any lengths to deflect attention from his own pro-Russian past) told Sir Maurice that his secret about positive vetting was known. Oldfield confessed to Sir Robert Armstrong, secretary to the Cabinet, and left his post. He was ill. He had cancer, but an army hospital diagnosed it as diverticulitis. He was wrongly diagnosed until near the end. He died in 1981. MI5 were not satisfied with his death. In 1987, there were more press leaks. The Sunday Times published the entirely false story that Oldfield had been suspected of getting drunk in a Belfast pub and propositioning a man in the lavatory there. (He could not possibly have been to the pub, as has since been proved.)

The smear campaign worked its poison in the highest circles. The Prime Minister herself felt obliged to make a statement in the House of Commons which contained not a word of gratitude to Oldfield for stepping into a job which she begged him to take on, and which resulted in his being smeared until he died. Anthony Cavendish, the last man on earth to believe ill of the service for which he worked, has done it terrible damage. He knew Oldfield well for many, many years. He asserts that Oldfield was not homosexual – though such assertions are always unprovable and therefore unconvincing. ‘So what if he was?’ is a much better reply to any such allegation. If the answer is that homosexuals are more prone to blackmail than are heterosexuals (a highly dubious proposition anyway – the former British agent and Tory MP Anthony Courtney lost his job and his seat when he was photographed in flagrante with a Russian agent provocateuse), where is the evidence that Oldfield was or might have been blackmailed? There is none whatever. Anthony Cavendish has done well by his former friend and colleague and in doing so has cast yet another shadow over the subversive and fanatical intelligence gang which pretend that they protect us from subversion and fanaticism.