Friday, 31 August 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 31 August 2001

So Melita Norwood, the south-east London granny who was revealed a couple of years ago to have spent 40 years spying for the Soviet Union, is to publish her memoirs. The news needs to be taken with just a pinch of salt. It appeared, after all, on the front page of the Sunday Times, which has made a habit of getting it wrong in this line of business. Most notoriously, six years ago after it falsely claimed that Michael Foot had been KGB Agent Boot it was forced to issue a grovelling apology and pay him substantial damages (some of which he gave to Tribune).

But let’s assume that the Sunday Times has got its facts right this time. What will Norwood, formerly Agent Hola, say? Well, to be honest, I haven’t a clue. I’ve never spoken to her, and I don’t know the identity of 88-year-old Melita’s “socialist” friend who is apparently co-writing her book. All I know is that her friends say precisely the same as the papers did when she was first unmasked as a spy: she’s a lovely old dear who just happens to be an unapologetic hardcore Stalinist – OK, I agree the two don't sit easily together – and she regrets nothing.

Of course, it’s possible that her book will be a sensational exposé of Soviet espionage during the cold war, revealing the names of dozens of agents, detailing hundreds of spectacular operations and showing that the Communist Party of Great Britain, of which Norwood was a member, played a crucial role in doing the covert dirty work of the totalitarian regime in Russia.

But I have a sneaking suspicion it won't be anything of the sort. For a start, I'm prepared to bet that Norwood is writing not so much to set the historical record straight as to explain the nobility of her motives in passing military secrets to a vicious police state – the usual communist mendacity about the late and unlamented Soviet Union being a force for peace and progress that deserved any help it could get. If she does know about anything other than her own spying operation, which is unlikely, I don't think she'll spill the beans.

More important, though, it's a moot point whether there are many more beans to spill. On the available evidence, it would be a big surprise if the CP did much more for Moscow in the line of espionage than we already know about (except possibly in Spain in the 1930s and in the 1980s peace movement). The CP was certainly a subsidised servant of the Soviet Union for most of its life – but its role was above all propagandist, and propagandist organisations by their very nature do not provide good cover for spying. It would be less surprising to discover hitherto-unknown Soviet intelligence operations or hitherto-unmasked agents. But there is little reason to believe either that Britain was crawling with Soviet spies during the cold war or that those that were here did much that is not already familiar.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Norwood affair, however, is the nonchalant way in which nearly everyone has treated "the spy who came in from the garden", as one paper dubbed her. Apart from a couple of right-wing Tory MPs and a handful of columnists of the same bent, no one called for her immediate arrest and trial when she was first exposed. The general consensus is that Norwood's spying happened a long time ago in different political circumstances, and that it's not really fair to subject an old lady to the full force of the law. Although there is little sign that the British appetite for tales of Soviet espionage has disappeared, it seems that most Brits think it was all a bit of a joke.

This attitude is a far cry from that prevailing in the United States, where the issue is as contentious as it ever was – largely because of the release in recent years of hitherto secret materials, both in the US and in Russia, that cast light on some of the most controversial spying cases of the Cold War, notably those of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Alger Hiss.

The Rosenbergs were members of the Communist Party of the USA who were executed in 1953 after being found guilty of passing American nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union; Hiss, a senior figure in the Roosevelt administration, was jailed in 1950 for perjury after denying claims that he was a secret communist and spy. Both the Rosenbergs and Hiss strongly protested their innocence at the time, and they became left-wing causes celebres as the most prominent victims of the anti-communist hysteria whipped up by Senator Joe McCarthy and others.

The material released in the past few years, however, shows that both the Rosenbergs and Hiss were guilty as charged. Or at least that's the view of one group of polemicists, mainly but not all on the Right, including the onetime left-wing journalist David Horowitz and the ex-communist historian Ron Radosh, whose sour memoir of the CPUSA, Commies, has just been published. Their critics, mainly on the left, argue with equal force that their evidence is inadequate, if not on the Rosenbergs at least on Hiss – a point put brilliantly in the left-wing weekly The Nation last month by its former editor, Victor Navasky, a veteran anti-McCarthyite.

There is something unsettling about the vehemence with which the American argument is being conducted, and the attempt of by some on the Right to use it as a means of rehabilitating McCarthy is shocking. But the seriousness of the American debate is salutary. The KGB and its predecessors were not at all funny. I don't think Norwood should be prosecuted or that she can be held personally responsible for all the KGB's crimes – but we should not forget that she was a member of an organisation that killed thousands of people and ruined millions of lives.

Friday, 17 August 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 17 August 2001

I wasn’t planning to have another go at our dearly beloved Foreign Secretary this week – but no one else has written the response that his last piece in these pages demanded (When-oh-when are you dozy Tribune-reading klutzes going to wake up to the fact that Britain's relationships with the United States and Europe are a little more important than whether you vote Liberal Democrat in Tory seats in the south-west of England? I just ask.)

In case you missed it, Jack Straw's most recent column in Tribune (July 27) was an impassioned defence of "Son of Star Wars", George W Bush's hare-brained plan for a ballistic missile defence (BMD) system to protect the United States against, well, no one we can identify with certainty at present, but it might at some point include Iraq, Libya and North Korea.

So much is wrong with Straw's case that it's difficult to know where to start. When I first read his piece, I was gob-smacked by his phoney faux naif tone: it's amazing that no one seems ever to have told him that a man in his position claiming to be a clueless chump comes across as a clueless chump.

But what really sticks in the craw is his crass dismissal of anyone who thinks there is a better means of organising defence policy than either missile defence or nuclear deterrence, the threat of "mutually assured destruction" that has kept the world in a state of neurotic terror for S3 years. "Who opposed MAD in the cold war and prefers it now to missile defence?" he asks rhetorically. 'The answer is some of those who say we should have nothing to do with missile defence. It's not a very convincing answer."

This is, of course, a dig at his predecessor as Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who was sceptical about Bush's plans and was once, in his European Nuclear Disarmament days in the 1980s, an eloquent critic of deterrence.

But this is about more than settling scores in the Cabinet. The truth is that, regardless of what you think of deterrence, ballistic missile defence is a dangerous project. Not only will it cost an incredible amount of money that could be better spent. It will undermine the whole arms-control regime established over the past 35-odd years. Deploying a BMD system would be a unilateral abrogation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, one of the key international arms agreements of the cold war, setting off a BMD-related arms race and inviting all and sundry to wreck every other arms control agreement ever signed.

The existing arms control set-up is not perfect. But, contrary to the Bush and his friends on the US right, it needs to be reinforced rather than swept away. Arms control treaties show that political means can be used to keep military technology in check. We need more of them, with greater scope. If some existing agreements are not working, we need not to ditch them but to make them effective by any means necessary, from intensive diplomacy to rigorous sanctions.

That is the line of every other social democratic government in Europe. Straw's position is a pathetically craven attempt to win favour from the Bush administration.


Meanwhile, out of the public eye, a big change is afoot in the small world of the New Politics Network, the tiny outfit – 285 members – that inherited the mantle and riches of Straw's old buddies when he was a student leader, the Communist Party of Great Britain. Last month, I spent a weird Saturday morning at the avowedly post-Leninist network's AGM (held, oddly, in the Marx Memorial Library in London, with a bust of old Vladimir Ilyich looking on) at which the ex-comrades decided, pending a vote of members, to turn over the assets of the organisation to a trust.

So what, you might think. Except that the assets (mostly real estate inherited from the CPGB, originally purchased directly with subventions from Moscow) are worth around £4 million. Putting them into a trust means that NPN members will cede control of the kitty to unelected trustees – former-CP bigwigs and usual-suspect great-and-gooders – who will dish out largesse to their favoured respectable "progressive" causes in perpetuity. It's a patronage scam of the worst kind, and as a member of the NPN – never a CPer, I joined because I really am a post-Marxist democratic pluralist and mistakenly took the ex-commies on face value – I argued at the AGM for retention of the organisation's constituional status quo, whereby members can decide democratically where the assets go when, as seems inevitable, the whole show is wound up. Given the decrepitude of the organsiation, I said, it would be better to hand over the cash to people who are genuinely doing something worthwhile (the NPN has spent £250,000 in the past 18 months on bugger-all) and fade away peacefully.

We liquidationists were not organised, and we were beaten 19-9 in the AGM vote by a popular front of mugwumps and pensioner leadership loyalists. I reckon we'll lose the vote of the membership too. But, as the old left cliché goes, the struggle goes on.