Tim Blair


New Criterion



Friday, June 27, 2003

On this morning's Radio National Breakfast, commentator Gerard Henderson was indulged, as he is every Friday, by morning mouthpiece pro tem Jennifer Byrne (no transcript, but watch Henny's opinion page).

Henderson had a merited whinge about Auntie's supine repeating of the BBC's craven apology for the "Cambridge Spies", Philby, Blunt, Burgess and Maclean. Not to put them in any particular order of monstrosity.

This big budget mini-series, screening on Sunday evenings on ABC television, is based on one dominant assumption that goes as far up Uncle's nostrils as it does Henderson's.

Its thesis, plugged with monocular persistence, is that all four were youthful idealists, devoted to the ideals of universal brotherhood and the odd bit of buggery. We are treated to a kind of Brideshead Revisited spiced up by treachery.

Wasn't it a shame they were so cruelly used by those nasty Russians.

There are a few problems with the BBC spin.

It was popular among the privileged young of the time to be left and pacifist. Few became agents of the Soviet Union like the heroes of this tale.

There were also right-wing idealists, democratic socialists and conservatives who were no happier about the miseries of the depression and the cruelties of fascism of the left and right. These inconvenient types are simply written out of history, BBC version. Instead we have our heroes acting against a backdrop of British anti-Semites and bashers of workers, with nothing between them and the pro-Soviet position.

For example, the Soviet position in Spain, supported by all four, was not just to fight Franco's rebels but also the democratic left. It was the age of the 'necessary murder' of anyone on the left who got in the way of Stalin's agents. Not a problem for these BBC heroes. Except when Philby was asked to pull the trigger on Franco he wimped out, according to the script.

All four are portrayed as distraught at the deal between Hitler and Stalin in 1939 to carve up central and eastern Europe. Given the spin of this programme, can we have any confidence that this is more than convenient fiction? Their loyalty to Stalinism survived every other bastardry perpetrated by the Soviet regime until the end of their lives. Even after they had been uncovered.

As Henderson commented, can you imagine a similar tribute to the idealism of, say, Lord Haw Haw, who broadcast open propaganda for the Nazi regime?

Indeed, why has the murderousness of the left totalitarians, who were much better at producing mounds of corpses in peace time than the Nazis, remained so much more acceptable to the left for half a century. Their hearts were in the right place? Any wonder so many refugees from the Soviet murder machine treated the Western left with contempt.

To be taken seriously this apology for treachery would need to deal also with its subjects' lust for power and privilege, narcissism, sociopathy (Philby had three wives, all of which he abandoned - in the real world, without compunction - when they got in the way of his higher loyalty to himself), incapacity for intellectual honesty and total lack of feeling for the many whose deaths they caused directly. We won't try to compute the numbers who died indirectly because of their aid to Stalinism.

At one point the script acknowledges, indirectly, that Philby knew in the 1930s precisely the nature of the regime he was working for. Philby did nothing to indicate he was critical of his masters, and neither does this script.

Idealism be buggered.

The behaviour of the Cambridge spies stands to idealism as rape stands to consensual sex.

Auntie's communards demonstrate a similarly violent attitude to intellectual integrity in screening such a whitewash without even recognising that there is any ground here for contention. Mouthpiece Byrne, who is usually unsure whether she should be gabbling or giggling, knows in her bones that Henderson is wrong, so interjects energetically, but from total ignorance.

If you know your ideology, do you need to know anything else?