Tinker, tailor, soldier, Marxist
Lawrence Parker takes issue with some of the interpretations of Michael Bettaney’s life and ideas that have appeared down the years
It is something of an irony that Michael John Bettaney’s reputation has partly been rehabilitated at the moment of his death in August 2018. Bettaney, a counter-espionage officer in MI5, was imprisoned in 1984 for passing sensitive documents to the KGB and for offering his services to the Soviet Union. For years, he has been the object of a parody: a drunken, Nazi-loving MI5 officer stuffing secret documents through the letterbox of the KGB in London in an attempt to gain some personal attention.
Putting Bettaney’s name into a search engine throws up a host of inferior writing and abuse, which can be summed up in the headline of one: ‘Tinker, tailor, soldier, clot.’ This is, of course, a play on the title of John le Carré’s famous novel Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy (1974), in which a Soviet mole, Bill Haydon, is unearthed in the British Secret Intelligence Service. Haydon is a cool customer, attuned to the careful calculations of his Soviet spymaster, Karla, and able to blow an impressive number of British intelligence missions until run to ground by Le Carré’s hero, George Smiley. In popular legend, and partly because of a smear campaign courtesy of MI5 and its establishment courtiers, Bettaney (who was a fan of Le Carré’s literary work, although he did not like the author’s politics1) becomes the exact opposite of the urbane and crafty Haydon: a bungling oaf who could not even get the KGB to take an interest in his secrets.
Interestingly, Ben Macintyre’s The spy and the traitor: the greatest [sic] espionage story of the cold war (2018), partly explodes this rubbish. Macintyre - a Times journalist otherwise central to dredging up shop-soiled smears of Michael Foot being viewed as a Soviet intelligence asset - gives the truth that Bettaney used spy tradecraft, offering “detailed and explicit” instructions to KGB London head Arkadi Guk if he wished to cooperate (for example, putting a drawing pin at the top of banisters on Piccadilly underground station2). Bettaney also had access to the MI5 surveillance files and knew exactly when hostiles would be watching Guk’s flat. Along with his collation of the MI5 documents and the fact he covered “his tracks with professional efficiency3”, it is fairly clear that there was not anything particularly haphazard about Bettaney’s planned defection. In fact, Bettaney provoked anxiety in MI5 at the time of his being caught and interrogated by his officers, in terms of the possible outcomes of his not cracking under his inquisitors.
Bettaney did not fail because he drank heavily or because he was notably incompetent: he failed because a double agent in the Soviet ranks, Oleg Gordievsky, tipped off the British as to what was afoot. The Bettaney affair also provoked an expected unease among the establishment and its hangers-on as to the probity of the intelligence service in regards to the sanctity of the British state. Whatever else it was, this was not a woozy, alcoholic sideshow.
So Macintyre’s exploration of the Bettaney affair is useful in eroding some of the parodies that have grown up around it. However, there is a good deal of the old nonsense dredged up. The author mentions Bettaney’s interest in Nazism while he was a student. It is important to note that here Macintyre is channelling a rightwing smear that arose around the time of Bettaney’s incarceration. Sir Anthony Grant, Conservative MP for Cambridgeshire South West, wrote about Bettaney’s statement of his communist beliefs after the sentencing: “… coupled with Mr Bettaney’s apparent interest in Nazism earlier, [the statement] draws one to the conclusion that either he was mentally unbalanced or that the whole affair is a colossal double-bluff.4” Youthful university sentiments were thus being used to unpick adult ideology.
In Macintyre’s case, I am not sure what Bettaney’s playing of Hitler’s speeches at Oxford University is meant to prove5. The Britain of Bettaney’s youth was saturated by the memory of World War II and the designation of an evil other: Nazi Germany. It was not uncommon for youths of my era (I am roughly 20 years younger than Bettaney was) to have a morbid fascination with Hitler and the Nazi regime, partly propelled by the constancy of the topic in the mass media. I got bitten by this bug in the sense of reading every book I could about Hitler and the Nazis in my late teens, although I never graduated to goose-stepping around the yard or being able to take Nazism remotely seriously as a political ideology. But it was slightly cool and bohemian to be interested in Nazi Germany when I was at school; and it was not uncommon to call authoritarian teachers ‘Hitler’ or simulate Nazi salutes in their direction (it was generally better to do this when these particular teachers could not see you). However, such juvenile happenings had no consequences for my future life and I was never tempted to propose a war on smaller Oxfordshire villages around my own in the cause of a Greater Hook Norton. In my case, an interest in the history of political ideologies meant I became attracted to Marxism - reading about Nazism meant having to learn a thing or two about its mortal enemy. Bettaney’s interest in Nazism proves nothing.
Macintyre suggests that Bettaney’s insecurities and inferiorities made him unsuited to intelligence work. Again, this is an instance of Macintyre channelling establishment anxieties of the time. Thus, the Daily Mail opined in 1984: “For a man singled out to become a trusted member of the British security services, traitor Michael John Bettaney had a disturbing past and a remarkable series of flaws in his character, any one of which should have barred him from service with MI5.6” While the weaponisation of Bettaney’s so-called Nazism relies upon a notion of original sin, the judgement that insecurities and intelligence do not mix relies upon an implied notion of operatives being steel-jawed (steel presumably being a useful mechanism to achieve a stiff upper lip) James Bond-type figures.
If intelligence work is a serious study of human fallibility and complexity (and if it is not based on that, it is, I would suggest, imbecilic), then presumably it needs operatives who are sensitive to human conditions. The anxiety, depression and insecurities that eat many of us alive on a daily basis do sometimes have a kind of dividend in human insight and sensitivity. To that end, an intelligence service that did not employ losers, misfits, oddballs, derelicts and depressives would not be one of any great seriousness. In any case, Bettaney, writing as Michael Malkin following his release from prison, was, of course, well aware that MI5 was not a particularly heroic organisation, stating that “contrary to popular preconception, intelligence work is essentially a bureaucratic task, involving the analysis and collation of an endless stream of information on paper [this was written in 2002] … its dramatic potentialities are rather limited”.7
Macintyre also complains that Bettaney “wanted attention”8. But the fact that this is seen as a problem is an indictment of MI5, the assumptions of journalists working for The Times and the society they operate in, rather than of Bettaney. As humans are social beings, they are quite likely to want attention and this only becomes problematic for bureaucrats, militarists, people intent on following orders and court flunkeys in general.
Macintyre, of course, cannot treat Bettaney’s Marxist politics and his adhesion to the Soviet Union as anything more than an elaborate hoax. We are told, in all seriousness, that “Bettaney’s Marxist politics were as artificial as his fruity accent” and that “there is little evidence he felt any particular affinity for the Soviet Union”9. At this point, I am sure Bettaney’s CPGB ex-comrades (a category in which I include myself) will be hooting with laughter, but this is another wearing example of Macintyre merely channelling establishment anxiety from the time of the trial. As The Times editorialised in 1984,
Bafflement arises from the continuing ideological pull of the Soviet Union. It is just possible to believe that Stalin’s Englishmen in the 1930s had no real knowledge of the Soviet tyranny. But, in an age when the details of the Gulag are well known and the institutionalised brutalities of the Soviet system beyond question, how it is possible for an intelligent civil servant to treat Moscow as the repository of this idealism beggars belief.10
Similarly, Sir Anthony Grant attempted to poke fun at the statement of political belief that Bettaney had issued via his solicitors after the trial:
It was comparable to an essay by lower members of a school fourth form, asked to write a piece of communist propaganda. Indeed, it might have been written by a Young Conservative as a ‘leftwing’ spoof, it was so crude.11
But refusing to believe Bettaney was an easy way out for the establishment, because believing that he had plumped for a failed society in the form of the Soviet Union would need an explanation as to why a capitalist country such as Britain had not retained the spy’s allegiance.
The view of The Times was not hegemonic in 1984, dependent as it was on a patriotic, defensive view of Britain and its intelligence services. While Lord Lane did preside over an attempt to blacken Bettaney’s character at his trial, stating that the former MI5 operative was puerile and dangerous, he did not seemingly have any problem in accepting that ideology was a motivator:
It is perfectly true that there was no question here of hope by you of any financial gain or of any power or any self-aggrandisement. It is equally plain that this was an individual decision upon political ideological convictions.12
Lane and the whole conduct of the Bettaney trial were subsequently the objects of criticism by EP Thompson, although Thompson had no political sympathy for Bettaney or the Soviet Union.13
Nick Davies, writing for The Guardian in 1984, also seemingly had no problem with facing the reality of Bettaney’s Marxism. He said:
His motive had nothing to do with greed or blackmail or any of the other traditionally grubby motives for espionage. In his own mind, he was using his position in MI5 to try to stop Great Britain and the western alliance tottering into a new world war.14
Davies added: “In his eight years in the service he became a Marxist intellectual - the sort of bookish leftwing academic who would fit comfortably into the politics department of any British university.15” So non-belief in Bettaney’s Marxism was not a universal phenomenon, being somewhat dependent on your newspaper’s political outlook.
Bettaney also had some support among the British left of the time. Not from the ostensibly pro-Soviet Morning Star, which restricted itself to a boring factual report that, amazingly, failed to notice Bettaney’s political statements around the trial (‘soft’ pro-Sovietism, in the guise of the Morning Star, had become saddled with social-patriotism in the form of the British road to socialism; hence Bettaney would be suspect because he did not share such contradictory loyalties).16 In contrast, The Leninist newspaper said: “We applaud traitors to British imperialism. Bettaney was a ‘patriot’ of the Soviet Union and therefore of the working class in Britain and throughout the world.”17Along similar lines, Spartacist Britain said: “The victorious proletariat will doubtless find a place of honour for Michael Bettaney, whose ‘treachery’ is only to an outmoded system of institutionalised murder and oppression.”18 Other leftwing newspapers that organised themselves around anti-Sovietism, such as Socialist Organiser, were predictably more hostile, denouncing Bettaney’s “great mistake” in linking “the cause of peace and socialism with the USSR”.19
However, there are deeper reasons for thinking that Bettaney was in the mould of previous ideological defectors, such as Kim Philby, and these are more to do with Bettaney’s actions after being released from prison in May 1998. Like Jack Conrad, who wrote a decent obituary,20 I was also a comrade of Bettaney in the CPGB Provisional Central Committee (CPGB-PCC); he started attending CPGB events around the same time as I joined in 1998. I liked and respected him; got on well with him; and confided in him a little during some dark days in my personal life. He was very kind to me at a Communist University at Uxbridge in 1999, when I was at a low personal ebb. But, like Conrad, I could never say I knew Bettaney.
The act of joining an avowedly communist organisation in Britain in 1998 was not an obvious choice. In the period of reaction after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 it meant putting yourself into isolation, even in terms of the wider left. When the CPGB was involved in early versions of the Socialist Alliance in this period it was not uncommon to hear snarls of anti-communist rhetoric from its leading group. Joining a very small organisation such as the CPGB in this period was thus not a casual or shallow act and rather gives the lie to Macintyre’s assertion that Bettaney’s Marxist politics were in any way artificial.
Macintyre argues there is “little evidence” that Bettaney “felt any particular affinity for the Soviet Union”21. Above and beyond wanting to spy for it, that is. In fact, there is evidence that Bettaney did feel such an affinity. While in prison in the 1980s, he was in correspondence with members of a small faction inside the old Communist Party of Great Britain, which produced The Leninist newspaper (this organisation, of course, later became the CPGB-PCC after the liquidation of the ‘official’ CPGB).22
In November 1987 The Leninist had led with an article by Jack Conrad calling ‘For a real political revolution’ in the Soviet Union against its ruling bureaucracy.23 Bettaney (writing under the pseudonym of MG Malkin) said: “I would probably be regarded as a ‘centrist today’, in so far as, notwithstanding some reservations, I give uncompromising support to the political line of the current [Communist Party of the Soviet Union - CPSU] leadership.”24 He accused The Leninist of indulging in attacks on the Soviet bureaucracy that were a “cover for attacks on the CPSU itself”.25 Further, he said that Conrad’s “irresponsible call for political pluralism in the vaguest terms” was a recipe for “capitalist restoration”.26
Conrad may be right in his obituary that Bettaney was initially banking on the Soviet Union digging him out of prison in exchange for a British spy. However, as Bettaney surely realised, communicating through the pages of The Leninist - an obscure journal on the fringes of the communist movement - was not the most likely means of catching the attention of the Soviet bureaucracy. In other words, affinity with the Soviet Union was somewhere at the political heart of Michael Bettaney.
This also puts a rather different slant on Conrad’s portrayal of Bettaney as simply a follower of Hillel Ticktin, whose fame in Marxist circles in the 1970s and 1980s rested upon a re-examination of the political economy of the Soviet Union that portrayed it as an unstable social formation in a process of disintegration.27 Bettaney’s admiration for Ticktin was no secret. However, this was expressed with a strong streak of sentimentalism towards the Soviet Union and, therefore, I find Conrad somewhat guilty of erasing a contradiction. On one of the last occasions I saw him, in around 2005, Bettaney repeated what he had told me many times previously: “I’m just an old Brezhnevite.” As it goes, he was not particularly old; nor did I hear him in political meetings making any hard-line pro-Soviet views, even when this was a bone of contention in the CPGB-PCC in 1998-99. But he did give cause in private to make me (and other members of Manchester CPGB-PCC, who were still broadly pro-Soviet in their thinking at that time) think that he did have such views. I would suspect that Bettaney offered Conrad a very different estimation of his private thinking on such matters.
In articles, Bettaney was scathing towards the official ideologies of the Soviet Union, particularly as they clashed with his own humanist reading of Marx and Marxism. In one such article (written as Michael Malkin) he briefly discussed the works of disgraced Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko, which “held back and diverted the development of science in the Soviet Union”.28Bettaney expressed his disapproval in an interesting manner:
Lysenkoism persisted long after the death of Stalin. Who can forget Nikita Khrushchev prating on about the possibilities of growing maize anywhere, even in the permafrost? It is all too sad to talk about, even now.29
I do not think Bettaney was using“sad” in a sarcastic manner in this context. While he was obviously no fan of Soviet state-sponsored dogma, I think he was revealing the sentimental side of himself in relation to ‘actually existing socialism’. It was a genuine hurt that things had not turned out a lot better.
I suspect these occasional bouts of sentiment were vital to Bettaney and survived the intellectual assault of reading writers such as Ticktin, existing uneasily alongside a new rationalism. After all, it was surely easier to justify 15 years in prison to himself on the basis that the country he was trying to serve in the early 1980s had some kind of progressive nub than to think (like Ticktin) that all the Soviet Union had achieved by the 1970s was a wasteful mass production of non-use values that resulted in chaos and fragmentation. Conrad may have been simply won over lock, stock and barrel to Ticktin’s ideas, but there was a part of Bettaney that could never truly accept all of the implications of Ticktin’s ideas without disavowing the political choices he had made in the early 1980s.
I had some doubts about how Bettaney addressed the issue of Marxism and human nature in various articles in the Weekly Worker, which is too complex to go into here. But I never doubted for one moment the sincerity of his convictions or the depth of the study that had informed his beliefs. Bettaney’s version of Marxism was an intensely human and personal one. There was nothing dry or desiccated about it and he was suitably scornful of Althusserian Marxists and their arid schemas. The following brief snippet gives us a flavour of his thrust:
I want to set out this vision of human liberation in terms of a specifically Marxian view of human nature and to show that this category - far from being a bourgeois concept totally antithetical to communism, as we were once taught, far from being at best just a manifestation of the ‘Feuerbachian’, ‘early’ Marx, to be disowned by his ‘later’, ‘scientific’ alter ego - remained a central facet of Marx’s doctrine about the way that humankind and society work.30
If Macintyre really does believe that Bettaney’s Marxism was in any way artificial then I can only surmise that he has never read the ex-MI5 officer nor heard him speak.
In his obituary, Jack Conrad argues that the CPGB and Bettaney parted company over “who knows what - he clearly wanted to leave our ranks”.31 In fact, the source of his disgruntlement was not exactly a secret to the wider group. As far as I remember, there were two phases to Bettaney’s withdrawal: the first was around 2001, when I was leaving the organisation myself. Bettaney told me at length at a Socialist Alliance conference in Birmingham that he had withdrawn from the Weekly Worker cell producing the paper because he was “fed up” with the whole thing. There had also apparently been an argument over an article about Ken Livingstone. From what members of the Weekly Worker team told me later, I had the impression that Bettaney may have submitted a silly article as a provocation, although I cannot prove this. After that, there seems to have been a phased withdrawal, with his writing for the paper fading out around 2003. However, he did resurface as a sympathiser of the CPGB around 2007-08 before seemingly drifting away once more. It was, however, very difficult to work out a political reason for his departure and I was not close enough to him to extract one.
My last contact with Michael was in August 2008. I wanted to meet and ask him if he would mind me starting some research into his life. It was a subject that I knew would be difficult to broach because he hated any kind of publicity, given the way he had been vilified after his trial. I half thought he would tell me to fuck off. His friendly but laconic reply ended: “I shall probably be in London for the next [CPGB] aggregate, which will probably be in October, but that depends whether it clashes with a pheasant day.”32 I read between the lines of this that Michael retained some of his occasional indifference to the CPGB-PCC.
Illness took over my life shortly after this and I did not reply. I regret this very deeply.
1. See M Malkin (M Bettaney), ‘Lifting the lid on MI5’ Weekly Worker May 29 2002.
2. B Macintyre The spy and the traitor: the greatest espionage story of the cold war London 2018, p163.
3. Ibid p174.
4. The Times April 19 1984.
5. B Macintyre op cit p168.
6. Daily Mail April 17 1984.
7. M Malkin, ‘Lifting the lid on MI5’ op cit. This was a review of a BBC television programme, Spooks, on which Bettaney hung his own observations of intelligence work and its artistic recreation. The review began hilariously: “Long before even a single frame of this mind-bendingly absurd series was broadcast, it was obvious that it was going to be crap.”
8. B Macintyre op cit p171.
9. Ibid p170.
10. ‘Another Stalin’s Englishman’ The Times April 17 1984.
11. The Times April 19 1984.
12. Daily Mail April 17 1984.
13. The Guardian April 19 1984. Thompson said that the “trial took place in utter secrecy, with blacked-out windows, before a jury vetted to the point of political imbecility”. He added that Lord Lane gave sentence “not according to the facts before him, but according to his worst-case hypotheses of what could have happened”.
14. N Davies, ‘The spy who thought he could stop world war’ The Guardian April 17 1984.
16. Morning Star April 17 1984.
17. W Hughes, ‘Bettaney: the more the better’ The Leninist July 1984.
18. ‘Cold War star chamber outrage’ Spartacist Britain May 1984.
19. Socialist Organiser April 18 1984.
20. J Conrad, ‘A man of contradictions’ Weekly Worker September 6 2018.
21. B Macintyre op cit p170.
22. J Conrad, ‘A man of contradictions’ Weekly Worker September 6 2018.
23. J Conrad, ‘For a real political revolution’ The Leninist November 23 1987.
24. The Leninist March 18 1988. ‘Centrist’ was a Marxist term employed to suggest a body wavering between reformism and revolution.
27. J Conrad, ‘A man of contradictions’ Weekly Worker September 6 2018.
28. M Malkin (M Bettaney), ‘Denying human nature’ Weekly Worker August 27 2003.
30. M Malkin (M Bettaney), ‘What makes us human’ Weekly Worker August 20 2003.
31. J Conrad, ‘A man of contradictions’ Weekly Worker September 6 2018.
32. Email to author, August 31 2008.