Treason: a good old British tradition

Should George Galloway be put on trial as a traitor to his country? Should Anthony Blunt have been?

Anyone with a sense of history will surely have recoiled from recent talk of having George Galloway arraigned for treason. There is no concept more treacherous than treason. Once people start talking of it, there are only two things you can be sure of. One is that it will be accompanied by a display of chauvinism, with politicians draping themselves in the Union Flag and affirming their patriotism ("the last refuge of a scoundrel", as Samuel Johnson called it.) And the other is that, when the last strains of "Rule Britannia" have died away, we will find that we have done a grave, and often irreparable, injustice.

We may even find that it is the accusers who ought to have been in the dock all along, but if we are wise we will not try to put them there. Few people understood that so well as Elizabeth I, accused of treason by her predecessor, Queen Mary. At a preview in late April of an exhibition devoted to her at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, south London, Elizabeth's biographer Dr David Starkey told me that, having survived the accusation, when she came to the throne herself, "she minimised the use of treason. She wanted to stop the politics of blood. For the first ten years of her reign she managed to avoid the use of treason."

Treason, he said, "loomed large because of the ideological struggle". He was talking of Elizabethan England, but he could have been talking of our own times. We pretend that betrayal, treason, sedition all outrage our patriotism. In truth, they are simply words we use about people and ideas with which we strongly disagree.

Take William Joyce, better known as Lord Haw-Haw, who broadcast for Hitler during the Second World War and who became, in January 1946, the last person to be hanged for treason in Britain.

Joyce came from an Irish loyalist family, with the mystical attachment to the British Crown which you find only in Northern Ireland. He was fiercely patriotic. As a teenager, he fought with the Black and Tans against Irish Republicans, and he spied on the Republicans for the British security services, becoming close to MI5's sinister spymaster Maxwell Knight.

Knight kept him on the books throughout the 1920s and 1930s as Joyce climbed to high office in the British Union of Fascists. And in 1939, Knight performed one last service for his loyal agent. He tipped Joyce off that he was about to be arrested under the wartime Regulation 18B. Joyce took the hint and absconded to Germany.

By the time the British army arrested him in 1945, MI5 had been working hard for three years to find a case that would hang him. Perhaps they were afraid he might talk about his association with them. In any case, much time and expense went into examining and trying to demolish his strongest defence, which was that he had been born in the US, had never naturalised, and was therefore an American citizen. This defence was true, but they hanged him anyway, because he had travelled to Germany on a forged British passport. That is the nature of treason trials. That it could not be justified legally never yet prevented a hanging.

There is no talk of hanging Galloway. His offence was to say to Abu Dhabi Television: "The best thing British troops can do is to refuse to obey illegal orders." This makes him less William Joyce, more Herbert Morrison. During the First World War, Morrison, then a pacifist, wrote in a pamphlet: "Go forth, little soldier. Though you know not what you fight for, go forth. Though you have no grievance against your German brother - go forth and kill him . . . He is only a German dog."

This did not prevent Morrison, 20 years later during the Second World War, from becoming home secretary, and enthusiastically banning newspapers and imprisoning individuals whose statements were considered seditious.

He banned the communist Daily Worker, and wanted to ban the Daily Mirror as well, but was restrained by Winston Churchill. The Mirror's crime was to print a cartoon which seemed to suggest that British sailors were sacrificing their lives so that British oil companies could make large profits. This was, said Morrison, "one example, but a particularly evil one, of the policy and methods of a newspaper which . . . has repeatedly published scurrilous misrepresentations, distorted and exaggerated statements, and irresponsible generalisations".

Recently, the Daily Mirror has again said that British soldiers were being asked to sacrifice their lives so that the oil companies could make large profits. What would have happened to the Mirror if the war had not been over quickly? Suppose we were now bogged down in a war that was costing hundreds of British lives, and that was punctuated by a few terrorist attacks in London. There would certainly have been calls to ban the Mirror (and the New Statesman). My guess is that they would have succeeded.

The real parallel with Galloway is not Morrison but Johnny Campbell. Unlike Morrison, Campbell fought in the First World War. But in 1924, as editor of the communist Workers' Weekly, he feared that troops would be used in the coming General Strike, and published an appeal to soldiers: "Let it be known that, neither in the class war nor in a military war, will you turn your guns on your fellow workers." Campbell was charged with incitement to mutiny, a charge that carried a heavy prison sentence. The Labour attorney general dropped the charge, causing so much righteous indignation that the government fell.

Campbell was not asking the troops to refuse to fight a foreign enemy, only to refuse to fight British strikers. But just as in the time of Elizabeth I, this was really an ideological struggle. When the General Strike started two years later, the cartoon on the front page of the government's propaganda sheet showed John Bull holding the Union Flag and a striker holding a red flag. "One of these flags has to come down," says John Bull.

Campbell, like Galloway and Morrison, wanted the soldiers to make their own judgements. If your orders are immoral or illegal, they were saying, you should not obey them. What were the Nuremberg trials, and other war crimes trials, all about, if not the principle that a soldier can and should disobey an illegal and immoral order? Tony Blair's war in Iraq is not to be compared with the Holocaust, but there is an argument for declaring it both immoral and illegal.

In the 1939-45 war, 150,000 Irishmen from the neutral Republic sneaked across the border to join the British army and fight Hitler. To many of their fellow countrymen, they were traitors, because they were aiding the historic oppressor. Was Harold Wilson a traitor because of his left-wing past, or was the group of right-wing malcontents in the security services who tried to destabilise his government guilty of treachery? By what criteria do we say that Anthony Blunt was a traitor, but Oleg Gordievsky a hero, when both spied against their own country? The difference is ideology again. Most people in Britain approve of Gordievsky's ideology, and disapprove of Blunt's.

Blunt, Philby, Maclean and Burgess - now the subject of a new TV series - could argue that, during the Second World War at any rate, they were simply sharing information with our Soviet ally that our government should have shared anyway.

And what about our paid traitor-finders, the men and women of MI5? Take a man called W E D (Bill) Allen, scion of a wealthy Ulster family and an Ulster Unionist MP in the 1929-31 parliament. When that government fell, he left parliament and persuaded some MPs to follow him into Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. But he was also MI5's man, reporting back on the fascists' activities. In 1956, when MI5 was at last closing in on Kim Philby, Philby's old chum Bill Allen offered him a bolt-hole by hiring him to spend several months in Northern Ireland, allegedly to write a history of Allen's family firm. Whose man was Allen? He probably never quite knew. The game, and the secret power it gave him, was enough.

I can think of no time in history when the idea of treachery was morally clear-cut. And this time is no different. Galloway is fortunate in his enemies: the egregious David Winnick, MP, crowing over the war; and a shadowy group of lawyers, members of a professional group called Forces Law, who apparently make their living from representing service personnel and trying to put Galloway behind bars.

Right now, putting Galloway behind bars is popular. But as that wise politician Elizabeth I realised, what looks like just punishment for treason one day can look like mere spite the next. Treason is not like any other crime. You either commit a murder or a robbery, or you do not commit it. But with treason, it depends who is asking, when they are asking, what their agenda is, what they want to prove, and what they think will make them popular this week. And more than anything else, it depends on how successful the original action was. It is as true today as it was when Sir John Harington wrote it in the 17th century that:

Treason doth never prosper. What's the reason?
For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.