The sixth man

Was Paddy Costello a key member of the most notorious Soviet spy network of the 1950s - or was he fr

Paddy Costello never knew what brought his brilliant career to a sudden end in 1954. He was the rising star of New Zealand's diplomatic service, its most effective operator, and easily its best linguist, being fluent in nine or ten languages, including Russian and French. He was the first diplomat to see and understand the horrors of Auschwitz. He told the west that the Soviet Union had the atom bomb before it was announced, and was not believed. No charges were ever laid, but MI5 told his bosses they believed Paddy to be a Soviet spy. Britain's top spy writers now describe him as one of the most dangerous and effective of Anthony Blunt's Cambridge recruits, who made Peter and Helen Kroger's spying activities possible.

After Paddy's death, his son Mick Costello was a mover and shaker in trade union and left-wing circles in the 1970s and 1980s. He was certainly the best-known communist in Britain, probably the cleverest, and easily the party's best linguist. "He speaks fluent Russian," people used to say meaningfully. "He was brought up in Moscow." The Sun called him "the most dangerous man in Britain". The word on Fleet Street was that Mick was a Soviet spy.

It seemed somehow to confirm Mick's treachery that he was thought to be following in a family tradition. In 1981, Paddy was named as a spy by a writer close to MI5, Chapman Pincher, in Their Trade is Treachery, and again by MI5's official historian Professor Christopher Andrew in The Mitrokhin Archive. Andrew said he was "one of the KGB's top ten". But a new book, The Sixth Man, published this month in Costello's native New Zealand (but not in Britain), convincingly argues that Paddy was framed. He was exactly what he appeared to be, and nothing else. As for Mick, "I don't know anything about spying," he told me last month.

He once consulted a top QC about whether to sue a newspaper for saying he had recruited KGB agents in Britain. "I was told that the fact that it's untrue won't help. A jury would say that the Communist Party has relations with the Soviet Union, so to suggest that a CP member is linked with the KGB is not damaging to your reputation." I've always thought that being industrial editor of the Morning Star and then industrial organiser for the Communist Party does not sound like good cover for a KGB spy.

On the other hand, Mick, now 71, is tall, thin and argumentative, with a mind that seems to approach every question elliptically, a voice that sounds as though he gargles with gravel, and a strong head for drink. Fleet Street's finest used to mention this last as part of his espionage equipment: as they became garrulous, he grew silent, a thin smile just visible behind his habitual small cigar. The weakness of this theory is that Mick's companions seldom had any secrets worth hearing.

Paddy was rather similar, judging by The Sixth Man, a sensitive and enthralling biography by a distinguished New Zealand novelist. In 1932 the young Paddy came to Britain to take up a schol arship at Trinity College, Cambridge, where his contemporaries included Blunt, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and the communist theoretician and recruiting sergeant James Klugmann. Half a century later, after Paddy's death, the former MI5 agent Peter Wright, author of Spycatcher, told Chapman Pincher that he recalled Blunt naming Paddy as one of his recruits. Blunt's confession named several people, some of whom were innocent. But Paddy was not one of them. Wright was a fantasist with a grudge, and he had been in MI5 when it engineered Paddy's dismissal from the New Zealand diplomatic service.

Philby and the others never joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, for obvious reasons. But Paddy joined it in 1935, partly under the influence of Bella Lerner, an East End girl of Jewish Ukrainian extraction, whom he met and married that year. An anonymous New Zealand security service briefing later called Paddy "a dedicated and ruthless communist, determined to outdo his Ukrainian Jewish wife in her intellectual toughness as a communist". Mick says: "This is rubbish. Ukrainian and Jewish had nothing to do with it - my mother's politics came from London's East End, where she was brought up." Paddy left within two years, though not before couriering money from the British CP to its Indian counterpart, but Bella remained a communist all her life.

Black mark

In May 1940 he was teaching ancient history at the University College of the South-West of England, now Exeter University. One of his students, Hubert Fyrth, appeared at the Old Bailey charged with passing on information contrary to the Official Secrets Act. With invasion of Britain imminent, it sounded dreadful. Actually, it was trivial. The French government had banned circulation of the Daily Worker, the communist newspaper, among British troops. Fyrth had received the decree from his brother, a naval officer, and passed it to the Daily Worker.

The distressed student went to Costello for advice, and Costello tried to be comforting. That was all; but it was enough to get Costello fired, and another black mark appeared against his name in the security files.

After four years of war service, distinguished by bravery, imagination and reckless binge drinking, he was offered a remarkable posting for a man with no diplomatic experience: third secretary with the New Zealand legation in Moscow. "I'm afraid I'm a bit left-wing, sir," he said to Prime Minister Peter Fraser. "That's all right," said Fraser. "We can do with one or two communists in Moscow."

He was an instant star on the diplomatic circuit. Travel was restricted, but Costello travelled pretty well anywhere he pleased. Looking back, sleepy Anglo-Saxon diplomats started to think he must have special access, but the truth was that his charm, deviousness and fluent Russian were generally enough to overcome bureaucratic obstacles. McNeish says he was not really a diplomat but "an inspired and intensely curious sport". He was also instinctively cosmopolitan, and the British Establishment distrusts such people. It is no accident that in the 1930s, the word "cosmopolitan" became code for "Jew" in upper-class anti-Semitic circles.

British security folk were furiously whispering in the ears of their New Zealand counterparts. Had he not once been a communist? Was his wife not a communist? And what about the Fyrth affair, in which "there is no proof that Costello was implicated in the disclosure of military information, but . . ." That "but" is the insinuating weapon of security files, silent and deadly.

Perhaps Moscow sealed his son's fate. Paddy, characteristically, did not want to send Mick to the international school, as most diplomats did, but to an ordinary school in Moscow where he would learn about the country and become fluent in its language. "I was there from the ages of nine to 14 - these are very important years," says Mick. "There was a great aura of triumph over the fascists."

But 1954 found Costello in what turned out to be his last diplomatic posting, Paris. The Paris legation, having seen the correct supporting documents, issued New Zealand passports for a New Zealander and his Canadian wife. The documents were forged, however, and the couple - Peter and Helen Kroger - used them to enter Britain, where they became the nerve centre of the Portland spy ring.

Today's spy writers suggest this was Paddy's contribution to the Krogers' activities. In fact, the legation seems to have followed the proper procedures. But what McNeish unearths is startling. Paddy didn't even issue the passports. It was done, in his absence, by a colleague.

It did not matter. The British had their knife in him, and that year they managed, after years of private insinuations, to persuade a new Conservative government in New Zealand to fire him. He never knew why.

Paddy was lucky. After a few months of un employment, his academic record won him an unexpected job as professor of Russian at Manchester University.

There, in 1956, his son Mick, a student at the university and president of its student union (he beat Anna Ford to the job) joined the Communist Party. That was the year everyone else was leaving it because of Hungary, and it is somehow typical of the Costellos, who clearly felt thoroughly uncomfortable if ever, by some mischance, they found themselves swimming with the current. Equally typically, after 20 years outside it since the break-up of Britain's Communist Party, Mick joined its intellectual successor, the Communist Party of Britain, this year.

"In 1956, Paddy didn't try to enforce his views on me, but he was very critical of the CP," says Mick. "I told him it was too late for him to criticise policies of which he had been a part and I had not. These were difficult conversations."

Paddy died in 1964. The Costellos, père et fils, would have been useless spies. But they were perfect suspects: clever and unable to disguise it, multilingual, unconventional and outsiders - the sort of person the public school club that was MI5 liked to fix on. MI5 rather despised spies, for a typically elliptical reason. Blunt and his recruits, says Mick, "found a way of engaging in their politics without changing the lifestyle they liked. They didn't have what it takes to stand outside a railway station, come rain or shine, selling the Daily Worker."

"The Sixth Man: the Extraordinary Life of Paddy Costello" by James McNeish is published by Vintage New Zealand (NZ$35)

Spies by numbers

First man Donald Maclean – British diplomat who gave Soviets information about atomic weapons

Second man Guy Burgess – transmitted secret documents to the Soviets while working for the BBC and Foreign Office

Third man Kim Philby – head of Soviet counter-espionage at MI6 while working as a Soviet spy

Fourth man Anthony Blunt – MI5 agent who passed intelligence from decrypted Enigma messages to the Soviets

Fifth man James Klugmann – close friend of Burgess, Maclean and Blunt, he was widely suspected

Research by Alyssa McDonald

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s afraid of Michael Moore?

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The Catalan cauldron

The prospect of the break-up of Spain poses yet another challenge to Europe.

As Britain prepares to mark the centenary of the bloodiest battle in the First World War, the Somme, in July, Spain is bracing itself for an even more traumatic anniversary. In July 2016 it will be 80 years since the start of a civil war that tore the country apart and continues to divide it today. In the four decades since the return of democracy in the mid-1970s, Spaniards slowly inched towards rejecting the extreme violence of the Francoist right (and elements of the opposing left) as well as acceptance of various federal arrangements to accommodate the national sentiments of the Basques and Catalans, whose aspirations Franco had so brutally suppressed. In recent years, however, this consensus has been called fundamentally into question, with severe potential consequences not only for the unity of Spain, but the cohesion of the European Union.

On 27 October 2015, after the Catalan elections, the new parliament in Barcelona passed a declaration requesting the start of a formal secession process from Spain, to be in place in 18 months. The immediate reaction of Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was to announce that the state was entitled “to use any available judicial and political mechanism contained in the constitution and in the laws to defend the sovereignty of the Spanish people and of the general interest of Spain”. The preamble to the constitution proclaims the Spanish nation’s desire to “protect all Spaniards and the peoples of Spain in exercising their ­human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions”. Probably the most disputed articles are 2 and 8, which state, respectively, that “the constitution is based upon the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, common and indivisible patria of all Spaniards” and that “the army’s mission is to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain, to defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional set-up”. Rajoy’s implication was clear: the unity of the country would be maintained, if necessary by military means.

It was Madrid, however, that broke with the federal consensus some years ago and thus boosted secessionist sentiment in Catalonia. José María Aznar’s government (1996-2004) failed to respond to demands for greater autonomy for Catalonia, at a time when secession was not even mentioned. This led to an increasing awareness among Catalans that the federal transfer system within Spain left them with an annual deficit of 8 per cent of Catalonia’s GDP because of the financial arrangements established by the Spanish state, an issue aggravated by the effect of the global financial crisis. Catalan nationalism thus became a matter of not only the heart, but also the pocket. Even more important was the Spanish legal challenge to the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia 2006 and its subsequent dilution, after it had been sanctioned by the Catalan parliament, and by both the Spanish congress of deputies and the senate, not to mention the Catalan people in a legally binding referendum.

According to the Spanish high court of justice, some of the statute’s content did not comply with the Spanish constitution. This outraged many Catalans, who could not understand how the newly approved statute – after following all the procedures and modifications requested by Spain’s political institutions and constitution – could still be challenged. Four years later, the Spanish high court finally delivered its verdict on 28 June 2010. It removed vital points from the Statute of Autonomy 2006 and declared them non-constitutional. All this led to a revival of Catalan nationalism, culminating in a symbolic, non-binding referendum in November 2014, which was boycotted by opponents and produced a majority of 80 per cent in favour of independence.

The roots of this antagonism go deep, to the civil war that broke out on 17-18 July 1936 when some sectors of the army rebelled against the legitimate government of the Second Republic. The rebels rejected democracy, the party system, separation between church and state, and the autonomy of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. Their primary objective was to re-establish “order” by eliminating all vestiges of communism and anarchism, then quite strong in some parts of Spain.

High on the list of General Franco’s targets was Catalan nationalism, which had been growing since the late 19th century. The industrialisation of Catalonia and the Basque Country left the most economically developed parts of the Spanish state politically subject to the less prosperous Castile. By the end of the 19th century and influenced by German Romanticism, la Renaixença – a movement for national and cultural renaissance – prompted demands for Catalan autonomy, first in the form of regionalism
and later in demands for a federal state.

Catalan nationalism did not emerge as a unified phenomenon. Diverse political ideologies and cultural influences gave rise to various types of nationalism, from the conservative nationalism of Jaime Balmes to the federalism of Francesc Pi i Margall, to the Catholic nationalism of Bishop Torres i Bages and the Catalan Marxism of Andreu Nin, among others. Catalonia enjoyed some autonomy under the administrative government of the Mancomunitat or “commonwealth” from 1913 onwards. This was halted by the 1923 coup d’état of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. Autonomy was granted again during the Second Spanish Republic from 1931-39 – but abolished by Francisco Franco’s decree of 5 April 1938.

Franco’s victory led to the suppression of Catalan political institutions, the banning of the Catalan language and proscription of all the symbolic elements of Catalan identity, from the national flag (the Senyera) to the national anthem (“Els Segadors”). In February 1939, the institutions of the autonomous Generalitat went into exile in France. In 1940 the Gestapo arrested the president of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, and handed him over to Spanish officials. He was interrogated and tortured in Madrid, then sent to Barcelona, where he was court-martialled and executed at Montjuïc Castle on 15 October 1940. The most important representatives of the democratic parties banned by the regime went into exile, or were imprisoned or executed. The authoritarian state designed by Franco crushed dissent and used brute power to suppress the historical nations included within its territory. The regime’s aim was to annihilate the Catalans and the Basques as nations.

***

After almost 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship, Catalonia recovered its government, the Generalitat, in 1977 – before the drafting of the Spanish constitution in 1978 – and sanctioned a new statute of autonomy in 1979. The 2006 statute was expected, at the time, to update and expand Catalans’ aspiration for further devolution within Spain: never secession.

At present, a renewed nostalgia and enthusiasm for Francoism can be found among some sections of the Spanish right. One of the main challenges of the newly democratic government from the mid-1970s onwards was to get rid of the symbols of Francoism that had divided Spaniards between “winners” and “losers” in the civil war. It was only in 2007 that the then prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, guided the Law of Historic Memory through parliament with the aim of removing hundreds of Fascist symbols reminiscent of the Franco era from public buildings. It also sought to make reparations to victims of the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship.

There still exist hundreds of other references to the Fascist regime, however, with streets, colleges and roads named after Franco and his generals. The most controversial of these is the Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”), near Madrid, commissioned by Franco as his final resting place. It supposedly honours the civil war dead, but is primarily a monument to the general and his regime, housing the graves of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange political party. Roughly 450,000 people visit it every year, and while most of them are foreign tourists, groups of Falangists and supporters of the old regime who come to pay tribute to the dictator have frequented it. Nostalgics for Francoism, though still a small minority within modern Spain, are becoming vociferous. They find common ground with far-right-wing conservatism, particularly in their shared aversion to federalism.

On 3 August last year Artur Mas, the then president of Catalonia, called an extraordinary parliamentary election after all attempts to negotiate and agree on a legally binding referendum with the Spanish government failed. Supporters of independence immediately announced that the forthcoming Catalan elections would be regarded as a plebiscite on independence.

On a turnout of more than three-quarters of the electorate, supporters of outright independence gained 48 per cent of the vote, while those backing a unitary state secured 39 per cent. On 9 November 2015 the Catalan parliament formally declared the start of the process leading to building an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic. It also proclaimed the beginning of a participative, open, integrating and active citizens’ constituent process to lay the foundations for a future Catalan constitution. The Catalan government vowed to move forward with its secession process. Immediately, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the Catalan law setting out a path to independence and warned that defiance could lead to criminal charges.

Worse still for Madrid, secessionism is gaining strength not only in Catalonia but also in the Basque Country, whose premier, Iñigo Urkullu, demands a “legal consultation” on the northern region’s future in Spain. He supports a new statute for the Basque Country and defends its status as a nation in the EU. Similarly to Catalonia, the Basque Country has a distinct language and culture, and benefits from the so-called concierto económico, an advantageous financial deal with the Spanish state.

***

The Spanish government’s refusal to engage constructively with Catalan nationalism contrasts markedly with London’s more relaxed and ultimately more successful response to Scottish nationalist aspirations. The “Edinburgh Agreement” between the British Prime Minister and the then first minister of Scotland to allow a binding referendum on Scottish independence stands in sharp contrast to the Spanish government’s outright opposition to a similar vote in Catalonia. Basques and Catalans find deaf ears regarding further devolution and binding referendums on self-determination. This highlights the distance between various conceptions of democracy that coexist inside the European Union, rooted in the diverse political cultures of nations with varying historical backgrounds.

All this matters, not only to Spain but to the EU, because it is part of a broad trend across the continent. In mainland Europe, demands for self-determination are running strong in Flanders as well as parts of Spain. In turn, tensions between Italy and Austria over control of South Tyrol (Trentino Alto Adige, to the Italians) remain high, as do demands advanced by the South Tyrol­ean secessionist movement. Bavarian regionalism is critical of the present German (and European) political order. Further to that, modern Venetian nationalism and its long-standing demands for independence have prompted a renewal of Venetian as a language taught in schools and spoken by almost four million people.

Matters are now coming to a head. Catalonia and Spain are in flux following two inconclusive elections. In January, after a prolonged stand-off, the sitting Catalan president, Artur Mas, made way for a fellow nationalist, Carles Puigdemont. He was the first to take the oath of office without making the traditional oath of loyalty to the Spanish constitution and the king. Felipe VI, in turn, did not congratulate Puigdemont.

The new president has announced that he plans to draw up a constitution, to be voted on in a referendum “to constitute the Catalan Republic” at the end of an 18-month consultation process. Puigdemont’s strategy envisages not a dramatic unilateral declaration
of independence, but a more gradual process of disconnection in constant dialogue with the Spanish government and Catalan political parties. Let no one be deceived by this “softly-softly” approach: it is designed to culminate, in a year and a half, perhaps sooner, in a vote on establishing a separate, sovereign state of Catalonia.

Meanwhile, Spanish politics are in flux. The elections to the Cortes on 20 December 2015 resulted in a victory for Conservatism, but also the most fragmented Spanish parliament ever and, as yet, no government. Almost the only thing the Spanish parties can agree on is opposition to Catalan independence, yet even here there are divisions over whether more autonomy should be granted and what response to make to unilateral moves by the Catalans.

The stakes are high for both sides. By pressing too hard, too early, Catalan nationalists may provoke Madrid. This would be a mistake. Strategy is important and recent events in Catalonia will weaken the Catalans’ democratic, peaceful and legitimate desire to hold a referendum on independence. Likewise, a heavy-handed response from Madrid will not only destroy the residual bonds between centre and periphery in Spain, but put the central government in the dock internationally. A confrontation will also cut across the only possible solution to this and all other national conflicts within the eurozone, which is full continental political union. Full union would render the separation of Catalonia from Spain as irrelevant to the functioning of the EU, and the inhabitants of both areas, as the separation of West Virginia from Virginia proper in the United States today.

In a nightmare scenario, radicalisation and unrest could emerge in Catalonia, with division between Catalans and memories of the Spanish Civil War coming to the fore. In this context, it might become very difficult to prevent violence.

This is the last thing that Brussels wants to hear as it grapples with the euro crisis, Russian territorial revisionism, Islamist terror, the migrant question and the prospect of Brexit. A meltdown in Catalonia will create dilemmas for Europe, starting from problems with Schengen, and raise questions about continued membership of the EU. It will also work against Catalans’ expectations of receiving EU support in their quest for independence, as turmoil in Europe will prompt nation states to close ranks. The EU will not be expected to intervene, because this scenario would – at least initially – be defined as an “internal affair of Spain”. Conflict between Barcelona and Madrid would shatter one of Europe’s biggest member states.

In that event, the peninsula will become the hottest point in an emerging “arc of crisis” across the southern flank of the EU, stretching from Portugal across Spain, an Italy struggling along with everything else to cope with the flow of migrants, the troubled Balkans, to Greece, which is perpetually perturbed. This highlights yet another flaw in the EU. It has no institutional framework for dealing with Catalan demands to become a nation within the Union, or those of other populations. Merely insisting on Spanish state sovereignty will not make the problem go away for Brussels, or for Europe as a whole. This is a potential matter of life and death not only for Spaniards and Catalans, but perhaps for the EU itself.

Brendan Simms is the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge and president of the Project for Democratic Union Montserrat Guibernau is a visiting scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge and a member of the Forum on Geopolitics

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater