What's in a name?

Posted by Helen Wednesday, September 27, 2006

As my co-blogger put up a posting that is seriously modern (though, I suppose, both Blair and Brown might be on their way to being history), I thought I might stay in the second half of the twentieth century as well. (OK, Iain, just joking. I know RAB Butler is history.)

The intriguing story of George Blake, one of the most successful Soviet spies, being awarded £4,690 by the European Court of Human Rights because the Attorney General had taken too long to bring about the government’s action against Blake to prevent him from profiting by his treachery brings back all kinds of memories of the Cold War. But above all, it raises problems of the naming of matters.

The Daily Telegraph has two articles on the subject, one by Joshua Rozenberg on the legal side of the decision and the other one by Phillip Knightley, a brief summary of Blake’s career.

Both the articles refer to Blake as a double agent. Now, the truth is that there is no such thing as a double agent. There are, or have been in the past, people who will spy for the highest bidder and may, therefore, spy for several countries and organizations simultaneously. But in the world of ordinary espionage there is but one true employer.

Blake was a Soviet agent who pretended to be a British Intelligence officer, the better to carry out his work for his real paymasters and ideological controllers. He was also a man responsible for numerous deaths of Soviet officers whom he had tried to persuade to defect to the West. Curiously enough, Mr Knightley describes the operation that was set up in Berlin but does not mention what might have happened to the unfortunate victims of the KGB-run sting operation.

That brings me to another problem of vocabulary: who is an agent and who is a spy? It used to be really easy to define: our people were agents, theirs were spies. Any film of the thirties, forties or fifties will tell you that. There was the odd complication, as one can see in the novels of Buchan, for example, or Erskine Childers’ “Riddle of the Sands” about the distinction between those who spied for their country and could, therefore, be called German agents, and those who spied for Germany, though they were British. The latter were clearly spies and traitors.

This distinction between agent and spy exists in most countries and languages. It is, however, being eroded in Britain. Not only we keep talking about double agents when we really mean enemy spies but there is a curious tendency to refer to British agents as British spies (and not by the Russians, either).

William Boyd’s latest book, “Restless”, for instance, centres on a seemingly ordinary elderly English lady who turns out to be Russian by birth who was a British "spy" during the war in occupied France. Undoubtedly a dangerous assignment and one that the survivor might not want to talk about subsequently. But the implication from the blurb is that the lady in question has tried to bury the truth as being shameful and traumatic while her daughter is shocked and upset when she finds out.

Oh really? Most people are rather intrigued and not a little proud if they find out that their parents were British agents fighting the Nazis during the war. On the other hand, according to Mr Boyd those agents were really spies and, therefore, morally dubious. Much depends on the name.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. George Blake was succeeded in Germany as a British Intelligence officer by Charles Wheeler, later of the BBC, and father-in-law of Boris Johnson MP

  3. Anonymous Says:
  4. Perhaps the European Court owes Blake as well. Over five years to deal with the case. Although I tend to agree with the Judges that the case on Blake's rights has no causal link with his conduct as a spy or the subsequent judgment of the House of Lords on the profit from his memoirs (incidentally where does that leave civil servants?), it may cause one to reflect on the old tag, justice delayed is justice denied. taken as a truism and hence the basis of a right, I wonder if that is an absolute truth.

    On your own point, does the factthat countries are at war make any difference to the way we view the actions of agents. I was put in mind of this by reading the obituary of Odette's husband, himself an agent, and one whom we admire for courage.

    And - since I have been writing of Douglas Dodds Parker - SOE further blurred the line by having agents in uniform and agents without. Hitler drew no distinction.

    None of thgis answers your implicit question, but may prompt further thought.

    Finally I rather agree with you about Boyd's premise, but the book itself is a rattling good read.

  5. Anonymous Says:
  6. "Agent" is a noun. "Spy" is really a verb (shouldn't its noun be spier ?). Which is odd because I always imagined agents DID things like blowing up bridges whilst spies did little except watch and listen.

  7. Helen Says:
  8. Don't think so f.r. Spy as a noun has been used for quite some time.

  9. Anonymous Says:
  10. Agent in this sense seems to date from Second World War, not earlier, and I wonder if it has something to do with agent provocateur. Cannot think why or indeed where that term comes from. But spy surely has been a noun for centuries?

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