Elizabethan poet John Harington made this astute observation: “Treason doth never prosper:// What’s the reason?// Why, if it prosper// None dare call it treason.”
Now some new documents have been declassified, the Cambridge spies are very much in the news, with commentaries ranging from factual to emotional to spurious. One formerly respectable paper actually attributed the chaps’ spying for Russia to their clubbable backgrounds.
However, everyone agrees that Messrs Philby et al were despicable traitors, and no sane person will contest that designation. I certainly won’t, happy in the knowledge that their treason didn’t ‘prosper’.
But the notion of treason interests me, for over history it has evolved like few others.
For example, ‘the Great Condé’, Louis XIV’s cousin, not only was one of the principal military leaders of the princely uprising known as La Fronde, but he also twice led Spanish armies against French royalist troops.
In any modern democracy Condé would have been put up against the wall and shot. Just imagine the fate of Montgomery or Patton had they led Waffen SS panzer divisions against their own countries. Why, William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, was strung up in 1946 merely for having aired Nazi propaganda during the war.
Thus by the standards of liberal democracy Condé was a traitor who didn’t deserve to live. Yet by the standards of a Christian monarchy that France was at the time he was a naughty child who ought to be grounded, or in that instance exiled to his castle in Chantilly.
Clearly, at the time treason to the state wasn’t the greatest sin, nor loyalty to the state the greatest virtue. It was understood that the state was fairly low down the list of objects to be venerated.
That changed with the advent of the Enlightenment, which misnomer is used to describe a massive atheist revolt against Christendom. The nation or, to be more precise, the state began to demand a loyalty than which none could be higher.
People en masse no longer accepted that loyalty to an idea could supersede loyalty to the state – regardless of what kind of state it was, or what kind of idea. Working against one’s own country was now regarded as not just any old betrayal but as apostasy.
Yet some people continued to cling to the obsolete pecking order. They insisted that a country couldn’t expect loyalty automatically. She must earn it – or not, as the case might be.
One such man was the Russian patriarch Tikhon, arrested by the Bolsheviks for preaching against their bloodthirsty revolution. He was personally interrogated by Dzerjinsky and Kamenev, both ranking Bolsheviks.
“We are the state,” they explained to the recalcitrant prelate. “Each state has its laws. Do you feel obligated to obey state laws?”
“I do,” replied Tikhon. “As long as they don’t contradict higher laws.” (Tikhon in general had a nice turn of phrase. When a sewer underneath the Lenin mausoleum burst, flooding the interior, he quipped, “The incense fits the relics.”)
In other words, the patriarch, along with many of his flock, believed that loyalty to an idea could stand higher than loyalty to the state. They wouldn’t have described working against an evil state as an act of treason.
On an infinitely smaller scale, I too worked against my state when I lived in the Soviet Union. Since I spoke English, leaders of the dissent used me to transmit to the West, mostly the US, information about Soviet brutality.
I wouldn’t have been able to formulate succinctly what it was that I loved, but I knew exactly what I hated: communism in general and the USSR in particular. Hence in my own eyes I wasn’t a traitor but a man doing his moral duty.
Now if I reserve for myself the privilege to act against my own state when I disagree with it, do I have the moral right to deny the same privilege to others?
Such, for example, as Philby et al, who conceivably saw communism as an ideal that superseded British patriotism. Since the UK was the USSR’s political antipode, they felt they had to choose – and did choose.
I think they chose wrong, and I would have happily shot them myself. But now we’ve left the realm of absolute values to enter one of relative ones.
I regard the Soviet Union, along with its Putinesque child, as evil and Britain as, well, not quite as virtuous as she used to be, but certainly not all bad. But mustn’t I allow that others may have different views?
One might say that, if a state rules by law, as it does in Britain, this law must be obeyed and enforced. I agree wholeheartedly. But when Diana, wife to the heir to the throne, was sleeping around, such acts constituted high treason according to the law then in force. Yet no one even bothered to mention that at the time.
I have no conclusion to offer – other than suggesting that treason is a tricky word. But then we live in a tricky world.