'I say, Jeeves, there's another spy in my soup!'
London — Yet another spy case in Britain has touched off a debate on whether Britain is more spy-prone than other NATO countries - or whether it simply does a better job in detecting espionage.
''We put spies on trial or expel them,'' a senior government official comments privately. ''In the US, they write books.''
The comment reflects a defensiveness within the Conservative government as spy cases dominate headlines here day after day. The latest was the expulsion of Anatoly Pavlovich Zotov, a Soviet naval attache said to be a senior officer in the GRU, or Soviet Military Intelligence.
Mr. Zotov allegedly tried but failed to set up a ring of British agents. Officials stress he had no link with Geoffrey Arthur Prime, the translator sent to jail last month for spying for the Soviets for 14 years.
Members of Parliament are upset because Moscow broke with tradition and announced the expulsion before the government could do so. Showing unusual sophistication, Moscow tried to portray the expulsion as a politically motivated effort to restore Britain's tarnished security image.
Even before the Zotov case broke, the assistant editor of the respected center-right weekly, The Economist, had wondered if British social class and reserve were uniquely suited to produce spies, or whether it was a case of more being caught here.
Referring to the 35-year sentence to Geoffrey Arthur Prime in November for spying for Moscow, to the spying of Anthony Blunt, former keeper of the Queen's pictures, to a British diplomat in Tel Aviv who leaked low-level information to an Egyptian friend, and to other cases, John Grimond asked if spying was especially hard to contain ''in a culture where it is considered bad form at a dinner party merely to ask someone what his job is. . . .''
''Does a nation that is criss-crossed wth ties of class- consciousness and snobbery give rise to individuals with particularly bitter feelings of resentment and exclusion?'' Mr. Grimond asked.
''Are the utopian energies of idealism more likely to be channeled into communism in a deeply conservative political culture, such as Britain's, than in a less-ossified one, such as America's?''
While there were no definite answers, Mr. Grimond joined many other observers in attacking British security screening and the secrecy that prevents all but a limited amount of parliamentary scrutiny.
On the other hand, government officials urge the United States and Western Europe to view recent events in a different way.
They say MI5 did uncover Captain Zotov - the highest-ranking catch since 105 Russians were ordered out of Britain in 1971 for espionage.
A lance corporal with British Army Intelligence was also caught, officials say, but before he could pass intelligence to the Russians.
As for Prof. Hugh Hambleton, charged with spying for the Soviets in the late 1950s while working for NATO in Paris, officials say he is a dual Canadian-British citizen unconnected with British intelligence.
The British arrested him last summer when he came here for a vacation. They allege he was a spy for 30 years. His dramatic, John Le Carre-type defense is that he was actually a double-agent, working for Canadian and French intelligence against the Soviets.
The court ordered him Dec. 3 to write down the name of his Canadian intelligence contact so that Britain can check his story. Unanswered so far is why Canada did not put him on trial when police found espionage equipment in his home.
It is assumed Ottawa gave him immunity in return for information. If so, why is Britain trying him now?
Sources here suggest Britain, the nation of such spies as Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, Kim Philby, Roger Hollis, and Geoffrey Prime, is anxious these days to be seen as a nation that actively and effectively pursues spies.
At the same time, basic allied questions remain about British security vetting.