The Shadow Man: At the Heart of the Cambridge Spy Circle, by Geoff Andrews, IB Tauris, 288 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1784331669
Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess, by Andrew Lownie, Hodder & Stoughton, 423 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1473627383
A Spy Among Friends: Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre, Bloomsbury, 368 pp, £8.99, ISBN 978-1408851784
The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was a remarkable organisation, packed with political and intellectual talent, that punched well above its puny electoral weight. “The Party” achieved disproportionate influence mainly in three arena: the trade union movement, historical studies, and espionage – and the capacity of the British spy elite to fascinate appears inexhaustible.
Almost from the moment, in 1951, of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean’s defection to Moscow the mole-hunt was on, in the security services, and in the press, to find “the third man” (Kim Philby) and then the fourth and fifth men (Sir Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross). Others – Leo Long and, marginally, Michael Straight ‑ were subsequently identified as Soviet agents; some, notably Sir Victor Rothschild, were wrongly accused; all of them were students at the University of Cambridge in the 1930s. For over sixty years the doings and deceptions of the “Cambridge spy ring” have provided rich copy for investigative journalists, cold warriors, biographers, novelists, playwrights and film and documentary makers, and captured the attention of readers, viewers, and audiences alike.
The well-stocked catalogue of “Treason Studies” includes “memoirs” by Philby (1968), Straight (1980), Cairncross (1997) and, from the gamekeepers’ point of view, Peter Wright’s Spycatcher (1987); biographies, of varying quality, of Philby, Maclean, Blunt and, most recently and belatedly, Burgess; numerous non-fictional accounts, notably Andrew Boyle’s Climate of Treason (1980), and fictions, among them John Banville’s Untouchable (1997), William Boyd’s ingenious, elliptical Restless, and, of course, some of the finest novels in the John le Carré canon. The play Another Country (1981, screenplay 1984), and Alan Bennett’s BBC television drama An Englishman Abroad (1983) are both based on the life of Guy Burgess. And so, as they say, the list goes on.
One reason for this abundant creative, scholarly, and journalistic production is obvious: the subterranean careers of the Cambridge spies are the stuff that thrillers are made of. One reviewer describes Andrew Lownie’s Stalin’s Englishman as “more riveting than a spy novel”. Of Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends, Walter Isaacson writes in The New York Times “I had to keep reminding myself that it was not a novel.” And indeed the “characters” Ian Fleming, John le Carré and Graham Greene duly fetch up in Macintyre’s text. In 1980 Neil Ascherson called for a moratorium on the subject: “let’s get the blanket over this parrot and enjoy a spell of peace”. Thirty-five years later a Guardian reviewer asked “is there anything left to say about the Cambridge spy ring?” To judge by this fresh batch of books, by Lownie, Macintyre, and Geoff Andrews (on James Klugmann), the answer is yes.
Beyond thriller-appeal the explanation for the continuing vitality of the genre is that it addresses, and sometimes illuminates, questions of history, politics, ideology, patriotism, loyalty, and, above all, class. Individual motivations have been analysed in biographical and psychological ways. Macintyre, for example, speculates that ultimately what made Philby tick – he had no recorded interest in Marxist doctrine ‑ was the pleasure he took in deceiving. Then there is the exhausted canard of the “Homintern”, according to which, as natural outsiders and habitual dissemblers, homosexuals ‑ Blunt, Burgess, life-long celibate Klugmann, and briefly perhaps (not quite) Straight ‑ were instinctive undercover agents. Finally, there are theories of the “totalitarian personality”, applied to communists generally, especially during the 1950s heyday of psychobabble, and crisply despatched by veteran communist intellectual Eric Hobsbawm as “best forgotten”.
Psychoanalysis is insufficient, unverifiable and not fit for purpose. Rather, the time – the 1930s – and the place of recruitment is crucial to any understanding of the historically and culturally specific phenomenon of the Cambridge spies. Context is everything. “The 1930s,” recalled historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who first met Philby in the wartime intelligence service, “are an unforgettable decade. Those who were young were marked by it for life, and still, in their old age, live under its shadow.” The gilded youth of the thirties grew up in the after-agony of the Great War, witnessed unemployed hunger marchers on the streets of Cambridge, and beheld in horror the rise of fascism and the non-intervention of the “democracies” in the Spanish civil war, or, as they understood it, the “betrayal” of the Spanish Republic.
In the 1920s Klugmann and Maclean, and WH Auden and the pacifist Benjamin Britten all attended Gresham’s School in Norfolk. Around one hundred former pupils died in the war and it was the first public school to join The League of Nations Union. In 1933 the Oxford Union ‑ a student debating society and gateway into the political elite – carried the motion that “This House will under no circumstances fight for king and country”. In the following year the International Students Congress in Brussels carried another motion, that “in the Soviet Union we see a tremendous factor for peace, a fighter for disarmament”. In Britain many a student joined “the Party” to “fight for peace”.
In the Marxist imagination, capitalism – and much else besides – is in a state of perpetual crisis, but in the decade of the Great Depression that perennial prognosis achieved unprecedented urgency, and not just among Marxists. Confronted, as they saw it, by an economic system in terminal collapse, and by the death throes of the old political order, a generation turned sharp left. Above all these young men and women were politicised by the international fascist menace, not just from Italy, Germany, and Spain, but manifest in the Japanese aggression in China as well. Franco-British non-intervention and appeasement amounted to surrender by instalment. In these circumstances it was not unreasonable to conclude, as many did, that only the Soviet Union and the Comintern stood in the way of the fascist juggernaut. One does not have to agree with his politics to acknowledge the courage and idealism of the Cambridge communist and poet John Cornforth, who died fighting in Spain. The idealism of his fellow students who became spies for Moscow is, however, contested.
The actions of the Cambridge spy ring have generated a voluminous, sensationalist, and censorious reportage, epitomised by the title of Chapman Pincher’s book Their Trade is Treachery (1981), and trashed by the historian Victor Kiernan as indulgent “spasms of virtuous indignation”. When, after his public outing, Blunt invoked his conscience in explication of his past behaviour, Trevor-Roper remarked “damn his conscience”. Blunt did commit treason “in the lawyer’s meaning” of the word ‑ not, according to Kiernan, “the only or the best” definition. Jesuit missionaries in Elizabethan England, Jacobite rebels in eighteenth century Scotland, and the “July plotters” who tried to kill Hitler, their Führer to whom they had pledged allegiance, were all guilty of treason. Pincher describes Klugmann as a “sinister communist agent”; needless to say Soviet defectors (that is traitors) are spared parallel moral censure. And if Kiernan rightly insists upon the ethical and historical complexities of “treason” his verdict on his college contemporary and party comrade Guy Burgess, could not be more clear-cut: “He did what he felt it right for him to do. I honour his memory.”
Treason, in short, is relative. Elizabethan recusants owed their allegiance to the one true church, Jacobites theirs to the one true king, while for communists in the 1930s “the lines of loyalty … ran not between but across countries”, were “international as much as national”. Indeed, as instruments of “historical necessity”, in the front line of resistance to fascism, they believed themselves to be acting, ultimately, in their own country’s interests. “At no point,” recalled the communist apostate Douglas Hyde in the 1950s, “did the question of … being unpatriotic enter into our thoughts”. On the contrary it was about the appeasers and “the defenders of the Old Order that a strong smell of treason hung”. In hindsight the “higher purpose” moral justification of espionage is strongest when applied to the war years, and subsequently the non-party member Cairncross, truthfully, and Blunt, not so persuasively, claimed to have stopped working for the Soviets in 1945.
The argument turns on the British and American government’s withholding crucial intelligence from their Soviet ally. According to one theory, high-value information gained by the code-breakers in Bletchley Park was never fully shared with Moscow because, with an eye on the postwar settlement, the western powers wanted the Russians and Germans to bleed each other to death on the eastern front. However, one of the code-breakers, Cairncross, who supplied Moscow with thousands of decrypts, ensured that the Red Army in fact knew as much as the allies did, including decisively, the Wehrmacht order of battle at Kursk ‑ a defeat from which the German army never recovered. One problem with that version of events is the enormous contribution in financial, human and material resources which the allies made to the Russian war effort. The devastating Katyusha multiple rocket launchers – ‘Stalin’s Organs’ ‑ were mounted on American-made Studebaker trucks. Another is the Rooseveltian-Churchillian pragmatic determination to win the war at any cost. As Churchill said when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, “if Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons”.
The apparent contradiction can be resolved at the interface between policy and practice, between executive decision and “middle management” implementation. Churchill had no intention of hobbling the Red Army. But some of the authorising civil servants down the administrative chain did. The same dynamic operated, to opposite political effect, in the case of Yugoslavia. Through the adroit manipulation of intelligence James Klugmann, by now an officer in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), succeeded in shifting allied support away from the royalist Chetnik resistance movement, smeared as quasi-collaborationist, to Marshal Tito’s communist partisans, portrayed as the more effective fighting force.
The spies’ contribution to the Soviet war effort, and later to their masters’ acquisition of Anglo-American atomic know-how, constitutes perhaps their greatest historical significance, but their story is also important for what it reveals about the culture, mentalité, mores, and assumptions of English ruling elites at mid-century. Indeed, in Our Age: Portrait of a Generation (1991) the chronicler of those elites, Noel Annan, devotes an entire chapter to the Cambridge spies, and the term by which those elites became commonly known in the 1950s, “the Establishment”, is, in its modern sense, a by-product of the Burgess and Maclean affair, or more precisely of the attempt to cover it up.
The Establishment, of one sort or another, is always and everywhere with us. In the early nineteenth century the English radical William Cobbett called it “the Thing”. In the 1930s people called it “the system” (which the disaffected of the 1960s generation wanted to “smash”). Even the word “Establishment” had been used occasionally in its subsequently established meaning before it was “coined” in 1955 and put into circulation in the pages of The Spectator magazine by Henry Fairlie, an (interestingly enough) lower-case tory journalist. Other journalists, pundits, and “public intellectuals” argued over the precise sociology and membership of the Establishment for the rest of the decade; all of them believed, however, that they knew it when they saw it.
The sinews of the power elite, to use an analogous, and contemporary. concept devised by American sociologist C Wright Mills, were social and emphatically institutional. Its recruits were drawn mostly, but not exclusively, from the privileged alumni of the major public schools, Eton, Harrow and Winchester (the fabled “Wykehamists”) and from the ancient universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Its high-flyers staffed the Foreign Office, the upper echelons of the Church of England, royal commissions, prestigious boards of trustees, cultural and commercial, the BBC and MI6. The quasi-official Times represented its views, and the initiates dined and gossiped at the Athenaeum, Whites, and other select London clubs. Discreet in the exercise of influence and secure in its sense of entitlement, the Establishment looked after its own and knew when to close ranks.
If the crisis of the 1930s nourished a “climate of treason”, the unshakable insouciance of the Establishment allowed it to prosper. The political turmoil of the times helps to explain why the Cambridge communists acted as they did; the codes and conduct of the Establishment accounts for how they were able to do so. Establishment men were honourable, patriotic, loyal, cliquish, well-connected, “effortlessly superior”, and raised – “on the playing fields of Eton” – on the cult of the amateur. And because they believed in duty, service, king and country, they assumed that others of their kind, the right sort of chap, did so too. When recruited by British intelligence the security vetting of Kim Philby, formerly an open communist, appears to have consisted of a few words with senior SIS officer Valentine Vivian, who had known his father St John Philby in India. “I was asked about him and I said I knew his people.” Enough, as they say, said.
In a letter of reference supporting Guy Burgess’s application for a job at the BBC GM Trevelyan, a fellow and later master of Burgess’s college, Trinity, and at the time a famous historian, wrote that “he has passed through the communist measles that so many of our clever young men go through, and is well out of it”. Time and time again the political indiscretions of youth were forgiven by an Establishment blindsided, in Burgess’s own words, by “class blinkers”. Social pedigree provided Comintern agents near free passes into the citadels of power and influence, and access to Old Boy networks to which they were to the manor born. Burgess wrote letters “using stationary from a succession of London clubs, some of which he even belonged to”, and in exile in Moscow continued to wear his Old Etonian tie. But it would be wrong to conclude that the entire edifice thus stood on public school jobbery alone.
The son of an ironmonger and a Scot, John Cairncross came “socially from the lower rather than the higher” and had a “touchy and graceless manner”. Suggestively, Peter Wright – who worked for a period as a farm labourer in Scotland, and whose memoir, Spycatcher, oozes lower middle class resentments – found him rather engaging. In the event, though, Cairncross’s Caledonian dourness didn’t matter. He had a first class mind. In Cambridge he was inducted, along with Blunt, Burgess, Long, Straight, and a bit later, Hobsbawm, into the Apostles, a secret debating society, whose former members include such twentieth century intellectual collosi as Ludwig Wittgenstein and John Maynard Keynes. He placed first in the nationwide civil service entrance exams. The fact that his taciturn manner drew commentary as well as his intellectual merit merely underscores the snobberies and social inbreeding of the elite ecosystem which he so successfully penetrated. Conversely, Burgess’s equally notorious drunkenness, homosexual promiscuity, and dishevelled appearance – he has “no internal brakes”, his Soviet handler reported – served as a sort of cover, and has even until now thrown historians off the scent. As Lownie shows, his subject was possessed of considerable abilities, not just of an Old School Tie.
To an extent that appears, in retrospect, and to the civilian, almost surreal, class assumptions were so deeply ingrained in the Establishment mind that when both Burgess and Maclean, unravelling under the pressure of their double lives, and awash with alcohol, admitted repeatedly, to anyone nearby, that they were Soviet agents, they were routinely ignored. Good chaps from good families simply didn’t do that sort of thing: betray their country and their friends. One in particular of Maclean’s self-destructive outbursts proved especially astute: “I am the English Alger Hiss.” An American diplomat and Harvard Law School graduate, in 1950 Hiss was convicted of perjury arising from charges of espionage, but who among the buttoned-down east coast (and upper east side) “Establishment” would accept the word of his unkempt accuser, Whittaker Chambers, against that of a gentleman? Class prejudice, evidently, flourished even in certain well-upholstered quarters of the classless society.
Maclean was finally exposed not by his own loose tongue but by incriminating information supplied to American intelligence by a Russian traitor. By way of Burgess, Philby, who as a head of MI6 counter intelligence was “kept in the loop”, alerted Maclean to the danger he was in, and the Cambridge two fled to Moscow. Philby’s close association with Burgess in turn led to his unmasking as the third man by MI5. But even then the “right people” matrix, and public school abhorrence of common tittletattle and personal disloyalty, kicked into gear. When the partial truth about the mysterious “disappearance” of the two Foreign Office officials first became public, instinctively the Establishment moved in to hush up the scandal. According to Henry Fairlie’s seminal Spectator piece,
no one whose in job it was to be interested in the Burgess-Maclean affair from the very beginning will forget the subtle but powerful pressures which were brought to bear by those who belonged to the same stratum as the two missing men. From those who were expecting Maclean to dinner on the very night he disappeared, to those who just happened to have been charmed by his very remarkable father, the representatives of the Establishment rowed in, and how effectively they worked may be traced in the columns of the more respectable newspapers at the time, especially The Times and the Observer.
In the following year, when the principal of Aberystwyth, University College, Wales, and sometime fellow of All Souls Goronwy Rees trashed his old friend Burgess in the popular press, he received a letter from the Oxford grandee Maurice Bowra, who knew them both, recommending that he should plant a Judas tree in the college grounds. Rees’s personal betrayal rankled more bitterly than Burgess’s treason. Such class solidarity in the jaws of Cold War rancour had American precedent. The patrician secretary of state Dean Acheson earlier declared, citing scripture: “I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss … ‘I was a Stranger and ye took me in; Naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me; I was in prison and ye came unto me.’”
Meanwhile Establishment insiders rallied to Philby’s defence. There were subtle class distinctions between the domestic intelligence service, MI5, and the more socially elite foreign service, MI6. MI5 knew they had their man; MI6, above all Philby’s closest “friend”, Nicholas Elliott, were determined to protect him. Elliott had a classic Establishment profile – Eton (of which his father became headmaster) and Trinity College, Cambridge – as had Philby – Westminster and Trinity. But Philby was also an elitist in another way. His Soviet recruiter shrewdly appealed to that side of his character: “if you join the Party ‘you will not hand out leaflets in the street. Anyone can do that.’” Decades later Philby acknowledged from exile that “one does not look twice at an offer of enrolment in an elite force”. The third man evaded the mole hunt longer than the first two partly because he could hold his drink, and handle the pressures, better than they. Even when he was ‑ not infrequently ‑ drunk, Philby remained cool, controlled and charming. In fact he continued artfully to extract information from his convivial colleagues. Over many a three-martini lunch in the select saloons of Washington DC the CIA’s overly convivial James Jesus Angleton did more intelligence-sharing with his urbane English counterpart than he knew – causing lasting damage to Anglo-American Cold War security cooperation along the way.
The case of the Cambridge spies stands as an extraordinary episode in the history of international espionage and as a particular example, cultivated and inbred, of what EP Thompson termed “the peculiarities of the English”. Nor is there any sign of the halt to “Treason Studies” for which Neil Ascherson pleaded over thirty years ago. The central character of Natasha Walker’s recently published novel A Quiet Life is inspired by the life of Maclean’s American wife, Melinda: fiction too, it is clear, will continue to draw on the rich story-making resources, on the drama of high political and low personal intrigue, furnished by this cast of compelling characters. And little wonder. After his death in Moscow in 1963 Burgess’s ashes were secretly returned to England for burial in the family plot in the parish churchyard of the village of West Meon in Hampshire. Among the graves nearby are those of William Cobbett, champion of the common man and writer of clear and vigorous prose, and of Thomas Lord, for whom the famous London cricket grounds are named. A little corner that is “forever England”: how much more English does it get? You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Professor Jim Smyth teaches British and Irish history at the University of Notre Dame. Among his publications are The Men of No Property: Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the Late Eighteenth Century, The Making of the United Kingdom 1660-1800: State, Religion and Identity in Britain and Ireland and Cold War Culture: Intellectuals, the Media and the Practice of History.