Enemies Within: Communists, Cambridge Spies and The Making of Modern Britain, by Richard Davenport-Hines, William Collins, 672 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0007516674
Reading today’s headlines it is perhaps worth remembering that Sergei Skripal, the MI6 spy, was regarded by the Kremlin as a “traitor” in much the same way the British regarded Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess as “traitors” some decades previously. Skripal betrayed the identities of Russian undercover agents in the West (the fate of these agents is still unknown); the Cambridge spies betrayed the identities of Western spies in the Eastern bloc.
There is indeed no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one its periodical fits of morality; consider that many in Britain called for Philby, Maclean and Burgess to face the death penalty for their actions ‑ the same death penalty allegedly handed down by the Kremlin on Sergei Skripal. The recent publication of Richard Davenport-Hines’s Enemies Within: Communists, Cambridge Spies and The Making of Modern Britain is a timely and necessary reminder of the doublethink and hypocrisy that are disguised as “this country’s moral values” in the murky world of espionage.
Davenport-Hines is a writer of some skill: he specialises in treating well-worn stories but offering bracing new socio-cultural perspectives. His 2013 book on the Profumo affair ‑ Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo ‑ was a mini-masterpiece, offering up such delightful nuggets as this evidence by a dominatrix involved in the “sex parties” of the time: when asked why her rich clients had the desire to be whipped, she replied: “It goes back to their nannies. Bus drivers and people like that who don’t have nannies don’t ask you to whip them.”
Similarly here with the almost ossified story of the Cambridge Five (Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and Cairncross), Davenport-Hines, aided by recently declassified papers, peels away the layers of received wisdom and self-serving revisionism surrounding the story. But the real revelation is the author’s idea that the socio-political fallout from the affair is still very much reverberating today. “The undermining of authority, the rejection of expertise, the suspicion of educational advantages, and the use of the words ‘elite’ and ‘Establishment’ as derogatory epithets transformed the social and political temper of Britain,” he writes. From this he comes to a startling conclusion: “The long-term results of the Burgess and Maclean defection reached their apotheosis when joined with other voices in the referendum vote for Brexit on June 23, 2016.”
Granted, this last sentence can appear on first reading to be the result of a feverish and addled mind but in the course of his book Davenport-Hines builds up a very strong case in its defence. The Cambridge Five had (generally) a privileged public school/Oxbridge background which facilitated their smooth progression into the intelligence services. Indeed, such was the swiftness of their advance and their easy access to top secret files that when they first passed these documents on to their Soviet handlers, Moscow Central believed they were classic double agent plants.
But the five were in fact doctrinaire Marxist-Leninists (perhaps even more so than their Soviet handlers, who at least had the benefit of knowing what living in the “Workers’ Paradise” of the Soviet Union actually entailed). Their eventual unmasking ‑ first when Burgess and Maclean defected in 1951, and then when Philby followed them (having farcically being cleared of being the “Third Man” in 1955) some years later ‑ led to not just futile soul-searching on the part of the Establishment but a popular press campaign against all the five represented: upper class entitlement, educational advantage, an incestuous old-boy network. As the Beaverbrook press wrote at the time ‑ and this very much captures the flavour of the popular response ‑ the intelligence services and the Foreign Office were seen as “a natural home for homosexuals, drunks and unstable weirdos in general”. Two of the five (Burgess and Blunt) were gay. Most were chronic alcoholics.
Skilfully, what Davenport-Hines shows here is that it was not the material that was betrayed by the five that was important (a lot of it wasn’t even translated by the ever-suspicious Soviets) but more what was fractured in the body politic when three of the five defected.
In conclusion, the author argues that, when campaigning for Brexit, Michael Gove made his “unforgivable remark” that “People in this country have had enough of experts”, the minister was merely “parroting attitudes that had first arisen in political discourse after the defections of Burgess and Maclean in 1951”. Whether you have confidence in the author’s bold assertion that the Cambridge Five were one of the reasons for Brexit or not, there is no disputing that Davenport-Hines has written an enthralling socio-cultural account of a story that just keeps on giving.
As the Skripal affair shows, some stories just don’t go away.
Brian Boyd is an Irish journalist and broadcaster.