Yet another book on the “Cambridge Five” rolls off the press (Enemies Within: Traitors, Spies and the Making of Modern Britain by Richard Davenport-Hines), and it’s time to stifle yet another yawn as this mini-industry and apparent national obsession with posh spies.
I don’t want to review Davenport-Hines’ book. In my opinion, most of the writing on the Cambridge Five is bog standard when it is not dreadful, and I want to discuss is why this is so. The Cambridge Five were: Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross and Donald Maclean. From the early 1930s, despite being members of the British elite, they spied for Soviet intelligence. In the 1950s/1960s Burgess, Maclean and Philby defected to the Soviet Union and the other two became “inactive”. The Five were classic “moles”, burrowing deep into British Intelligence and state apparatus, revealing so many secrets to Moscow Centre that, at times, the Russians simply could not keep pace.
Previous books on The Five include: Anthony Blunt: His Lives (Miranda Carter); Stalin’s Englishman (Andrew Lownie); A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (Ben Macintyre); The Great Betrayal: The Untold Story of Kim Philby’s Greatest Coup (Nicholas Bethell); The Master Spy: The Story of Kim Philby (Phillip Knightley); Guy Burgess: A Portrait With Background (Tom Driberg) and Donald and Melinda Maclean: Idealism and Espionage (Michael Holzman). There are at least six PhD theses on the Five, at least two feature films (‘Another Country’ and ‘An Englishman Abroad’), numerous TV documentaries, a couple of stage plays and a number of fictional spy stories which feed off the Cambridge Five legends in various ways such as John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Here I must confess that I once added to this dreary roll-call by giving a presentation on “British Spy Films” at a conference in Budapest in 1998. I belatedly offer my apologies to those who sat through it.
Because of the Cambridge Five’s activities, it is probably true to say that for decades there was very little that Moscow did not know about the operations of MI6 around the world. Kim Philby, single-handedly, was responsible for sabotaging one of the Cold War’s earliest anti-USSR operations. Just after the war he organised three successive operations to send trained and armed Albanian exiles back to their country of origin to fight the regime of arch-Stalinist Enver Hoxha. With just two exceptions who managed to escape to Greece, every one of these insurgents was captured and executed within two days of landing in Albania. Philby, of course, had notified Moscow who then alerted the Albanian security forces who were waiting for them. Cairncross, when working at the British de-coding centre, Bletchley Park, was able to send full details of the positions and strengths of German army units to Moscow just before the key battle of Kursk on the Eastern Front.
There are some myths about the Five that need to be dealt with. I would suggest that it is the failure of those who have written about them to deal with these myths that have contributed to the poor quality and tedium of their output .
Myth Number 1: The Cambridge Five were exploited by Soviet intelligence because their homosexuality made them vulnerable to blackmail, pressure and extortion. In fact only two of the Five were homosexual: Blunt and Burgess. There are no indications that Moscow ever used homosexuality as a tool against any of the Five. It was a very different story when visiting British diplomats got themselves caught in compromising situations on secret cameras. In fact one biographer has suggested, probably rightly, that Burgess and Blunt’s homosexuality was seen by Moscow as an advantage.
The English upper class homosexual community had an extremely well-developed contact network which Blunt and Burgess exploited and the British establishment tolerated homosexuality as long as it was discreet and hidden from view. It was only when Burgess’s outrageous drunken behaviour led to him openly flaunt his homosexuality that it became potentially compromising (particularly when he was in America).
Myth Number 2: The Cambridge Five were young and naive. This doesn’t stand up to critical examination. All five carried on their activities way past their youth and Philby, Burgess and Maclean were all unrepentant to the grave. More importantly, all the Five were intelligent, resourceful in the extreme and well-versed in their various special fields in “civilian life”. Blunt, for example was a well-known art expert and Cairncross published a number of highly praised works on French literature. Burgess was extremely well-read in Marxist theory and when working on the MI6 China Desk developed an analysis of the revolution there which opposed the simplistic attitudes of the CIA who simply saw the Chinese revolution as the Bolshevik revolution mark two.
Myth Number 3: The Five were not suspected of being Soviet spies and were very good at deception. In fact there were many suspicions about the Five. It’s just that nobody did much about it.
Burgess, who was rarely sober for more than a day at a time, even bragged about being a Soviet sympathiser, while staff at Buckingham palace where Blunt worked as an art adviser to the Queen (!) were heard to openly refer to him as “our Soviet spy”. It was no secret that all Five had, at various times, been associated with the British Communist Party. Burgess, while at University, had openly (to his credit) campaigned in support of striking Cambridge bus drivers. Blunt had published articles on the Marxist interpretation of art. Kim Philby even went so far as to hold a press conference in his London flat to demonstrate he wasn’t a spy. On the orders of Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan charges against him were dropped.
A number of quite powerful people did suspect one or all of the Cambridge Five of being spies including the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, and Dick White, the Director General of MI5 in the 50s (who later became Director of MI6). The Five had powerful and influential friends and connections. Either they didn’t believe that the Five could have done what they did or, they kept quiet about it so as not to embarrass the establishment (which included themselves).
Spies who were caught but were not part of the old boys’ network were not treated in such a lenient fashion. George Blake, who did not attend Eton or Harrow or graduate from Cambridge and — heaven forbid — wasn’t even British, received a prison sentence of 30 years when he was caught. None of the Cambridge Five were ever charged with any offence or put on trial. Anthony Blunt even received a (very discreet) pardon for his activities.
Myth Number 4: The Five did what they did because: they were alienated from society /they had overbearing, authoritarian mothers/fathers/they were isolated and felt a need to belong/they loved secrecy/they loved the idea of power that being a spy brought (delete as you see fit).
What all writers on the Five ignore is that they actually believed in what they were doing. Although there is much in that belief that can and should be criticised — it was after all, ultimately a belief in Stalinism — they held to their beliefs doggedly, over many years in often stressful and demanding circumstances. Possibly what helped them tough it out is that they were isolated. All those who were members of the Communist Party resigned when they “signed up” for Moscow Centre. This was part of the overall deception involved. They therefore did not participate in Party debates and perhaps this rendered them somewhat immune to the disillusionment associated with the Hitler-Ribbentrop Pact, revelations about the Gulag, the repression of Hungary in 1956 etc. If your only serious political contact is your “minder”, then it is not likely you will develop a critical view of the Soviet Union and Comrade Stalin.
Myth Number 5: The Five were “traitors”. This answers nothing and merely panders to a kind of weak “shock, horror” about their supposed lack of patriotism. All of them originally aligned with the Communist Party in Britain because of their hatred of fascism and it appeared to many of that generation (and not just those at Cambridge) that it was the Communist Party who were the only ones actually doing something about the growing threat of fascism in Germany and elsewhere.
Their second hate object was the United States. At least in their early days the Five appear to have done little that would have damaged British interests. Philby, Burgess and Maclean all loved England and it was a wrench when they had to flee to the Soviet Union. To call them traitors answers nothing and merely appeals to a tribal Daily Mail editorial mentality, clouding a proper understanding of what they did and why.
Myth Number 6: The repressive Public School system, with its brutality, rigid hierarchies, and excessive discipline, produced a resentment and revulsion within the Five that encouraged them to turn to the Soviet Union.
This is the theme of the film ‘Another Country’. It is a neat formula. However, none of the Five appears to have been all that upset or traumatised by their school experience. Burgess proudly wore his Old Etonian tie even when living in Moscow. Cairncross never even went to a public school, nor did he attend Cambridge as an undergraduate (His father was an ironmonger in Scotland).
Myth Number 7: The Five were “tragic” figures. For the commentariat the Five’s tragedy was that they sacrificed their lives to a belief that ultimately was shown to be erroneous and the system built on that belief ignominiously collapsed. Whether or not any of the Five saw things this way is open to question. The real tragedy about the Cambridge Five is that in supporting the Soviet Union they, in reality, supported Stalinism. There is little to suggest that they ever seriously questioned that.
Myth Number 8: British Intelligence is now a reformed body and no longer run by the incompetent former public schoolboys of yore. Reading Stella Rimington’s monumentally tedious memoirs of her time as head of MI5 does not inspire one with confidence. She seems to seriously believe that the British Communist Party’s policy statement, The British Road to Socialism is a revolutionary document. Has she ever read it? Rimington also probably had a hand in Roger Windsor’s visit to Libya during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5.
Windsor, who was an executive officer for the NUM, was almost certainly an MI5 agent of some description. The Libya visit was a set-up which caused a scandal at the time, and it certainly caused some problems for the NUM, precisely what it was aimed to do. However, this sting operation is hardly an advertisement for the impartiality and openness of the “new” British Intelligence service.
There’s much more that could be said. But why do we still have to rely on the guess-work of ill-informed journalists passing themselves off as historians, or the supposed “confessions” of delusional nonentities who might once have passed Guy Burgess in the corridors of Trinity College or once joined the Communist Party for three weeks after attending a meeting in Saffron Walden in 1936? It should be the right of the citizens of this country to have access to the historical records of British Intelligence so we can make a reasoned and informed judgement about the things done in our name.
However, even today, years and years after the events some archives are still closed or have been mysteriously “lost”. What we are forced to turn to is a mountain of largely regurgitated dross. Let’s get a Freedom of Information Act with teeth and then, to use the words of the competent and serious Neal Acherson back in 1983 when also reviewing the literature on the Cambridge Five, “Let’s get the blanket over this parrot and enjoy a spell of peace.”