A new book reassesses the received wisdom about Britain’s most notorious intelligence disaster
Enemies Within: Communists, the Cambridge Spies and the Making of Modern Britain. By Richard Davenport-Hines. William Collins; 642 pages; £25. To be published in America in October; $26.99
COMMUNIST toffs spying for Stalin epitomise the decadence of the old British establishment. That is the gist of many of the umpteen books and articles written about Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross, the so-called Cambridge spies. Repelled by Britain’s passivity in the face of fascism, disgusted by the suffering of the depression years, these gilded, idealistic youths turned to Communism as undergraduates at Britain’s most brilliant university. They got away with their treachery because Soviet spycraft was superb, whereas Britain’s spycatchers were riddled with snobbery and incompetence.
Richard Davenport-Hines dissects and destroys that conventional wisdom in his masterly retelling of Britain’s most notorious intelligence disaster. The received version of events is a neat tale, but wrong in every respect. The five did not represent any particular trend or flaw in the upper reaches of British society. They were not really that aristocratic or posh. Only Burgess was an Etonian. Maclean’s mother ran a shop. Cairncross’s father was an ironmonger. Nor did they reflect a specific weakness in the British system. Soviet penetration of the American intelligence agencies was far deeper.
Mr Davenport-Hines takes particular issue with an influential essay by John Le Carré, published in 1968, in which the pseudonymous spy novelist (who as the real-life David Cornwell worked in British intelligence) portrayed Burgess, Maclean and Philby as psychological cripples, shaped by family conflicts. Freudian bunk, Mr Davenport-Hines avers. “The ring of five took adult decisions, in an adult environment. It infantilises the significance of their ideas, their acts and their consequences to treat them as programmed by defective parenting.” Neither Freud or Marx, he says, explain the treachery. Vanity and alcohol were the main fuel.
Nor was Soviet spycraft brilliant. It was by turns brutal, sloppy, rigid and wasteful. Paranoia rendered much of the espionage pointless—the spymasters in Moscow simply did not believe what their British agents were telling them. Many intelligence officers were purged and murdered for imagined ideological or other failings. It is equally unfair to dismiss MI5, Britain’s security service, as one commentator did, as “florid and fruity” in the pre-war years. British counter-intelligence was far more effective than the counterpart efforts in America. Lack of visible results is not necessarily a sign of failure. After all, the main goal of counter-intelligence work is not spectacular prosecutions and convictions. It is finding out what is going on, without letting the other side know.
Hindsight, in the form of unthinking anachronism, has also distorted the picture. Most people now know that the Soviet Union was a blood-soaked tyranny. But in the 1930s and 1940s communism was not seen as reprehensible. It was a fashionable intellectual fad. G.M. Trevelyan, a Cambridge historian, wrote a reference for Burgess dismissing his ideological orientation as no more than the “communist measles” that temporarily afflicts “so many of our clever young men”. For most of the war, even overt communist sympathies were unremarkable; after all, the Soviet Union was a cherished ally.
Mr Davenport-Hines makes his case with splenetic zeal, backed by a formidable array of sources. Non-specialist readers may struggle with the blizzard of names, dates and places in the book. But the main message is clear and striking. The real damage was not the betrayal of state secrets at the time, but the later, corrosive effect on trust within the establishment, and on public confidence in the pillars of British statehood.
The defection of Burgess and Maclean in 1951, he writes, “started an inextinguishable moral panic about the arcane mysteries of the class system and the instabilities of sexuality. From this public consternation ensued the follies, abasements and fanaticism of their compatriots’ deepening obsession with spy rings.” British commentators and spy writers have aided and abetted this, by unthinkingly passing on the mendacious spin that the traitors put on their behaviour in memoirs and interviews. The press comes in for a pasting too, for its stentorian judgments about scandals and cover-ups, mostly based on very limited information. The authorities often could not defend their actions for fear of revealing other secrets, such as intercepted Soviet communications.
It is a shame that Mr Davenport-Hines dismisses stories he disbelieves, about other moles, sexual foibles and bureaucratic mishaps, as “delusions”, “nasty inventions” and “silly fancies”. Moreover, he overstates his main case when he argues that the Cambridge spies’ weakening of the establishment stoked a public revolt against the collective wisdom of the governing classes—a process, he contends, that led ultimately to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. To blame modern woes so unambiguously on a handful of long-dead traitors, however guileful and fascinating, is to overstate their importance.