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William Boyd on Kim Philby: how did a privileged young Englishman become a national traitor?

The story of how Philby and four other privileged young Englishmen became spies or double agents for the USSR borders on a perverse sense of national pride.

Comrade Kim: Philby in Moscow in 1968, five years after defecting to the USSR. Photo: Rex Features

Comrade Kim: Philby in Moscow in 1968,
five years after defecting to the USSR.
Photo: Rex Features

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal 
Ben Macintyre
Bloomsbury, 352pp, £20
 

The English can justifiably point to real and lasting achievements in three particular areas of human endeavour: dictionaries, bespoke gentleman’s tailoring and betrayal. Treason is as old as history but the serial betrayals of the so-called Cambridge Five before, during and after the Second World War are unique and continue to exert a fascination that borders on a perverse form of national pride. Five young men, privileged and well-educated members of the British elite, decided for one reason or another to become spies or double agents for Soviet Russia: Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, John Cairncross, Anthony Blunt and, of course, the greatest betrayer of them all, Kim Philby.

Blunt’s case is highly intriguing in its own right. Not only was he a Soviet double agent but he ascended to the pinnacle of the British establishment: he became head of the Courtauld Institute and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, and he was knighted. In a way, Blunt is a perfect study in English hypocrisy – in that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”, as Hamlet put it – but in crude spying terms he was pretty small beer. On the other hand, Harold Adrian Russell Philby (Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge), always known by his nickname “Kim”, was the real deal, arguably one of the most successful double agents ever, one who was highly prized by his Russian handlers over his many years of diligent service to them.

The details of the damage he wreaked in his three decades of betrayal from the 1930s to the 1960s have been consigned to the annals of spying history but Philby the man – the individual, the myth – seems to grow ever larger in the folk memory of the British intelligentsia. There is something about his nature, and how he managed to hoodwink everybody, that is utterly compelling and goes beyond mere espionage. The case of Kim Philby appears to tell us something profound about ourselves and our country and we cannot, it seems, get enough of him. Ben Macintyre’s new investigation of the master spy’s case – although, as the author admits, adding to an already voluminous literature on the subject – is a hugely engrossing contribution to Philby lore.

Macintyre elects to see Philby and his activities through the lens of a friendship; a friendship with a fellow MI6 operative, Nicholas Elliott (1916-94). By coincidence another book about Philby has appeared simultaneously, Kim Philby: the Unknown Story of the KGB’s Master Spy (Biteback, £20), written by another former friend and MI6 operative, Tim Milne, who died in 2010. Milne knew most of the players in the Philby story and his is a valuable, judicious insider’s account. However, Elliott’s role in Philby’s life proved more significant.

Elliott and Philby started their spying lives together – one honourable, one highly dishonourable – and they remained close for decades, Elliott always innocent of his friend’s duplicity. But, by one of the juicier ironies of fate, Elliott was present at the moment of Philby’s defection to Moscow – and indeed may even have engineered it. There is an almost Jacobean dramatic arc to this story of simultaneous betrayal of both a dear friend and a country. Two types of loyalty are exploited and ruthlessly undermined.

Briefly, the narrative of Philby’s spying history follows this trajectory. He was officially recruited as a Russian agent by one Arnold Deutsch in 1934. Philby was 22 years old. The young Philby’s motive at the time was ostensibly ideological – he believed absolutely in the communist cause as the only way that fascism could be combated. As a journalist, he worked secretly for the Soviet NKVD security service during the Spanish civil war (bizarrely, he was decorated by Franco, an award that preceded his OBE in 1946). The trouble with this intellectual position was that, to any sentient being, it became morally unsustainable with the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 which divided Poland. At once the scales had to fall from the eyes of British communist fellow-travellers: Stalin’s Russia was not the workers’ utopian dream state. Brutal realpolitik functioned there just as anywhere else.

What this means is that the ideological incentive for betraying your country no longer really holds. When we look at the activities of the Cambridge spies post-1939, there had to be other motives operating – and here, I believe, lies the key to the enduring interest in Philby. Why did he do it? How could he sustain the enormous, unimaganable pressures of living a double life from 1933 until 1963, when he finally defected to the Soviet Union? This is the mystery at the centre of the Kim Philby affair.

There was something of a lull in his clandestine activities after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but once he was recruited into the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in 1940 he was contacted anew by the Soviet secret service’s London rezident and resumed his life as a double agent. Philby provided useful information during and immediately after the war, but his period of greatest value to the Russians began when he was posted to Washington, DC in 1949 to serve as first secretary at the British embassy. Here, he was able to supply the Soviets with prized material to do with US nuclear capability as well as CIA activities. And yet it was also his period of greatest jeopardy. Philby’s friendship with his fellow traitors Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean (whose recruitment he had initiated) placed him in a baleful spotlight when the two men defected to Russia in 1951.

However, even though suspicions were raised and Philby was repeatedly interrogated, the consensus in the SIS was that Kim couldn’t possibly be working for the other side – no, not old Kim, excellent fellow that he is. The pressure was such, though, that he was obliged to resign.

Perhaps his apotheosis as a double agent occurred when in October 1955 Harold Macmillan, the then foreign secretary, exonerated him, stating in the House of Commons: “I have no reason to believe that Mr Philby has at any time betrayed the interests of his country.” Philby gave a bravura press conference afterwards claiming that he had “never been a communist”. For a double agent, one supposes, such a public moment of state endorsement and credulity must be an inconceivable triumph. Philby went back to his old trade as a journalist, ending up based in Beirut and working as a correspondent for the Observer and the Economist. His experience and his cover as a journalist soon proved too enticing for the SIS and he was re-recruited; one of his oldest friends in the service, Nicholas Elliott, being of particular help.

Philby rejoined the club and went to work. But by then a series of Soviet defections was pointing the finger more and more at Philby being the “third man”, the crucial mole in the British Secret Service. The strain was finally getting to him and his developing alcoholism was attracting attention. Nicholas Elliott was sent to interrogate Philby and extract a confession. Elliott offered immunity in return for all the details of his spying activities for the Russians. Philby stalled, and while Elliot waited for him to make another appointment, he slipped away and was hidden on board a Russian freighter bound for Odessa. It was 1963. The double life was over.

Such a summary does no justice to Macintyre’s marvellously shrewd and detailed account of Philby’s nefarious career. It is both authoritative and enthralling, and the contrasting lives of the two “friends” works as a most effective way of exploring the social context and values of the SIS and the upper levels of British society. The book is all the more intriguing because it carries an afterword by John le Carré. In the late 1980s, le Carré had a series of confidential meetings with Elliott during which he took copious notes (which he made available to Macintyre for this book). He concluded that Elliott, who ever since had been overshadowed by the scandal of the Philby defection and his perceived blunders, wanted to transmit, covertly, his own version of events to someone who would understand – and who better than John le Carré, aka David Cornwell, a former spook, too.

Macintyre’s reading of Elliott’s own confession to le Carré, and his analysis of Philby’s movements just before he defected, as well as the actions (or non-actions) of the SIS, lead him to float the idea that Philby hadn’t outwitted the incompetent SIS in defecting – in fact the SIS wanted him to defect. It was better for all concerned for Philby to be in Moscow than on trial in London, where the concentrated unpicking in court of his wholesale treachery since 1941 would be a humiliation too far. From Moscow, his revelations could be dismissed as Russian propaganda.

Who can say? One of the pleasures of writing about espionage is that you are
almost licensed to concoct your own conspiracy theories; all that’s demanded is plausibility, and Elliott and Macintyre’s gloss on events is highly plausible. Was the SIS populated, in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s words, by people who were “by and large stupid, some of them very stupid”, or was there a sophisticated triple-bluff going on in Beirut in 1963, run by the very clever heads of Nicholas Elliott and Dick White, the then “C” (director) of MI6? Incidentally, Elliott’s judgement of Trevor-Roper was that he was “wet and useless. Something perverse inside him.” However, whatever the intricacies of Philby’s exfiltration from Beirut to Moscow, what is undeniable is that Philby and the Cambridge Five expose attitudes and complacencies among the British elite and ruling classes that show, if not arrogance, then astonishing sins of omission.

To put it simply, Philby got away with his betrayal for so many years because his colleagues, men of his own class and education, couldn’t believe that an Englishman of his type – stereotypically “charming” and popular – would ever dream of being a double agent for the ghastly Russians. The shock-waves detonated by his defection shook the British establishment and its espionage organisations to their foundations.

Intriguingly, le Carré gave some indication of the vehemence of this feeling in an introduction he wrote to a book on Philby published in 1968, five years after the defection, called Philby: the Spy Who Betrayed a Generation. “The avenger stole upon the citadel and destroyed it from within,” he wrote ominously, going on to describe Philby as “an aggressive upper-class enemy . . . one of our blood and [who] hunted with our pack”. The language is heightened, gravid with raw outrage. Trevor-Roper, another betrayed friend, went even further, speculating shrilly that Philby had become a traitor as a result of a kind of “death of the mind” through his espousal of communism, poisoned, having “drunk from the chalice of that secret church”. The tone is almost biblical, such is the fury and hurt at the scale of the violation of trust.

All of this is symptomatic of attempts to understand, to find – now that we know the “how” – a credible response to the anguished question: “Why?” Macintyre recounts various explanations offered by those who knew Philby: his enormous egotism, the addictive thrill involved in outwitting others, or the brutal fact that once you were sucked in to this dangerous game there was no escape.

My own supposition in the case of Philby – and it can’t be proved, of course – is that it was an example of the old adage that sometimes it can be as easy to hate your country as it is to love it. If you were a privileged left-wing idealist in the 1930s, Britain in her self-satisfied imperial pomp could seem a very rebarbative place. Philby hinted at this in a newspaper interview he gave after he defected in 1963.

He “loved England”, he averred, claiming that he felt himself “wholly and irreversibly English and England as having been perhaps the most fertile patch of earth in the whole history of human ideas”. Asked why he then had so systematically betrayed this paragon of a nation, he said he had felt a “humane contempt for certain contemporary phenomena that prevented England from being herself”. The unreflecting use of “English” and “England” –  not “Britain” – is very revealing and is the candid language of his class. Philby calls it “humane contempt” – but I think “contempt” on its own will explain almost everything. 

William Boyd’s latest novel is “Solo” (Jonathan Cape, £18.99)

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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