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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)