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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)

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror