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The silver spoon spy: how Cambridge double-agent Donald Maclean got away with it for so long

Tall, fair-haired and attractive, Maclean maintained a surface allure of charm that eventually failed to obscure the demons wrestling beneath.

Back in the mid-1960s, I went on a  school trip to Inverness. We were allowed 30 minutes of liberty in the city centre before returning and as the senior boy I was responsible for counting heads to make sure all were present after our brief furlough. I counted and recounted – we were short by two. I turned to the teacher: “I’m sorry, sir,” I said, “But Burgess and Maclean are missing.” The unbridled hilarity that greeted my remark – from teacher and bus driver – alerted me to the fact that I had inadvertently stumbled on an adult joke. I was baffled. It was explained to me. It was the first time I heard of Donald Maclean.

I very much doubt if the joke would detonate now. Donald Maclean along with Guy Burgess, two senior British diplomats, defected to the Soviet Union in 1951 although their presence there was not admitted until 1956. They were the first notorious alumni of what was to become known as the “Cambridge Five”: that generation of British traitors and double agents, all graduates of Cambridge University, that so defines the British experience of the Cold War. Maclean, Burgess, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross are part of 20th-century espionage history – though the infamous resonance that their names once generated is steadily diminishing. Spying has changed – it’s all about surveillance and whistle-blowing now – and the privileged, intellectualised, haute bourgeoisie treason that the Cambridge Five represented seems almost passé – a curiosity, belonging to a different time and another world. But, as this superb biography makes clear, the story of Maclean and his fellow travellers is full of contemporary relevance, particularly for this country. The ideology – communism – that spurred these traitors on may be vanished or moribund but the attitudes, assumptions, patterns of behaviour and gross sins of omission that the Maclean and Burgess defection exposed are both timeless and very British.

Donald Maclean (1913-1983) was the son of a knighted cabinet minister. Every middle-class privilege – and curse – was his. Public school (Gresham’s), Cambridge University (Trinity Hall) and early admission to the Foreign Office – he was only 22 when he became a third secretary – seemed part of that inevitable progression granted to those with silver spoons clamped firmly between their teeth.

Maclean joined the Foreign Office in 1934 and was almost immediately provided with access to secret information. By then he was fully engaged in his double life having being recruited and “run” by an Austrian émigré named Arnold Deutsch, the NKVD’s rezident in London and the man who was largely responsible for recruiting the Cambridge Five in the 1930s. Maclean was from the outset an astonishingly diligent supplier of useful information, taking files home with him from the office and having them photographed for delivery to Moscow Centre.

Tall, fair-haired and attractive, Maclean maintained a surface allure of patrician charm and super-efficiency that, as time went by, failed to obscure the demons wrestling beneath. An ideological communist whose core ideals managed to survive the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, he was to become as valued a spy for Moscow as Kim Philby. When Maclean was posted to Washington DC towards the end of the war the flow of information became even more vitally useful. In late 1944, as the defeat of Nazi Germany loomed, Maclean was able to supply Stalin with the full minutes of the secret meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill in Quebec at which the two leaders pondered the shape of postwar Europe. Maclean, code-named “Homer” (“Orphan” had been his first pseudonym), was a massively important intelligence asset. More information followed: Stalin appeared mysteriously well briefed about the British and American positions at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences in 1945 yet nobody suspected a thing.

Maclean’s value increased in the early nuclear age once the war was over: accurate details about America’s true A-bomb capability found their way swiftly to Homer’s controllers. Maclean could specify the exact tonnage of uranium bought by the Americans in 1947 – enough to make around 50 bombs. Russian foreign policy was modified as a result of the intelligence he was providing. However, while his smooth ascent of the Foreign Office hierarchy increased and, concomitantly, his importance as a spy, his personal life began to unravel.

In 1940 he had married Melinda Marling, an American, to whom, almost immediately, he confessed that he was a Russian agent. She was, somewhat amazingly, happy to live on with him in this duplicity. Children were born, two sons, and in 1948, at the very early age of 35, Maclean was posted from Washington to Cairo as “counsellor”, the youngest in the Diplomatic Service. The next rung on the ladder would be an ambassadorship. At this stage of the Cold War, the Soviets had Maclean and Burgess at the centre of the British Foreign Office, Blunt in MI5, Cairncross at the Government Cipher School (later GCHQ) and Philby at MI6. The penetration was extraordinary and complete.

But the strain of the double life was beginning to tell. Maclean, a chain smoker, and always a heavy drinker, became a barely functioning alcoholic in Cairo in the late 1940s. His favourite tipple was a noxious blend of whisky and arak. In his cups he was violent and rude, expressing virulent anti-American sentiments and proclaiming himself a socialist. He confessed, while drunk, to being a member of the Communist Party and, on one occasion, even to being a Russian agent. One morning, after a binge, he was found wandering on a Cairo street, lost, dishevelled and dirty, his shoes in one hand, still drunk from the evening’s excesses.

The self-destruction seemed almost like a wilful act of exposure. By now the Secret Intelligence Service was aware of “leaks” emanating from the Washington embassy. But no one ever suspected good old Donald. After trashing a flat while searching for booze he was sent back to England, where it was assumed that pressure of work had brought about a nervous breakdown. But the noose was tightening. American decryption of Russian telegrams made it increasingly obvious that the source was Maclean and yet, as Philipps eloquently puts it, “the blind eye of mandarin and class prejudice” appeared unable to see anything more sinister.

The denouement is now a familiar story. Philby, in the US, aware of the ticking clock of discovery and exposure, had Burgess tell Maclean the game was up. The two men (with the complicity of Melinda) fled in May 1951 – to Paris, Bern and then Prague – and then disappeared. Only in 1956 would the “missing diplomats” surface in Moscow. A few years later Philby joined them. All three lived out their final years in Soviet Russia, Philby indulging in the ultimate double-cross of having an affair with Melinda that brought the Maclean marriage to an end. Maclean died in 1983 of cancer.

Roland Philipps relates the complex narrative of Maclean’s treason – and those of his colleagues – with tremendous aplomb, limpidity and acuity. Despite his manifest torments, Maclean somehow always believed in what he was doing – not necessarily the case with the others. Intriguingly, he seemed happy in his Russian exile while Burgess and Philby drank themselves to death. What made the treason of the Cambridge Five so abidingly disturbing was the British establishment’s purblind reluctance to give it credence. People like us just don’t betray their country. Philby’s treachery was equally devastating to this upper-class complacency. Not our Kim, surely? Only clever American code-breakers discovered the perpetrators and it took decades for the reputation of the British secret service to recover since the establishment’s efforts to cover up and minimise the damage were as inept as its attempts at counter espionage.

What makes members of the privileged elite betray their country? My own belief is that it is, fundamentally, the result of a growing hatred of that very class into which they were born. General ideological reasons – the fight against fascism in the 1930s – were transformed over years into an ardent personal desire to foul the nest, to put it very simply. Interestingly, all these British traitors had remote, austere fathers with demanding or eccentric moral codes – and adoring mothers. Over to you, Dr Freud.

And the cost of such constant duplicity? Maclean’s degenerate crack-up in Cairo is testimony to the pressures of living the life of a spy. Philipps is very astute on the nuances of psychological interpretation; he tellingly quotes another traitor, Klaus Fuchs (who helped the Russians build their atom bomb), who stated that being a spy meant living a life of “controlled schizophrenia”. For Maclean controlling that schizoid life soon became impossible – overtly serving one system and hating it while covertly yearning for and abetting another. Maybe that explains the paradoxical tranquillity of his modest Russian exile. He was finally happy – the spying was over. 

A Spy Named Orphan: The Enigma of Donald Maclean
Roland Philipps
Bodley Head, 425pp, £20

William Boyd’s new novel, “Love is Blind”, is published by Viking in September

This article appears in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum