What sort of traitors?

Neal Ascherson reflects on the British spy opera

  • The Climate of Treason by Andrew Boyle
    Hutchinson, 504 pp, £8.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 09 139340 X

The other day, I found myself in a taxi queue with Anthony Blunt. He looked frayed but fervently cheerful, much as if he had just been dug out of the ruins of his own bombed house. Never mind the furniture, the books and the glass: the ceiling had come down, but the dear old family dining-table had taken the strain. Nobody is going to try him, nobody is going to bump him off. The worst that can happen now is abuse by newspapers, and that will only hasten the process of reconciliation with his friends. Newspapers are ‘they’ and we, after all, are ‘we’. As Andrew Boyle relates, it turned out that a great many old acquaintances of Burgess and Maclean were much more horrified – felt, indeed, much more betrayed – by the fact that the late Goronwy Rees gave a version of their flight to the People than by the flight itself. When Stephen Spender showed the Daily Express a friend’s letter about Burgess, he was held to have disgraced himself.

This book is a great feat. Andrew Boyle went through archives and memoirs in two continents, but above all persuaded people to talk – people in the know, who had given out little or no information before. So much has been written about the Two and then the Three and now the Baker’s Dozen, as far as one can see, that it hardly seemed possible that Boyle could do more than rehash old evidence or bomb the rubble. How wrong! It wasn’t so much that he flushed out Professor Blunt: smart fellows about Cambridge and St James’s seem to have known all about Blunt for years. It was – first – that Boyle opened out the whole American dimension of the affair, through the FBI/CIA files and the secret chronicles of James Jesus Angleton – that rather Jamesian secret agent, an American from an English public school, who began by admiring the style of SIS and ended by discovering how many of them were traitors or bunglers. And secondly, it was that so many British spooks, retired or still in the trade, decided that Andrew Boyle was the man to whom they would finally spill their lapfuls of wizened beans.

There must be a connection here. The British Intelligence services don’t divulge the sort of stuff they gave Boyle out of the kindness of their hearts. Most ‘authoritative’ books about them have rather the status of Palace memoirs by governesses and grooms: as a brass watch for long service, a few veterans of relatively menial status are allowed to publish mendacious and exaggerated books (some of the books about Ultra, for instance) which grossly overstate either the importance of some operation or the credit due to SIS, or both. But The Climate of Treason is not one of these hagiograms. They really talked: David Footman, Nicholas Elliott, Sir Robert Mackenzie, George Carey-Foster, Sir Frederick Warner, agents and diplomats on the security side, and a large anonymous group of Intelligence men from both branches of the service, retired and active.

The reason can be guessed at. Boyle’s American breakthrough depended upon the Freedom of Information Act, which brought him baskets of US Intelligence material on matters still secret in Britain, but also upon anonymous CIA sources who were anxious to enlighten him on – especially – the Philby and Maclean affairs. What he discovered suggested that the business was even more humiliating for SIS than had been supposed by the public, and that the injury it dealt to Anglo-American Intelligence co-operation was correspondingly graver than had been understood. At the British end, one can assume, news of what Boyle had got his hands on led to a decision for a Fluch! nach vorn – a controlled but corrective release of more British material about the Cambridge spies.

Boyle’s discovery, essentially, was that the Americans had identified Maclean and Philby as Soviet spies by 1948. They did not pass on their information to the British, partly because they no longer trusted them, and partly because the CIA agent in charge of the case, Angleton, was the sort of counter-intelligence cat so fascinated by mice that he would almost prefer to let them escape with the cheese than to pounce. Angleton was tipped off after the war by Jewish Intelligence to the effect that a British physicist working on nuclear weapons development in the States was a Soviet spy. This was the man Boyle calls ‘Basil’, or ‘the fifth man’. He was easily turned round by the Americans, after he had confessed that he was helping Maclean to collect and assess for the Russians information about nuclear weapons co-operation (Donald Maclean was at this time in the British Embassy in Washington). When Kim Philby arrived in Washington in 1949, as the SIS liaison man with American Intelligence, the double-agent ‘Basil’ was able to confirm the suspicions of James Jesus Angleton that Philby was working for the other side. None of this went to the British. In a paroxysm of informational avarice, Angleton decided that the Brits could find out the hard way. They already knew, through the chance error of a Soviet cipher clerk, that there had been a diplomatic leak in their Washington Embassy, and years of cryptographic detective work would eventually lead them to Maclean. So why should Angleton share his best sources with the British, in whose barrel, no doubt, other rotten apples nested? Although ‘Basil’ was a British citizen, it does not appear that SIS were told anything about his espionage, let alone his ‘turning’, until after Burgess and Maclean had fled in 1951.

Boyle’s careful account of these later years, when the Cambridge spies were coming to the end of their free run, shows how astonishingly ineffective security was in their case – even allowing for the presence of Philby at the top of the M16 counter-espionage department. Mosaic-work, the logical assembling of a pattern of guilt, played only a minor part in their detection. It was mostly luck, and almost all the luck came from a series of defecting Soviet agents, starting with Krivitsky in 1937 (who had already warned that the USSR had spies in the British diplomatic service) and ending with Golitsin in 1961, the man who finally gave SIS the proof that Kim Philby had been a Soviet agent for the whole of his working life. Meanwhile evidence that the British loyalty of the Cambridge spies was wobbly lay scattered across the land. Nobody cared to pick it up. They could have stood in Piccadilly Circus and screamed that they were Communists, to no effect. In fact, they more or less did so: the old Gargoyle, where Maclean howled drunkenly at Goronwy Rees that ‘you were one of US, but you ratted!’, wasn’t far away. Nor were all the flats and pubs where Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean had told people exactly what they were, and at the top of their voices. But the reaction was always much the same, always the nanny’s pursed lip: ‘Overtired again! Don’t look at Master Guy or Master Donald, it only encourages them …’ The British reaction, that is. James Jesus Angleton was different. When Kim Philby, after being decorated at Buckingham Palace, said that what Britain needed was a good stiff dose of socialism, James Jesus wondered if he might not be a Communist.

In all the new details he adds to the story, Andrew Boyle doesn’t clean up a point which must be of central importance in the history of the Cambridge spies. We have been offered a series of books about the Ultra triumph, about the breaking of the Enigma codes and the work at Bletchley Park, about the constellation of Cambridge genius which was assembled there. What we don’t know, and it’s a very relevant question, is how much the Russians were told. The Americans were informed, indeed participated. But did the Russians get Ultra after the Nazi invasion of June 1941 transformed them into allies?

Boyle is ambiguous. At one point he observes that ‘Stalin and his underlings were … being told nearly everything they required to know at first hand,’ rendering information from their agents within British Intelligence unnecessary. But later on he quotes Muggeridge’s account of a 1944 row, in which Victor Rothschild and Kim Philby protested that Ultra intercept material was being withheld from the Russians. Boyle goes on to say that it was ‘standard practice’ to withhold Ultra from the Soviet Union, but that it was reaching Moscow anyway through ‘Lucy’, the Soviet espionage centre in Switzerland. This is additionally puzzling, because ‘Lucy’ has been described as a personal German source, not a code-break. But in any case, the significance for Boyle’s main story is obvious. If in the years 1941-3, when the Russians were carrying almost the whole burden of the war against Germany, they were dying in substantial numbers because they were denied the war’s most important source of secret information, the actions of the Cambridge spies at that time must appear in a better light. What justification could the British advance for withholding this information – the military radio traffic of the enemy – from their own ally? Only one: that Britain’s best interest was to stand aside and watch Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia slaughter each other to the last man. Nearly forty years later, we have drifted so far to the right that many young people of liberal mind can accept that as a good policy. Why choose between Hitler and Stalin? One dictatorship was as bad as the other. But the ‘climate’ then was very different. The appeasers who hoped that Hitler and Stalin could be set at each others’ throats, and thought that a Nazi victory in that particular contest might even be preferable, had lost a political battle. Churchill ruled instead, ready to make a favourable reference to Hell in the House of Commons if the Devil were prepared to join the anti-Nazi coalition. To accept that Ultra could be shared with the Americans but not with the Russians would have seemed, then, like an admission that, after all, Cliveden still ruled from the back seat. This is a point of historical fact which ought to be settled.

Boyle is a bit of a prig. Nobody gets away with anything. Political hindsight dominates. Communists, Tories, imperialists, idealists all get the back of his hand: there are no heroes. He certainly makes the case that treachery doesn’t pay in personal terms (although we know little about Blunt’s inner torments, if any). Burgess, Maclean and Philby all took to drink in the most satisfactorily Victorian way, Maclean driven to the verge of madness by Presbyterian guilt. As for Marx, he was ‘inhuman’ and wrote ‘turgid tomes’; even Donald Maclean’s book British Foreign Policy after Suez, written after his flight, has to be dismissed as ‘somewhat ponderous’. (Unfair: it’s penetrating and very readable.) But Boyle’s study of the three main personalities is more impressive. Guy Burgess turns out to have been a much more forceful figure than the ‘Etonian mudlark and sick toast of a sick society’ version. Maclean, for all his convulsions of conscience and drunken violence, clung more persistently than the others to the hope that he was not just a spy and a traitor but the representative of a serious alternative for Britain. Kim Philby, in contrast, is diminished: he had skill and sang-froid, but little of political originality or inner conflict to hold attention.

British Intelligence, in Boyle’s chronicle, remains as weird a community as ever, in spite of all the author’s new information and captures of confidence. Amateurism, class prejudice and what Boyle calls ‘the sad pleasures of sodomy’ composed its peculiar flavour. The circumstances of my own unhappy brush with the service only confirm it. My background was ‘right’, and I was duly recommended as a likely lad by a Cambridge don (Boyle rids us of the myth that Cambridge tutors recruited assiduously for Russia, but does not add that they recruit assiduously for the home side). There followed a lunch at the Reform Club, where this 23-year-old ass received the proposal that he should go to the new Communist state of Betelgeuse in order to write a biography of its ferocious leader. An argument about where Betelgeuse was had to be settled by a visit to the Times Atlas, dated 1910, in the Club library. My real assignment, they said, was to approach leading Betelgeusians and ‘get them round to our point of view’. Uneasy, I objected that I knew nothing of the place or its language. ‘Old D. will put you in the picture,’ they chortled, returning to their port. A few days later, I was summoned to meet D. in his home. After a silent but delicious dinner, D. asked me to sit next to him on the sofa. I supposed that I was at last to be put in the picture, but D. merely grasped me tightly and wordlessly by the penis. I extracted myself and ran away, and after some days of great confusion, wrote to say that perhaps I was not mature enough for this service.

An outfit like that – and these events took place years after the ‘flight of the diplomats’ – deserves everything it gets. I suppose there was a wild brilliance about the Betelgeuse project, which would almost certainly have cost me my head. But what most impresses me, in retrospect, is their sublime confidence that after that lunch and dinner I would still be their loyal man and true. This was a service which, even then, still assumed that people of our sort didn’t let us down. It is not surprising that SIS were so incredulous, in the face of plain evidence of internal treachery, at the suggestion that somebody one had been at Cambridge with or whose father one had known could be a ‘mole’.

And these assumptions about class loyalty, it seems to me after reading Boyle, also relate to the final question: why did the Cambridge spies spy? It would be silly to argue that Communism had little to do with it, but the Communist Party of Great Britain was clearly not the point, nor the source of inspiration. Even if their Soviet recruiters and controllers had wished it, none of these three (or indeed four) had the stamina to become active CP members, to sell the Daily Worker anywhere but on King’s Parade, to throw themselves into the problems of who should be elected to the Executive Committee or the Political Committee. They didn’t have the partinost, or ‘party spirit’, of friends like James Klugman or John Cornford. To put it crudely, the CP in Britain was beneath them. They were unwilling in the end to leave the Establishment, and became prominent figures in the BBC, the Foreign Office, Intelligence and so forth – just as they were destined to. Except that they also spied.

They all leave one with the odd impression, even Philby in his early years, that they became Soviet agents faute de mieux. What they needed was something else: a British movement of total opposition to the régime which was both respectable and formidable. They needed a divided Establishment, an alternative régime-in-waiting which they could join. Continental republics know this dualism. In France or Italy, Maclean would probably have been a prominent Communist with a bourgeois life-style, and quite possibly a good desk in the Foreign Ministry whose contents he would not have felt moved to microphotograph each night. In Britain, still an ancien régime in this respect, Labour did not offer such an alternative, while the price of CPGB activity would obviously be impotence and ostracism. The spies didn’t see why they should be impotent and ostracised.

The Thirties were a decade of rapid social change and improvement in popular living standards, as well as a time of poverty and misery for many. But Britain remained governed, financed, exploited and largely represented by the upper class. There was no alternative ruling group, waiting in the wings with its own governors, financiers, civil servants, generals and even spooks. Labour was a party which, as far as the student leftist could see, would deferentially leave the old élite in place. The Cambridge spies wanted something else for Britain, something which now sounds absurd: a socialist revolution which would both smash the patrician hegemony to which the spies were such guilty heirs, and restore British greatness and independence. Objectively, we can now see them as Stalin’s pawns. They don’t seem to have taken that view, even with a thrill of masochism. The future spies sought a centre of full-blooded, total opposition to the status quo in Britain. They could find such a centre only abroad, in Moscow.

They really were traitors. Swedish colonels, West German bureaucrats who betray secrets to the East, are not in their league. They usually do it for money, or because they are under pressure or because they have some personal grievance. Nor are their fellow citizens as fascinated by their treachery as the British public are by the tale of the upper-crust spies. Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt were doing something more fundamental: they betrayed what their country was doing but by the same act destroyed the way their country did things. After them, the delicate muscle-tissue of the executive, uncritical trust moving in sheaths of class loyalty and schoolmate confidence, never worked so well again. This isn’t to say that state servants do not still use it. They do, but with misgivings and with much greater difficulty. The damage done by the spies here was irreparable in the long run, but if one considers that the old-boy system was overdue for replacement, one could argue that the Cambridge spies betrayed their friends, in this instance, but not necessarily their country.

At the edge of the story, other elements of motive – even stranger – can be sensed. A certain crude psychologism fits, the spies savaging their Patria as substitute for an absent or unconvincing father. But there is another approach. Birth, the accident of birth in the privileged upper tenth of a caste society, imprisoned these men in a cell with the gnawing rat of guilt. Nothing they could do in life would efface the original sin of that unfair birth – except rebirth. Not just the Communist faith but the actual existence of the Soviet Union – isolated, hated, mysterious – glowed to them across Europe as a second chance for themselves as well as for humanity. Cross that snowy frontier, die for the old world, awake purified in a new one clutching ‘a white stone with a new name writ thereon …’

In the end, there is Protestantism, English and Scottish, in these men. Boyle leaves us with the picture of an aging Burgess in Moscow, slowly picking out on the piano hymn tunes from his schooldays:

My soul, there is a country
Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a wingèd sentry
All skilful in the wars …

If thou canst get but thither,
There grows the flower of peace,
The Rose that cannot wither,
Thy fortress and thy ease.