Hinsley’s History

Noël Annan

  • Diplomacy and Intelligence during the Second World War: Essays in Honour of F.H. Hinsley edited by Richard Langhorne
    Cambridge, 329 pp, £27.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 521 26840 0
  • British Intelligence and the Second World War. Vol. I: 1939-Summer 1941, Vol. II: Mid-1941-Mid-1943, Vol. III, Part I: June 1943-June 1944 by F.H. Hinsley, E.E. Thomas, C.F.G. Ransom and R.C. Knight
    HMSO, 616 pp, £12.95, September 1979, ISBN 0 11 630933 4

There are at least three books at present being written on Anthony Blunt and the Cambridge Spies. Already the sleuths are nosing out the Fifth Man – the master control, an older don who must have recruited them. In 1977 the Times proclaimed to a sceptical public that he was Donald Beves, the delightful tutor of King’s known to generations of undergraduates who performed on stage in the ADC, the Marlowe or the Musical Society, and whose interest in politics or indeed in ideas was negligible: clearly his bonhomie disguised an Iago. When that identification proved too absurd, the hunt shifted to economists, to Gramsci’s friend Piero Sraffa or – a masterstroke of ingenuity – to another Kingsman, the pre-1914 welfare economist A.C. Pigou, whose lack of interest in ideology and keen interest in young mountaineers was supposedly deliberate cover enabling him to suborn those politically committed to the left. (As will be seen, King’s has a tradition of involvement with the Secret Service: Sir Francis Walsingham ran it for Elizabeth I.) Today the hounds are in pursuit of Andrew Gow, the Classical scholar and art collector who was Blunt’s mentor at Trinity. Gow, who had taught at Eton, devoted part of his life to editing Nicander, a didactic Greek poet who wrote poems on snake-bites, poisons and their remedies – there is surely a whiff here of Bulgarians and umbrellas. Furthermore, did not C.A. Alington, the headmaster of Eton, write of him:

He who thinks
To confound our Eton Sphinx
Might as well be bowling Hobbs lobs.

Sphinx! The very word points to a well-guarded double life.

If, however, this last lead fails there is always that nest of homosexuals and Marxists, the Apostles, to provide the clue to the mystery. Indeed, one Oxford don has advanced the view that the childish secrecy with which that society tries to hide its activities implanted in the minds of some of its members such an obsession that they turned to the trade in which secrecy is essential: spying. How difficult it is for some to conceive of a club which does not seek self-advertisement and whose members don’t wish to be fawned on by clever contemporaries on the make and intent on boasting of being elected to it. The unworldly ideals of the Apostles are characteristically Cambridge. Not that such arguments will cut much ice with the sleuths. As trained journalists they will interpret the affair in class terms. For was not the upper middle class in England before the war itself much like a spy network, a nest of Freemasons whose emblem was not an apron but the old school tie, quick to close ranks if one of its members came under suspicion, a conspiracy against the decent sort of England that Beaverbrook stood for, determined not to permit the cleansing transatlantic wind of the kind McCarthy unleashed in Washington to blow through the corridors of power? Had it not been for this conspiracy against honest journalists, the head of MI5, Hollis himself, would have been unmasked and the Establishment would have crumbled.

Nevertheless the sleuths have had their triumphs. Chapman Pincher is certainly one of the best-informed men in the business and Andrew Boyle identified Blunt. What often sets sleuths off on the wrong trail, however, is the nature of the evidence. Under the Freedom of Information Act in the United States, documents about Russian defectors and what they revealed can now be examined. But the names of anyone not an American are whited out. It was clear that the fourth man had a name five letters long and it was probable that the first letter was a B or a P. Hence the shots in the dark at Beves and Pigou, when actually the name was Blunt. Sleuths are apt to believe that everything a major Soviet defector says is true. For instance, Anatoli Golitsyn came across with an enormous amount of accurate information which enabled Vassall to be convicted. But he also purveyed a lot of rubbish. He declared that the rift between China and the Soviet Union was disinformation and had never taken place. Such was his reputation that even Maurice Oldfield was inclined to credit this as true. Again, sleuths often rely on disaffected members of the secret services who have resigned. Much of the information about the Cambridge spies has come in recent years from three such members of MI5. The disaffected believe that they were right in their interpretation of events, and when their chiefs do not accept their conclusions they sometimes end by imagining that their advice was rejected for sinister reasons. It is interesting that the contention that Roger Hollis was in the Soviet pay had its parallel in America. One famous American counter-intelligence officer became convinced as he worked and reworked the evidence from defectors that the head of the CIA was a Soviet spy.

After such sleuthing it is a relief to find in this book of essays edited by Richard Langhorne an article on the Cambridge spies by a don, and it is by far the most sensible account so far written. It is the best because Christopher Andrew is a historian at Corpus Christi, Cambridge who has become the leading authority on the Intelligence services. Indeed, a book by him on the Intelligence community is coming out in the autumn. In his piece here he explains how the Cambridge spies were a minor cog in the propaganda machine which that master of propaganda Willi Muenzenberg constructed after the defeat of the German Communists by the Nazis, and he makes the interesting point that, despite Philby’s subsequent boasts of being proud to have been recruited by the KGB, they all believed at the time that they were being recruited by the Comintern, the overt international Communist organisation of the inter-war years. He correctly identifies Burgess as the recruiting sergeant and equally correctly surmises that while all were convinced Communists, for Burgess (and probably for Blunt) recruitment began as a hilarious undergraduate spree. After all, as young men, all they could retail to their Soviet control was gossip. But during the war what had begun as an anti-Fascist charade slid into the systematic passing of information from whatever position of importance each now occupied.

Andrew does not deny that they were able to conceal themselves for so long partly because the old school tie was the best credential of reliability. How could he deny it? ‘Positive vetting’ relies largely on a person’s friends telling the truth about his habits and his character, and many friends who are approached evade their duty. Particularly in 1940 when Blunt got into MI5, the crisis was such that no one had the time to vet new recruits. Andrew does not labour the point, but the very procedures – or lack of procedures – which enabled the Cambridge moles to escape minute examination of their past operated with astonishing success when staff for the most important Intelligence agency in the war were recruited. (And in the early days they were in the main recruited from Cambridge.)

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