The Cambridge spies—their character, youth, acquaintances, and deeds—have cast a spell over the British and a cloud over their contemporaries. Beside them the other spies look shabby. Fuchs was a German refugee, Nunn May an obscure physicist, the rest men without features. The only glamour that George Blake evoked was his sensational escape from prison. It was organized by the KGB who did not miss their chance of taking advantage of the humane conditions under which Blake had begun to serve his sentence of forty-two years for being a mole in M16.
But the Cambridge spies provided a dream story for journalists. These men had moved at ease among the establishment. “Everybody” knew them. They belonged to that world of privilege and power symbolized by Oxford and Cambridge which those outside it resent and suspect. Did the establishment protect them, connive at their escape, or condone their treachery? Who among the Cambridge dons had sown the seeds of their corruption or possibly recruited them? Who else were traitors?
When Anthony Blunt’s guilt finally became public every adjective of turpitude was deployed from Fleet Street’s vocabulary. The journalists kept on repeating the phrase that he “was stripped of his knighthood by the Queen”—a trope that conjured up an improbable spectacle of his Sovereign at Buckingham Palace ordering his sword to be snapped and his spurs bent double while personally divesting Blunt of articles of clothing. There was in the air a sense of outrage that these pampered public school boys who had betrayed their country had managed to evade the long prison sentences that lesser fry were serving. Cheated of their prey in the case of three of them, the press swooped on Blunt like carrion crows; and when Blunt’s lawyer arranged that only the Times and the Guardian and the two television news services should interview him, the popular press raged that it was typical of the establishment press to protect him and, worse still, to give him lunch.
Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman, a team of investigative journalists on the Sunday Times, have tried to look at Blunt and his background in a new way. Hitherto books on the spies by Rebecca West, Alan Moorehead, Andrew Boyle, and Chapman Pincher had been written in a tone of indignant contempt for these intellectuals. Penrose and Freeman thought that the public might like to hear the evidence and form their own judgment. They accordingly dug up the dead and phoned up the living, then set down the raw material just as it came from the mouths of those they interviewed and the documents they found. The reader is left to make up his own mind. It’s like a photo album in which the same people are taken now from this angle and now from that so that, in the end, you are left with a pile of snapshots on the floor, some of which seem hardly to be of the same man. And yet you know more than you would have gathered from a studio portrait.
We still need a portrait. Blunt’s very success as a scholar, his gift of winning admiration from friends and pupils, his distinction of mind and bearing in public, the fact that he was second in reputation only to Kenneth Clark among English-born art historians, and the irony of his position at court as surveyor of the Queen’s pictures, combine to make one want to know about him. He had too much hauteur to be a charmer. He was a fascinator. He fascinated people with his quick, engaging, cool, and assured talk. He baited his conversation with gossip, inside gossip, gossip to which only he had access. When he had gone, it dawned on you with what skill he had faintly denigrated those about whom he talked. They would be humbled by a flick of the whip here and a twist of the knife there.
He was not only a fascinator. He was a manipulator. He wanted more than most people in academic life to have his own way, appoint his protégés and rule the roost. Since the Courtauld Institute was for years the only major center in Britain where the history of art was taught he nearly always got his own way. When new departments teaching the history of art were formed he expected other universities to appoint his nominees and was huffy if they did not. But despite his public position he preserved the privacy and dislike of worldliness that was characteristic of his generation at Cambridge. Not for him the social life of the Kenneth Clarks. Many regarded Clark as a friend but he had no intimate friends. Intimacy was as natural to Blunt as privacy.
Of course some serving officers or officials disliked him. They thought him a cold fish and sensed at once that he was homosexual. Maxwell Knight, a highly successful and unpleasant officer in M15 who disguised his own homosexuality, would have nothing to do with him. A few of his students also disliked him, disliked his autocracy, disliked the spite he displayed against those who offended him, disliked his habit of teaching from photographs and neglecting the need to look at the actual painting itself, the brushwork, the pentimenti, and the way the painter achieved his effect. But most of his students admired him and to many and to younger colleagues he was unwearyingly kind. When he fell, it was a far greater shock than the exposure of the true professional Philby or the drunken Maclean.
Many people fell under suspicion when Blunt confessed, and two of the best chapters in Penrose and Freeman’s book deal with the horde of innocent, as well as suspect, characters who became entangled in Blunt’s treachery and were confronted by the “maverick conspirator” as they call Peter Wright. But they also confirm Wright’s contention that despite the grant of immunity from prosecution Blunt gave as little away as possible. Blunt knew that the evidence in the hands of M15—including Michael Straight’s recollection of Blunt trying to recruit him1—would not be adequate to secure a conviction in a court of law.
That was why the authorities were forced to give him immunity. Despite his protestations when he was exposed, he never repented or intended to keep his side of the bargain and help his interrogators. He had, one might say, an obsession that he should be seen to be right in all he did or said. Of the four Cambridge spies he was the least dedicated to the Soviet cause and probably regarded what he did as justifiable at the time and a matter of no consequence afterward. It fitted the atmosphere of mild intrigue and manipulation that he enjoyed in his personal and academic life. He was someone who early in his life lost touch with reality in personal relations as well as in political life. He was loyal not to his friends but to his own image of himself. That was always important to him. People were right to think him arrogant. His interrogators found him unwilling to admit he was wrong. But it was an arrogance that is well known in the academic world and is often inseparable from success in scholarship. Keynes was arrogant. He disliked Blunt and thought little of him as a young Marxist scholar when Blunt tried unsuccessfully for a fellowship at King’s.
And yet though Blunt had the most distinguished mind of all the Cambridge spies, it is interesting to see how often he is elbowed off the page by the irrepressible Guy Burgess. Burgess has won a place in the black comedy of our times, lurching onto the stage of history for a few weeks before slouching off again. He had special gifts. Those who knew him only in postwar years, drunken, dirty, and repetitive, should realize that once he radiated charm and vitality. He was merry, with a mind like quicksilver, and quite unlike the undergraduate Marxists of those days. His Marxism was not a lesson learned and regurgitated, it emerged as a genuine vision of life. He never talked or thought in the jargon. He had a real passion for general ideas and understood the springs of political action relating them to the personalities of the day in a way that made his conversation attractive and gave politics a depth which his listeners had not grasped until then.
His judgments were original in the Thirties. He thought George Eliot to be the greatest of English novelists because she showed how her characters were held in the powerful grasp of the morality of their class, which in turn was dictated by economic forces beyond their control. He wanted the class conflict brought out as it is in productions today, in his favorite opera, The Marriage of Figaro. At the height of Lytton Strachey’s fame Burgess pronounced him inferior to the Eminent Victorians whom he pilloried. Paradoxical as it may sound he was the one patriot among the Cambridge spies. For him Britain’s imperial past and the Royal Navy were being betrayed by decadent aristocrats like Halifax. The ruling class was behaving with all the folly born of those inner contradictions that Marx had predicted. He was a true Stalinist in hating liberalism more than imperialism, and in admiring ruthlessness and denouncing scruples as sentimentalism. In a dotty, quixotic way he retained a romantic notion of his country whereas to Blunt patriotism was a meaningless concept. Burgess believed Britain’s future lay with Russia not America, and only by a revolution could Britain regain her place in the world.
Burgess never made any secret of his strange brew of Tory-Marxism, although he knew when to strengthen the malt at the expense of the hops. In 1938 when he went to Chartwell to urge Churchill to take part in a BBC series of talks on aggression in the Mediterranean by the fascist powers, he did not raise his glass and toast Stalin as he used to do with his stepfather in order to infuriate him. Churchill gave him a copy of his speeches and wrote on the flyleaf praise for “his admirable sentiments.” Some eminent people like to recall how they saw through him at once and found him so unkempt and unreliable that they are amazed at his success in taking people in. But many other people as eminent were intrigued by his intelligence and power of instant analysis, and Burgess knew how to exploit the old-boy network. Goronwy Rees, a Communist in the 1930s and fellow of All Souls, was among those who fell under his spell. How far he did—Rees left an unforgettable portrait of Burgess—is a moot point.2
Penrose and Freeman, who have a keen nose for deceit among their informants, put a question mark over Rees. He changed his story several times. Before the war, so he said, Burgess blurted out one evening that he was a Comintern agent and tried to recruit him; and in order to persuade him, Burgess told Rees that Blunt was also an agent. Rees rejected the offer to join them, and it was only years later that Burgess’s behavior, eccentric even by his standards, convinced Rees that Burgess had been telling the truth. So knowing that Blunt had served in M15 during the war, he unburdened himself to Blunt only to be told that his suspicions were absurd. Even if this was true, should he not put friendship before such dubious concepts as treachery and treason? Nevertheless, Rees went to M15. There he learned that Burgess had decamped with Maclean and the mysterious message Burgess had sent him was indeed, as he suspected, a farewell before he escaped to Moscow. There is something odd here. If Burgess did indeed name Blunt as an accomplice before the war, why did Rees consult Blunt?
Penrose and Freeman produce evidence that Rees may well have been recruited, or before the war was at least one of Burgess’s willing sources of information about political affairs. When the Nazi-Soviet pact was announced late in August 1939, Burgess hurried back through France unnecessarily abandoning his car at Calais to try to reassure Rees and not lose his source. The authors might have added the incident after the war in which Maclean, blind drunk at a nightclub, denounced Rees for ratting after having once been “one of us.” However, there is not much doubt that Burgess failed to persuade Rees that the Nazi-Soviet pact was irrelevant. Rees deserted communism and joined the army. Burgess told him that he had thrown his hand in as a spy. Rees said he believed him. But from that time on they disagreed about politics.
Rees was a clever man and an excellent journalist, another who knew how to charm and entertain. But he was a rogue, and one could never be certain he was telling the truth. Guy Liddell and Dick White, of M15, both above suspicion, gave Rees a hard time when he came to denounce Burgess in 1952. To Rees this was evidence that they were trying to protect Blunt: whereas they suspected that Rees was trying to conceal that he too had been an agent. In 1956 when Burgess and Maclean appeared at a press conference in Moscow, Rees panicked and published a series of articles in a Sunday tabloid about them. The tabloid sensationalized Rees’s text and implicated without naming them several of Burgess’s acquaintances—in particular Blunt. For this imprudence Rees was ostracized by the liberal intelligentsia and was forced by the pharisees to resign from his post as principal of one of the colleges in the University of Wales. Still, it may be true that, even if he had always believed Burgess to be a spy, he could not take him seriously.
Nobody could. When acquaintances were later asked by M15 officers whether Burgess had ever tried to recruit them, they racked their brains, and some would dimly recall some incident that now seemed suspicious but then was too ludicrous to credit. For by 1940 Burgess was a prince in Bohemia. He used, Rees recalled, to cook in a heavy iron saucepan “a thick grey gruel compounded of porridge, kippers, bacon, garlic, onions and anything else that may have been lying about in the kitchen,” a dish that sustained him over each weekend. In his Bond Street flat he kept a flitch of bacon hanging outside the window and hauled it up on a string when he needed to hack off a slice; then he consigned it again to outer space.
Grime covered everything. Every table, lamp shade, sheet, and blanket was scarred with burns, the stigmata of so many drunken evenings. The bath had no plug; in its place was a squash ball inside a sock once white but by now gray with dirt. Screams rent the air at night in the building because his flat was sandwiched between two others inhabited by prostitutes; but it was a moot point whether the traffic in and out of their rooms was any heavier than that in and out of his. His habits were filthy, going far beyond those of negligent bachelors. In his Foreign Office days he was often sodden and sweaty: a memo was circulated requiring him to desist from chewing raw garlic. Maurice Bowra in a characteristically vigorous phrase used to complain that he had shit in his fingernails and cock-cheese behind his ears. Even Evelyn Waugh’s imagination did not dare to create such a monster of improbability. How was it possible to believe that such a person was a spy or that his mysterious comings and goings, his odd but impressive contacts, and his boasting that he was in the know, were not clouds in the dream world in which he lived? And yet he was a spy, and Blunt’s Svengali.
When thirty years later Peter Wright was interrogating the circle of friends Blunt and Burgess made at Cambridge, he was amazed—so he writes in Spycatcher—by the intensity of feeling that held these friends together. It sprang partly from the sense of belonging to what Maurice Bowra used to call “The Immoral Front”: of wanting to extend personal liberty as far as practicable and of maintaining that people may be misguided, bad-mannered, or idiotic, but that if they are entitled to do what they want to do, no one should invent reasons for stopping them. This circle of friends was opposed to stuffy conventional complacent England.
Such aesthetes and intellectuals could still feel beleaguered in the interwar years and the need to stick together. They also knew the joy of discussing general ideas to all hours with intensity: it is not only roisterers who years later are stirred by the emotion that they have heard the chimes at midnight together. William Cory expressed that homoerotic bond in his translation of Callimachus remembering his dead friend Heraclitus: “I wept as I remembered how often you and I/Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.” That kind of loyalty among friends was particularly intense in the society to which both Blunt and Burgess belonged—The Apostles.
Penrose and Freeman have a chapter on “The Secret Apostles,” but for all the light they throw, the secret remains well kept. To that quintessential and distinguished Oxonian Hugh Trevor-Roper3 the Apostles are an “egregious secret society of self-perpetuating, self-admiring narcissi” which in Blunt’s time had become “purely social” and which “could [never] have existed at Oxford [where it would] have been blown up from within, or laughed out of existence.” Was not this apostolic secrecy the drug that induced some Apostles to choose as their double life that most secret of all professions the spy? Perhaps at Oxford the main point of belonging to a club is to advertise that you yourself belong to it and give pain to those who don’t. The reason the Apostles kept its membership and affairs secret was simple. In the 1850s a tuft hunter had sucked up to its members, got himself elected, and then at once resigned with the feather in his hat. So the society, disliking those on the make, became anonymous. A club that had so few members and did not promote itself can hardly be called very social. The sole purpose of the Apostles was to discuss general ideas—as true in Blunt’s day as in Henry Sidgwick’s. Speaking of his time in the 1860s as an Apostle Sidgwick said:
I can only describe [the spirit of the Apostles] as the spirit of the pursuit of truth with absolute devotion and unreserve by a group of intimate friends, who were perfectly frank with each other…. Absolute candour was the only duty that the tradition of the society enforced…. There were no propositions so well established that an Apostle had not the right to deny or question, if he did so sincerely and not from mere love of paradox. The gravest subjects were continually debated, but gravity of treatment…was not imposed, though sincerity was…. No part of my life at Cambridge was so real to me as the Saturday evenings on which the apostolic debates were held; and the tie of attachment to the society is much the strongest corporate bond which I have known in life.
Burgess could have written those words. The Apostles were devoted to each other because they felt they were discovering truths hitherto unknown. They were not unique. Young intellectuals often feel that. Of such groups Isaiah Berlin has written: “Those who have never been under the spell of this kind of illusion, even for a short while, have never known true intellectual happiness.”
Some writers have deduced that the secrecy of the Apostles so titillated the imagination that it was a factor in propelling Blunt and Burgess toward the secret life of the spy. Others add for good measure that to join the Apostles was to join another secret society, the Homintern or homosexual mafia. In Keynes’s and Strachey’s day, at the beginning of the century, the Apostles were indeed concerned with that topic, but during the years between the wars only three of the forty-four members in addition to Blunt and Burgess could be called lifelong homosexuals. It was not the secrecy of homosexual life that may have given them the taste for spying. After all in those days homosexuality was an open secret. There was a certain spice in belonging to an in-group with its own semisecret language and haunts; but few bothered to conceal their inclinations and those who wished to take cover could assume the role of the Victorian bachelor.
It was not the secret of homosexuality but the danger that paralleled the life of the spy. Homosexual behavior was still a criminal offense. Indeed cruising still is, and to be convicted of picking up rough trade in pubs or public lavatories spelled social ruin and dismissal from one’s job. When after the war John Gielgud was convicted for some minor offense on tour in Liverpool before opening in London, the other members of the theatrical profession held their breath to see whether the public would follow the example of Dame Sybil Thorndike, who sailed into the theater and embraced the great actor before the cast. The danger that those who went cruising faced was, however, mitigated by the fact that the Homintern would do its best to look after its friends. Harold Nicolson continued, for example, to correspond with Guy Burgess after he fled to Moscow. Even as spies they could count on a kind of protection from a community ready to make excuses for deviant behavior.
But if the Apostles were not a nest of homosexuals they certainly had a cell of Marxists within them at that time. It would have been odd had they not responded to the movement in ideas of their time. Tennyson, Sterling, Kemble, and Trench responded so strongly to the liberalism of the 1830s that they became involved in a disastrous Liberal insurrection in Spain. In 1900 Keynes, Strachey, and Woolf were responding to the new philosophy of Russell and Moore. At Cambridge the earliest notable Marxists were not in fact Apostles. They were scientists such as J.B.S. Haldane, C.H. Waddington, and the influential J.D. “Sage” Bernal. They offered a future in which politics in Britain would be conducted on scientific principles with scientists playing a leading role in government. People forget how convincing the Marxist explanation of the disaster of the First World War was. When Koestler read the great texts for the first time he said:
Something had clicked in my brain which shook me like a mental explosion. To say one had seen the light is a poor description of the mental rapture which only the convert knows…. The new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull.
It was as if, wearied by the amusements of the Twenties, which “in pleasing slumber lulled the sense, / And in sweet madness robbed it of itself,” like Comus, they suddenly saw Virtue. “Such sober certainty of waking bliss, / I never heard till now.”
The sense of being on Virtue’s side was made stronger by the fact that Vice in the shape of Hitler took its most hideous form. You saw the shameful relentlessness slide into appeasement; the betrayal of British interests by Chamberlain’s doctrine of nonintervention in Spain; the venality of the spineless financiers in the City who would lick the ass of any of the dictators springing up in Central Europe and the Mediterranean, provided they left them free to trade; and the fawning of café society on Hitler and his handsome SS men. To whom could one look for help in politics? Not to the Labour party still hamstrung by pacifism and split on the issue of collaboration with Communists. Not to the toothless Lloyd George. Not to Eden who, when he resigned as foreign secretary, was unwilling to embarrass Chamberlain and Halifax. Not even to Churchill, isolated on the right of the Conservative party and remembered for his reactionary stand on devolution of power in India. But Blunt’s contention that anyone of intelligence in the Cambridge of his day was a Marxist was characteristic of his arrogance. The Marxists were in a minority and much despised by liberals (and the sizable number of conservatives among clever undergraduates) for their antics and their hermetic, insular existence. Keynes got it right when he saw them as the new puritans with their “zest to adopt a painful solution because of its painfulness.”
All the contempt Peter Wright felt for intellectuals came out when he was interrogating Blunt, and Blunt complained that Wright didn’t seem to understand the Thirties. Wright replied that he understood those years only too well. This was when his father, sacked from the Marconi Company, took to the bottle and took his son away from school unable to pay the fees so that Wright had to find work to put himself through university on his savings. Blunt, insulated from hardship, had not suffered at all. For him the Thirties was the time when capitalist society fell into convulsions during the epidemic of the Depression and caught the disease of fascism. It was an ideological concept, not a personal experience. I do not think one necessarily should condemn those who became Marxists, joined the Party, or even acted as Comintern agents before the war began; but to act as an agent after the Nazi-Soviet pact was dishonorable. For by then the information an agent sent could have been passed on by Soviet Russia to its Nazi allies.
Nevertheless, the Thirties have been offered as the justification for the actions of the Cambridge spies. The London Review of Books published a defense of them by a Marxist scholar, Victor Kiernan, who argued that at least they had decided to act instead of talk;4 they did no harm and indeed were justified in passing secrets to the Soviet Union which was Britain’s wartime ally and was being hampered, to Blunt’s indignation, by the British refusal to make raw Ultra signals available. (In fact the British intelligence service devised other methods of keeping the Red Army informed of what Ultra revealed. Blunt should have accepted, like any other intelligence officer, that he was not entitled to know all secret information; one might have expected him to realize that the success of the Anglo-American invasion of Europe depended on this source not being compromised.) But it is not only excuses by Marxists that make observers of the British scene suspect that the British intelligentsia are ambivalent about the Cambridge spies. Contrasting the reception of Blunt’s treachery with the record of Yale men in the American intelligence services, Robin Winks wrote: “Americans were outraged, but there were many in Britain who thought that Blunt had suffered enough for the indignities of his loss. One might conclude that the nations simply thought about treason somewhat differently.”5
Certainly many in the British academic community realized they faced a dilemma. If Blunt had been genuine in his sorrow for the embarrassment he caused to his colleagues he would have at once resigned from all the public bodies to which he belonged. It was characteristic of him to delay his resignation and enjoy the disputes that followed. The vice-chancellor of the University of London was asked to initiate proceedings to deprive Blunt of his title of emeritus professor. He refused on the grounds that to do so would be an attempt to rewrite history and make Blunt into the kind of nonperson that the old guard Communists of the Thirties whom Stalin liquidated became in the history books of the Soviet Union.
Was the establishment engaged in a cover-up? Class warriors argue that the ruling class was terrified that skeletons would drop out of their cupboards. No doubt the Whitehall mandarins would have resisted a purge. They hate what they call a “scandal”; and the lax security and indolent inefficiency of certain ambassadors were certainly scandalous. But, apart from Maclean, none of the spies or their informers belonged to the ruling class: they were members of the intelligentsia. A Conservative government, led by Churchill, was in power when Burgess and Maclean decamped. The Conservatives had every inducement to start a purge. They could have damaged the careers of several Labour politicians and ruined others on the left. They did not do so for at least two reasons. They remembered their own wartime involvement with Soviet Russia; and before their eyes was the spectacle of what épuration had done in France (which was largely defensible) and what McCarthy was doing in America (which was not).
Nevertheless the excuses that some of Blunt’s friends made for him may have induced Winks to write as he did. Some, like Kiernan, defended spies on the grounds that they obeyed their conscience. Others used the utilitarian argument that Blunt’s services to scholarship outweighed his treachery. Others echoed Sir John Harington’s explanation why treason never prospers: “For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” It is, of course, true that neither Blunt nor any of the spies committed treason. In British law treason is the crime of aiding one’s country’s enemies in time of war; and the Soviet Union was never at war with Britain. Roger Casement committed treason in the First World War when he ran arms to Ireland to use against the British; and as an Irish patriot he declared he owed allegiance to Ireland not Britain—even though in international law Ireland did not exist. Yet why does one feel that Casement behaved with courage and dignity and the Cambridge spies did not?
Writing at the time when Blunt was publicly exposed I suggested that Harington’s contemporary gave a better answer when he wrote Julius Caesar. “Well, honour is the subject of my story,” said Cassius when he set out to recruit Brutus. But Mark Antony’s irony about the honorable men who killed Caesar rings true. All the conspirators, he said, did what they did in envy of great Caesar, save only Brutus; and Octavius ordered that Brutus’s “bones tonight shall lie,/Most like a soldier, ordered honourably.”
Honor is not a virtue that has played much part in moral discourse in recent years. But it is not perhaps as démodé as it once was. Bernard Williams in his recent important treatise on moral philosophy does indeed deny that any systematic theory of ethics is valid; but he reserves his most trenchant criticism for the moral philosophy of the Enlightenment and its successors.6 The contractual ethics such as John Rawls favors, or the utilitarian ethics practiced by Richard Hare, or the moral imperative latent in the practical reason of Kant and his followers receive severer criticism from Williams than does Aristotle. Aristotle may be too great an optimist and the habits of the society in which his ideas were rooted are too foreign to ours; but Aristotle was right to perceive that ethics are grounded in character and human nature and not in method or in giving reasons for behaving in this way rather than that. Williams goes on to talk of “thick concepts” in ethics—honor, mercy, scrupulousness—that derive from actual moral situations that occur in the world. He maintains that knowledge of these rather than belief in God’s will, or the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or the categorical imperative, are more likely to make us behave decently.
So when it is argued that Philby was the purest of the Cambridge spies, the dedicated professional who acknowledged no duties to his wives, his women, or his colleagues because they all had walk-on parts in the drama in which he was acting; and when it is also argued that Philby, like Casement, had transferred his allegiance to another country, one should ask, was he honorable? Casement’s ideal was honorable. But Philby worked for a cruel regime—Stalin’s regime. Of all the spies he did the most damage. He sent not only Soviet defectors to their death. He betrayed anyone in Europe who had worked as a British agent in the war against Hitler. For instance during the winter of 1940–1941 the British organized a network of anti-Nazi railwaymen in Hungary and Romania who reported on German troop movements so that the British were able to make fairly accurate estimates of the strength of the forces that were to invade Yugoslavia and Greece. With Philby in MI6 no imagination is required to judge what happened to these men after the war. The fact that many were of the working class would not have stopped them from being liquidated.
To the KGB the only fate fit for a British agent was execution or exile to a labor camp; and Philby gave them away. Somehow the image of the fearless Jesuit in Elizabethan England that Graham Greene conjured up to justify his friend seems a bit shop-soiled. Unwise too. One does not have to be Macaulay or Froude or Kingsley to prefer Tudor rule to the gloomy oppression of the Inquisition in Philip II’s Spain.
Blunt, too, had blood upon his hands. Peter Wright’s claim is true that he informed his Soviet control of the existence of a British agent in Moscow who provided Politburo documents. The man disappeared. And there is reason to believe that he was not the only agent in Europe whose existence Blunt revealed. But both he and Burgess differed from Philby in being fond of the world and ambitious to obtain positions of power and influence within their own walk of life. They never stopped saying how much friendship meant to them and how devoted they were to their friends, whom they betrayed as effectively as their country. When, according to Goronwy Rees, Blunt tried to dissuade him from telling MI5 that he suspected Burgess of being an agent, Blunt quoted E.M. Forster’s famous aphorism: that faced with a choice, he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country rather than his friends. Rees says that he replied that the antithesis was false—one’s country was a dense network of individual and social relationships in which loyalty to one particular person formed only a single strand. It was a putdown both of Blunt and Forster. Rees forgot, however, the context of Forster’s aphorism. Forster prefaced it by writing, “Personal relations are despised to-day…and we are urged to get rid of them and to dedicate ourselves to some movement or cause instead. I hate the idea of causes.” The Cambridge spies believed in a cause. Love of one’s country is not a cause. Perhaps philosophers will allow that it is a thick concept.
This book is the work of able and industrious journalists but it is short on analysis. But more books are in the offing. The rumpus over Spycatcher and the refusal of the government to reform the absurd Official Secrets Act has not only angered writers and journalists. It has weakened the resolve of those who used to regard the security services as inviolable. More than one book will be designed to expose the performance of the security services in a way that will embarrass the government and perhaps the prime minister. Meanwhile we will have to wait and see what John Costello, the historian of the Second World War in the Pacific, makes of Blunt in a forthcoming book on him—or for that matter Robert Cecil of Donald Maclean. Another book on Philby is expected. Only Burgess, the Felix Krull of the quartet, awaits his Thomas Mann.
October 22, 1987
Michael Straight, After Long Silence (Norton, 1984). ↩
Goronwy Rees, A Chapter of Accidents (London: Chatto and Windus, 1972). ↩
The New York Review (March 31, 1983). ↩
London Review of Books (June 25, 1987). ↩
Robin W. Winks, Cloak & Gown (William Morrow, 1987), p. 407. ↩
Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1985). ↩