What Made the Old Boys Turn?

Peter Lofts Photography/National Portrait Gallery, London
Donald Maclean, 1930s

The very mention of the “Cambridge spies” conjures a world of louche living, sexual shenanigans, and covert betrayal that had become defunct long before the end of the cold war, only surviving liminally in the gritty but entertaining fictions of the likes of John le Carré and Len Deighton. However, anyone who looks forward to curling up for a comfy read with Richard Davenport-Hines’s Enemies Within will suffer an early shockalthough the book is in many places funny enough, in its mordant way, to make one laugh out loud.

At the start Davenport-Hines sets out his aims with a vengeance. Quoting the Scottish historian F.S. Oliver’s strictures, in the early 1930s, on scholars “of a baser sort” who “write dark melodramas, wherein ancient wrongs cry out for vengeance, and wholesale destruction of institutions or states appears the only way to safety,” he argues that it is a disservice to the truth to present the significance of the Cambridge spies in purely Marxist terms:

I argue that the Cambridge spies did their greatest harm to Britain not during their clandestine espionage in 193451, but in their insidious propaganda victories over British government departments after 1951. The undermining of authority, the rejection of expertise, the suspicion of educational advantages, and the use of the words “elite” and “Establishment” as derogatory epithets transformed the social and political temper of Britain.

He considers that this transformation, “when joined with other forces,” reached its apotheosis in the 2016 referendum vote in favor of Britain leaving the European Union. This may seem a startling thesis, but few readers will come to the end of Davenport-Hines’s superb book unconvinced of its soundness.

Enemies Within may be in part a polemic, but it is mainly a meticulously researched and exhaustive account of the successive generations of agents, foreign and homegrown, who from the Elizabethan eraSir Francis Walsingham “was the country’s earliest spymaster”through the Bolshevik Revolution and up to the hottest years of the cold war sought energetically to subvert the British state in particular and Western capitalism in general. In style and attack, Davenport-Hines’s denunciation of the forces that have, in his view, done what may prove to be irreparable harm to his country ranges from elegantly witty disdain to hardly containable fury. In the twentieth century, he suggests, the “enemies within” included not only the spies themselves, but the lower end of what used to be called “Fleet Street,” especially the Beaverbrook press, and the authors of numerous popular histories of Soviet-inspired espionage: “The mole-hunters of the 1980s were foul-minded, mercenary and pernicious.”

As we see, his attack on England’s “enemies within” is carried out with a shotgun—at times it seems more a blunderbuss—which scatters its pellets widely. Yet the system on which the spies and loutish spy-hunters alike inflicted so much damage was…

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