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 hardly a model of nobility and honest dealing. The playing fields of Eton produced their share of scoundrels, and still do. Leading Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are men of the old school and pillars of their version of the Establishment. Johnson is something of a classics scholar, while Rees-Mogg’s father was editor of The Times.

Davenport-Hines is a remarkably eclectic historian, biographer, and essayist whose work includes lives of W.H. Auden and John Maynard Keynes, along with A Night at the Majestic—a highly entertaining account of a dinner in Paris in 1922 attended by Proust, Joyce, Picasso, Diaghilev, and Stravinskyand Vice: An Anthology. His defense of the established norms of English life and his outrage at the manner in which they are being undermined, mocked, and dismissed are the marks not of a nostalgic high Tory but of a true patriotthe quaint-sounding term is entirely apt herewho sees his country not as the “little England” of neonationalist fantasy, but as a nation that, despite its outlying geographical position, should protect and assert its rightful place at the heart of Europe and of the wider international community. The author does himself less than justice when he declares that “the influence of Moscow on London is the subject of Enemies Within,” for his book has much to say, if only by inference, about the present-day state of the world, as it struggles to readjust in the aftermath of the populist upheavals of the past two and a half years.

Almost the first half of the main text of Enemies Within is devoted to the numerous spy networks that operated in Britain before the Cambridge Five established themselves. Davenport-Hines probes with scholarly thoroughness the origins and motives of these prototype agents, male and female, who were at work after World War I. They were something of a lumpen lot, the names of many of whomCecil L’Estrange Malone, Percy Glading, Edith Tudor-Hart, Wilfrid Vernon MP will be unfamiliar to the general reader, and even to some who would consider themselves experienced spy-watchers.

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What level of damage these early spies did to Britain is unclear. Among the intelligence services ranged against them there was a great deal of bungling. Information was valued “in proportion to its secrecy, not its accuracy,” the philosopher and wartime intelligence agent Stuart Hampshire told the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. “They would attach more value, he said,” Trevor-Roper wrote, with characteristic verve, “to a scrap of third-rate and tendentious misinformation smuggled out of Sofia in the fly-buttons of a vagabond Rumanian pimp than to any intelligence deduced from a prudent reading of the foreign press.”

Davenport-Hines is also enlightening on the backgrounds and worldviews of the original Bolshevik revolutionaries, who grew up politically in a clandestine environment. He reminds us that Lenin’s older brother was hanged in 1887 for involvement in a plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander III, and that Lenin himself spent three years in exile in Siberia; he points out too that some sixty leaders of the October Revolution were veterans of the Siberian prison camps: “They learnt there to be merciless and vengeful, to cherish personal enmities, to bide their time, to foster fratricidal resentments. Bolshevism was Siberian-made.”

When he directs his attention to the Cambridge FiveGuy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncrosshe scotches early on the widely held assumption that they were sons of the aristocracy, stating with strenuous insistence that “the Cambridge spies came from the mezzanine class.” Nor has he any time for pseudo-Freudian readings, the “fantasies about hateful fathers and fables of nursery politics,” that would consider the drive toward treason among these young men to be chiefly the effect of oppressive home lives: “Institutional life, not parental influence, made Blunt, Burgess, Maclean and Philby what they were.”

He quotes appositely Sir David Kelly, Britain’s ambassador in Moscow at the time of the defection of Burgess and Maclean, who observed that England was the only country in which “the privileged classes asked of a young man not, ‘Who was his father?’ but ‘Where was he at?’” Acceptance of or, more often, rebellion against the doctrines and norms of the schools they attended was the strongest influence upon the characters and politics of the male English generation that grew to adulthood in the first third of the twentieth century, characterized in 1934 by John Heygate—Evelyn Waugh’s nemesis who ran away with Waugh’s first wifeas those who were “too young to enter the war, too old to inherit the peace.”

So convinced is Davenport-Hines of the centrality of schooling to the formation of the Cambridge spies that he devotes a chapter to the subject, Proustianly entitled “The Little Clans.”1 In it he writes on Philby’s education at Westminster School, Maclean’s at Gresham’shis “clan chief” while he was there was James Klugmann, who would later recruit Cairncross as a Soviet spyBurgess’s at Eton and Dartmouth Naval College, and Blunt’s at Marlborough College, where his closest friend was the poet Louis MacNeice. The regimes at these schools, Davenport-Hines shrewdly observes, “taught pupils a smooth-mannered duplicity.” As Blunt himself later recalled, at Marlborough he and MacNeice were dedicated in their aim to subvert, “but we were rebels within the law, and we were careful enough and clever enough to carry out our crusade without ever infringing the rules of the school.”

For all Davenport-Hines’s probings into the backgrounds and characters of his main subjects, a residue of mystery attaches to the political and intellectual motives of at least some members of the Cambridge ring. Philby, unappetizing character though he was, seems to have been a genuinely committed Communist, fully prepared, for instance, to betray Western agents in Eastern Europe, in not a few cases fatally, while Burgess, the most rackety and irresponsible of the lot, was widely and deeply read in Marxist texts. Yet Maclean, though also a dedicated Marxist, seems on the face of it a most unlikely traitor, as Roland Philipps’s A Spy Named Orphan indicates in its subtitle, “The Enigma of Donald Maclean.”

Most enigmatic of all, however, is Blunt, who seems to have cared little or nothing for the theory of dialectical materialism underpinning the cause he had espoused. After his exposure in 1979, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher read a statement to the House of Commons naming him as a Soviet spy, he attempted to justify his actions by saying that in the 1930s Communism had seemed the only defense against the tide of fascism surging across Europe. The confrontation of the two ideologies in the Spanish Civil War showed the starkness of the choice: either Hitler or Stalin, with no compromise possible between the two extremes, certainly not the milk-and-water democracy that had allowed the “old men” who ran World War I to squander millions of young lives on the killing fields of Flanders. In private, however, he would merely sigh and say it was all a case of “Cowboys and Indians.”

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To a greater extent than any of the Five, Blunt prized the privileges of middle-class English society and had no illusions about the supposed paradisal joys of Soviet life. He had, nevertheless, written a famous article in The Spectator before the war in which he criticized Picasso for being elitist and out of touch with the working class. He was the highly influential director of the Courtauld Institute, Britain’s leading college of art historymany of his students went on to become renowned experts in their fieldand ensconced himself very cozily in the highest reaches of high society, by securing and jealously holding onto the position of Keeper of first the King’s and then the Queen’s Pictures.2 He stayed on as Keeper even after he had secretly confessed his spying activities to MI5 in 1964, at which time Queen Elizabeth was apprised of his past treacheries. Alan Bennett’s wonderfully subtle play A Question of Attribution has much stylish fun with the conjectured post-1964 relations at Buckingham Palace between the canny Queen Elizabeth and the queenly Sir Anthony Blunt.3

Davenport-Hines has many subtle, penetrating, and frequently surprising points to make about the political and social climate that nurtured Britain’s homegrown spies. He insists, for instance, that much of Moscow’s success in infiltrating Britain’s government ministries “lies in sex discrimination rather than class discrimination.” The British intelligence community was exclusively male. Women might be hired as typists and tea-makers, but never as officers.

“The ideal of fraternity among men was fundamental to the way that everything worked,” he writes, effectively putting one’s colleagues above suspicion. He goes on to quote a journalist in the 1930s who, after a briefing by the chancellor of the exchequer, extolled the “beautiful” informality of the way in which Britain governed itself: “We had tea and plum-cake in the Chancellor’s room, talking very informally over pipes.” Davenport-Hines comments, with a surely unintentional lapse into comic innuendo at the close:

This relaxed manliness in action required gender exclusivity: women subordinates may have prepared the tea and plum-cake, but they were not present to inhibit the men pulling on their pipes.

There was also the matter, among the intelligence community, of “manly good humour,” jokes, and overall geniality. The collegiate atmosphere of the public service was surely a harking back to school days, for the most part detested while they were being endured, but a source of fond nostalgia to many an “old boy” afterward. One has the impression of a wistful unwillingness to let go of boyhood: “Among colleagues, in offices and committees, nicknames proliferated as a way of bringing cheerful cohesion: ‘Waterbeast,’ ‘Snatch,’ ‘Moly’ and the rest.” In this connection we see the appositeness of one of Davenport-Hines’s epigraphs, from Blanche Warre-Cornish: “Men go in herds: but every woman counts.”

Anthony Blunt
Anthony Blunt; drawing by David Levine

Yet Davenport-Hines is by no means dismissive of pre-war England’s easygoing way of doing business. He laments in particular that the discovery of so many spies at the center of government and the intelligence services led to the discontinuation of the “circulating file,” a system that began with the most junior official in a department reading and commenting on a document that eventually would make its way all the way up to the secretary of state: “The circulating file is a grievous loss in the age of emails and ‘Reply all’ circulation lists.”

This collapse of trust, in public and in private life, is one of the more malign legacies of the Cambridge spies’ mischief-making, according to Davenport-Hines, and contributed to the brewing, from the 1950s onward, of a toxic mixture of paranoia and nationalist arrogance: “Pretensions of English singularity…beset the cruder politicians, virulent editorial journalists and the more ignorant voters.” Plus ça change, indeed. However, not all were tricked by the betrayers. Davenport-Hines has little time for institutions such as the Special Branch, but he displays a staunch, even a slightly worrying, respect for MI5, “where most officials were well-travelled linguists rather than the blockheads imagined by the agency’s detractors.” All the same, the damage to the body politic was severe, and continues to worsen, in Britain and elsewhere:

Government by the knowledgeable epistocracyhas been superseded in most of the English-speaking world by a version of democracy that elevates opinion above knowledge…. The process whereby public leaders and experienced minds began to capitulate to people less informed than themselves started when Burgess and Maclean hurried aboard the night boat to Saint Malo.

That extraordinary flitit was as if two English gentlemen were to creep out of a hotel under cover of darkness to avoid paying the billdealt a blow to England’s self-confidence every bit as serious as the Suez crisis did five years later, yet it had something about it of the farcical and faintly melancholy Ealing comedies of the time. There could not have been two more ill-matched traveling companions than Burgess—dissolute, dirty, and disheveled—and what Philipps in A Spy Called Orphan describes as “the charming, well-connected and brilliant enigma that was Donald Maclean.” One might imagine the young Alec Guinness in the role of Maclean, but the mild old England of those days could hardly have produced an actor larger enough than life to play the ineffable Burgess.

Philipps’s lively and beautifully engineered biography of Maclean does not take Davenport-Hines’s universal and dystopian view of the Cambridge Five affair, but it is just as revealing as Enemies Within of the machinations and motives of its subject and his fellow spies. Inevitably, both books cover much of the same ground, but the perspectives taken are unique to each. Philipps is fascinated by personal character to a greater degree than Davenport-Hines,4 but he also puts into sharp focus the hardly credible scope of the spies’ achievement in keeping the Soviet Union abreast of Western thinking and strategy both during World War II and in the ensuing stand-off between the Soviet bloc and America and its allies. Of the five, Maclean was by far the most dedicated, proficient, and productive: in the year 1941 alone, he supplied 4,419 classified documents to Moscow, well ahead of the lackluster Cairncrossone almost feels sorry for that poor obscure Scot, so little attention does either Davenport-Hines or Ronald Philipps, or anyone else, for that matter, devote to himwho could manage only 3,449. These men were imbued with the Protestant work ethic on an industrial scale.

Philipps is far more open than Davenport-Hines to a Freudian interpretation of his subject’s predilection for betrayal of his country, although of course Maclean would have seen it not as betrayal but as commitment to a higher cause. He came from a solidly middle-class Scottish family, nonconformist in religion but deeply conservative in secular matters. His father, also called Donald, was a member of Parliament who when he died was commemorated by British prime minister Stanley Baldwin for, as Philipps writes, “the purity of his soul, the clarity of conscience which throughout his life drove him to act as that conscience dictated, not for personal gain but for the greater good as he and his religion saw it”—which, with the faintest of tweaks, would be a fair summation also of the character of Donald junior. His mother, Gwendolen, was described by her daughter as “an exceptionally good-looking woman but very difficult to live with.” One hears the shade of Herr Doktor Freud vigorously rubbing his hands.

At the age of ten Maclean was sent to board at Gresham’s School in the east of England. Auden, also a Gresham’s boy, described the disciplinary code there as designed to turn pupils into “remote introverts.” Maclean shared Auden’s loathing of the school’s “Fascist state” and its so-called Honour System, which was a “recipe for grief and anger”and in Maclean’s case, Philipps adds, a spur to duplicity. Young Donald was a model student who had “learned the spy’s most essential art of keeping himself hidden while remaining a model of conformity in plain sight.” From Gresham’s he went on to Cambridge, arriving there in 1931 in the midst of worldwide economic collapse, which represented, as his friend James Klugmann put it, “the total bankruptcy of the capitalist system.”

There are varying accounts of Maclean’s sexual orientation. Burgess, a fellow student at Cambridge and a flamboyant liar, claimed to have seduced him, and later Maclean’s wife spoke about “the homosexual side which comes out [in him] when he is drunk.” Yet he was attractive to women and in his younger days had numerous heterosexual affairs. Also he was devoted to his wife until she entered into a romantic, or at least sexual, liaison with Philby after she had joined her husband in exile in Russia. When his brother Alan, who according to Philipps was “devoted but always truthful,” was asked if Maclean was homosexual, he said, “Positively no.”

Melinda Maclean née Marling, a Chicagoan, was described by her brother-in-law as a “hard little nut,” and by another source as “apparently frail and defenceless but in fact tough and self-reliant” and even on occasion “quite dominant.” These characterizations fit neatly with what the brilliant spymaster Arnold Deutschit was at Deutsch’s behest that Philby recruited Maclean as a Soviet agentsaw as Maclean’s “infantile need” for the “praise and reassurance” he had not gotten from his emotionally unbending father. It is probably indicative of the clarity of Deutsch’s reading of Maclean’s character that he was given the code-name Waise in German and Sirota in Russian, since both words mean “orphan.” Nevertheless, Philipps writes that in Melinda “he found the person he could share his secret life with,” one “who was in tune with his politics without being particularly interested in them.” It is one of the more remarkable aspects of Maclean’s career as a spy that not only did he manage to keep his espionage activities secret from the beginning and all through the war years right up to 1951, but so did his wife.

Maclean’s strict Presbyterian upbringing and the overpowering example of his strongly principled father left him, as a secret agent, in a state of moral torment and what the atomic spy Klaus Fuchs described as “controlled schizophrenia,” which caused repeated nervous collapses and led him into severe alcoholism: after an all-night binge with his friend the journalist Philip Toynbee, the next day the two men “steadily worked their way through a coma-inducing six bottles of gin.” Sober or drunk, Maclean was driven always by what he saw as his twin duties: to further the aims of international communism and to prevent conflict between the Soviet Union and the Westthe war that really would have ended all wars. In the latter regard he may well have been instrumental on more than one occasion in staving off nuclear Armageddon.

His position as a hard working and trusted official first at the British Foreign Office and later at Britain’s embassy in Washington meant that he was ideally placed to keep Moscow informed, often on a day-to-day basis, of exactly what the British and Americans were up to. When the Russians blockaded Berlin on June 24, 1948, and President Truman announced a few days later that he would send sixty nuclear-armed B-29 bombers to bases in England and Germany, “Stalin knew from Maclean’s earlier intelligence that they had only half the bombs and three assembly teams to arm these planes.” Philipps adds, “Maclean’s intelligence may once again…have helped avert a conflict that could easily have seen shots being fired and a subsequent escalation.” It is a sobering thought that our survival today might well be due, in part at least, to the actions of a man considered by the West to have been one of its most treacherous sons.

How did he get away with so much, for so long? In the late 1940s it began to be clear that there was at least one spy at the heart of the British security services, but when Dick White, head of MI5’s counterespionage division, carried the bad news to George Carey Foster, the Foreign Office head of security, Foster exclaimed, “It’s inconceivable that any senior member could be a traitor.” As Philipps remarks, “The authorities could countenance investigating secretaries and cipher clerks, but could not imagine that anyone with the same privileged upbringing as they had had could hold any values other than their own.” It is easy to shake one’s head in amused disbelief at the seemingly willed blindness of the intelligence services, but it is well to keep in mind that the world and society in those times were very different from what they are todayas what they are today will be different from what they will be in seventy years’ time. The wisdom with which hindsight is blessed is more often than not wholly spurious.

  1. 1

    However, he considers only four of the Cambridge spies, leaving out John Cairncross, who was, admittedly, the least colorful of the famous Five. As Guy Burgess sniffily wrote of him, “He comes from a lower middle class family, he speaks with a strong Scottish accent and one cannot call him a gentleman.” 

  2. 2

    On a day in the 1970s, before his exposure as a spy, Blunt could hardly attend to the questions of an author who had come to interview him at his flat in Portman Square, so excited was he at the prospect of getting a lift to the races at Ascot that afternoon in Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s Bentley.  

  3. 3

    Sir Anthony Blunt was one of only three knights in England’s history to have his knighthood revoked; the others were Sir Roger Casement, executed by the British after the 1916 Rising, and the extortioner Francis Mitchell. 

  4. 4

    Davenport-Hines writes, “Historians fumble their catches when they study individuals’ motives and individuals’ ideas rather than the institutions in which people work, respond, find motivation and develop their ideas.”