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Lead book review

Kim Philby got away with it because he was posh

A review of A Spy Among Friends, by Ben Macintyre. The double agent's victims, unlike his family, were not the sort of people one bumped into at White's

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal Ben Macintyre

Bloomsbury, pp.368, £20

The story of Kim Philby is, of course, like so many English stories, really one of social class. He was one of the most scandalous traitors in history, and from within the security services sent specific information to the Soviets during the early years of the Cold War that resulted directly in the deaths of thousands of men and women. Among them were the Albanian guerrillas, hoping to liberate their country, who found Soviet-sponsored troops waiting at their landing places to shoot them. A list of non-communist opposers to the Nazis in Germany was passed on to the Russians who, advancing into Germany in the last years of the war, summarily executed 5,000 named people.

Philby worked for the British security services for years, almost all the time passing significant information to our country’s enemies. He was closely associated with those other traitors, Burgess and Maclean, and clearly helped them to escape. Despite very substantial evidence against Philby, he was allowed to retire from the service and left unprosecuted. MI6 seems to have protected and defended him; MI5 wanted to bring a case, but was rebuffed.

Much later, working in Beirut as a journalist for the Observer and the Economist, Philby was recruited once again by the security services. He was only finally unmasked when a woman he had attempted to recruit in the 1930s came forward with undeniable evidence. Philby’s old friend, Nicholas Elliott, a senior figure in the service who had protected him for years, went out to Beirut to interrogate him, and seems to have allowed him to escape to Moscow, like Burgess and Maclean before him. Elliott’s much later attempts to justify himself, in conversations with John le Carré, provide  an afterword to Ben Macintyre’s book, written by the novelist.

How did Philby get away with it, and how, at the last, confronted with indisputable evidence of his treachery in his exile in Beirut, was he allowed to flee to Moscow? The answer, according to Macintyre, is the British class system, and in particular the loyalty felt on account of social standing by two men, Nicholas Elliott and James Jesus Angleton of the CIA. Angleton seems to have handed over the details of every one of those Albanian landings during immensely long boozy lunches in Washington. What was Elliott’s responsibility? Why did he allow Philby to slip through his fingers at the end? They are questions which still can’t be answered.

The atmosphere of those years, and the ways in which social connections consistently trumped any secure procedures, are nicely caught in dozens of small details. This is an interrogation of Elliott by a local head of security in Istanbul. ‘Does your wife know what you do?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘How did that come about?’ ‘She was my secretary for two years and I think the penny must have dropped.’ ‘Quite so. What about your mother?’ ‘She thinks I’m in something called SIS, which she believes stands for the Secret Intelligence Service.’ ‘Good God! How did she come to know that?’ ‘A member of the War Cabinet told her at a cocktail party.’ ‘Then what about your father?’ ‘He thinks I’m a spy.’ ‘Why should he think you’re a spy?’ ‘Because the Chief told him in the bar at White’s.’

Though some of these details have a comic aspect, the consequences of this snobbish vagueness were appalling. A Russian potential defector, Konstantin Volkov, held out the possibility of providing the names of hundreds of Soviet agents, including one who, he said explicitly, was the ‘head of a section of the British counter-espionage service in London’. The head of MI6 idiotically summoned the head of Soviet counter-espionage, who happened to be Kim Philby, and told him to deal with it. Philby delayed and delayed, and in the meantime let the Soviets know what was up. Volkov was tortured and executed, along with his wife. Even then, nobody in MI6 seems to have wondered how the information leaked out, despite the specificity of Volkov’s information. Philby was just too much the right sort of chap. And you were never going to bump into Volkov’s father at White’s, after all.

Philby’s treachery might have been helped, too, by the evident stupidity of large parts of the security services, crisply described by him in despatches to his Soviet masters. Felix Russi was ‘an almost total moron’. Tim Milne, nephew of A.A. Milne, was ‘inclined towards inertia’. Desmond Bristow was ‘the weak link…owing to immaturity and an inferior brain’. Sir Stewart Menzies, head of MI6, had ‘an intellectual equipment [that] was unimpressive’. (Nicholas Elliott thought that he had a ‘true sense of values’, which probably meant the same thing). These judgments are backed up by other sources. Hugh Trevor-Roper said they were ‘by and large pretty stupid, some of them very stupid’. Certainly the stupidity came to the fore when, years after the mark against Philby’s name was as black as could be, Elliott arranged for him to start work again for MI6 as an agent in Beirut.

Why did they stand by him? Insanely, the head of MI6, even after very serious doubts had been raised about Philby’s loyalty, wrote in a memo that ‘it is entirely contrary to the English tradition for a man to have to prove his innocence’. In a court of law, perhaps, but surely not in the case of such an important figure in the security services? Hilariously, one of Philby’s main concerns at the height of his treachery was to get his sons into as expensive a school as he could. ‘Eton and Westminster were beyond his budget, but Elliott came up with the solution.’ It might be that Philby was maintaining a useful front, but it is hard to see from his biography that this devoted communist ever spent a voluntary moment with a single horny-handed son of toil.

Elliott said about Harold Shergold, controller of MI6’s Soviet operations, that he ‘knew [Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet double agent] was all right. Shergy had the nose.’ In fact, ‘having the nose’ was exactly the sort of thing that Elliott and his like put too much faith in, and let Philby escape for years — the sort of chap who didn’t ring alarm bells by his deportment, shoes, accent or behaviour. Years after the Philby catastrophe, Elliott didn’t seem to have learnt anything. When le Carré asked him, ‘What about the ultimate sanction, then — forgive me — could you have had Philby killed, liquidated?’, Elliott replied, aghast: ‘My dear chap. One of us.’ That, alas, was entirely the problem.

Macintyre warns, quite rightly, that old spies have a habit of rewriting the past, and he mostly does a good job of examining their later claims. A good, though trivial, example of history rewritten comes in Elliott’s conversations with le Carré in the afterword, when he says, regarding Hugh Trevor-Roper: ‘I laughed my head off when he took a dive on those Hitler diaries. The whole service knew they were fake.’

In fact, nobody in the intelligence service could have had any views about the diaries. As readers of Robert Harris’s book on the subject will remember, they were effectively written to commission by a forger and handed directly to Stern, who kept them under lock and key until they were shown to Trevor-Roper. But neither le Carré nor Macintyre challenges Elliott’s claim, and perhaps more scepticism should have been expressed about other suggestions voiced by players in this drama.

Nevertheless, Ben Macintyre has written an engaging book on a tantalising and ultimately tragic subject. If it starts as a study of friendship, it ends as an indictment. James Jesus Angleton was sent mad by the Philby case; Nicholas Elliott is treated tactfully, but is severely censured. It could hardly have been otherwise.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.95. Tel: 08430 600033

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