It has become fashionable since the fall of the Soviet Union to diagnose communist fellow travelling as a form of Freudian neurosis. Where class resentment exists it is said to emanate less from angry young proletarians than from well-spoken youths intent on garrotting their dividend-drawing fathers.
Most contemporary accounts of the Cambridge spy ring, which passed top secret information to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, draw heavily on this cliché. Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross are typically portrayed not only as highly privileged men who rebelled against their upbringings, but as an upper-class clique who got away with what they did because they were sheltered under the protective wing of the establishment.
The establishment in this story is presented as an ever-present and incestuous web of prep schools, old-school-tie bureaucracies and smoke-filled Soho clubs. As a representative article in the Guardian put it in 2016, Philby, Britain’s most notorious Cold War traitor, was able to filch secrets for Moscow because British Intelligence was ‘staffed by ill-disciplined and inept upper-class twits’ — twits who were prepared to turn a blind eye to the misdemeanours of one of their own.
Richard Davenport-Hines gives this narrative short shrift. In a revisionist account of the Cambridge spy ring and its damaging aftermath, he argues that our obsession with the class backgrounds of the spies not only misleads, but feeds into a wider attack on British institutions by populist hot-air merchants. The Cambridge spies ‘did their greatest harm to Britain not during their clandestine espionage between 1934 and 1951’, Davenport-Hines writes, ‘but in their insidious propaganda victories over British government departments after 1951’.
It is the author’s contention that we have come to explain the penetration of the British security apparatus by Soviet agents by, ironically, resorting to Soviet-style class analysis.