Harry Mount

The strange allure of double agents

Britain has long treated traitors as mere eccentrics

British spy Kim Philby, who betrayed his country and fled to the USSR (Photo by Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

John le Carré, the master of British spy stories, may have died last December, aged 89. But the dastardly world of double agents he relished in exposing lives on.

A British man has been arrested in Germany on suspicion of spying for Russia. German federal prosecutors allege that the man — named only as ‘David S’ and said to work at the British Embassy in Berlin — passed documents to Russian intelligence ‘at least once’ in return for an ‘unknown amount’ of money.

Berlin was the epicentre of le Carré’s world of espionage. He served as a spy in Germany himself and his breakout hit, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, is set in Berlin. His novel is also about that figure beloved of thriller-writers and the reading public — the double agent, as this figure at the British Embassy in Berlin is alleged to be.

The British in particular have a strange approach to double agents. Even the name ‘double agent’ has a sort of glamour to it; much more glamour than, say, the word ‘traitor’, which is what double agents necessarily are.

The truth of it is that the spying life is really rather dull — more Brooke Bond than James Bond.

It’s largely the fault of the Cambridge spies. They were traitors, every one of them. But they were clever, sophisticated, upper-middle-class traitors. Kim Philby went to Westminster School and Trinity, Cambridge. Guy Burgess went to Eton and Trinity, too. Donald Maclean was at Gresham’s before joining his comrades at Cambridge. And Anthony Blunt went to Marlborough and Trinity.

Margaret Thatcher said the MPs who brought her down were guilty of ‘treachery with a smile on its face’. Well, the Cambridge spies were guilty of treachery with big brains, wit and the right kind of suit.

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