Kim Philby: stayed the course

This charming man

Ben Macintyre A spy among friends: Kim Philby and the great betrayal Bloomsbury, 2014, pp354, £18

So much has been written about the Cambridge spy ring, and Kim Philby in particular, that yet another book on the subject might seem rather pointless. However, author Ben Macintyre is clear in the preface that this is “not another biography of Kim Philby”. Instead, “it is an attempt to describe a particular sort of friendship that played an important role in history”: concretely, that between Philby and his fellow MI6 officer, Nicholas Elliot.

The problem with this is that too little is made of the general political context in which Philby and the others formed their friendships, made their choices and contextualised all the personal relationships in their lives. The danger of this approach by Macintyre is that it looks through the wrong end of the telescope and in places it makes some of the author’s value judgements on Philby’s personal behaviour appear carping and petty, even. (One of the book’s illustrations of Philby in later life has as a caption this quote from his memoir, My silent war: “I have always operated on two levels - a personal level and a political one. When the two have come into conflict, I have had to put the politics first” - the clear implication being that this is a bad thing.)

To be fair to Macintyre, this is not some work of depoliticised, psycho-babbly twaddle - the author weaves his take on the politics of the period in and out of the tale of these two men’s friendship with some considerable skill. However, it is worthwhile actually reminding ourselves exactly what was the broader political and social background to the decisions that Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and others took about their lives. In this country, the failure of the Labour government under Ramsay MacDonald to tackle fundamental social inequality and the scourge of unemployment. The National Government of 1931, itself a perfect symbol of MacDonald’s capitulation. The victory of fascist barbarism in Italy, Germany, Austria and Spain. Many young left idealists felt they were faced with a stark choice. The only world power that appeared to stand against poverty and fascism, the only seemingly coherent vision of building a decent society, came in the shape of the Soviet Union, with its continuing identification with 1917 and its promise of a future of collectivised agriculture, industrialisation, full employment and technological wizardry. There seemed, as even Lord Denis Healey and scores of other establishment doyens will tell you, no viable alternative at the time.

That said, looking at Philby “through the prism of personal friendship” is potentially useful, given his famously gregarious nature. Reading the voluminous literature on the man, the word you come across most often is “charm”. A contemporary recalled that “he was the sort of man who won worshipers. You didn’t just like him, admire him, agree with him: you worshipped him.”1 Philby wielded this quiet charisma to devastating effect in his career as a Soviet agent, but there was also something about the cliquey, booze-fuelled, establishment atmosphere of the security service that allowed him to be so effective. This point is illustrated by the way both Philby and his friend, Nicholas Elliot, were recruited to MI6 in the first place.

The Elliots had “for generations … furnished the military officers, senior clerics, lawyers and colonial administrators” of the empire (p6). Nicholas himself, although not unintelligent, generally comes across as a bit of an affable chump. Naturally, he went up to Trinity - his father’s old college. However, he allowed neither the world of academia nor the feverish political atmosphere in the Cambridge of the 1930s to divert him from his energetic social life: “He seldom opened a book and emerged after three years with many friends and a third-class degree, a result he considered ‘a triumph over the examiners’” (p6). Macintyre sums up his smugly complacent world view as “faith in king, country, class and club (White’s Club, in his case, the gentlemen’s club in St James’s)” (p7).

In 1939, Elliott was at Ascot racecourse, watching the favourite, Quashed, come home at 7-2. Over a glass of champers with Sir Robert Vansittart, he mentioned that he might quite like to join the security service. Sir Robert - a man with close links to MI6 - smiled and said: “I am relieved you have asked me for something so easy.” “So that was that,” wrote Elliot many years later.2

Philby’s recruitment into MI6 was equally casual - slapdash, even. As the man wrote, he simply “dropped a few hints here and there” with influential acquaintances and then waited for the call.3 Surprisingly, a routine background check on him by MI5 turned up nothing - despite young Philby’s rather politically colourful career at Cambridge and immediately after. But then perhaps it was not that surprising. The deputy head of MI6, Valentine Vivian, vouched personally for the new recruit: “I was asked about him and I said I knew his people,” he said - as though that settled the matter. Later, when Philby worked in the counter-intelligence section V of MI6, Vivian did casually broach the subject with Philby’s famously eccentric father.

“He was a bit of a communist at Cambridge, wasn’t he?” asked Vivian over lunch at the club. “Oh, that was all schoolboy nonsense. He’s a reformed character now,” Philby senior assured him. (In the book’s interesting ‘Afterword’, novelist John Le Carré recounts his 1986 meetings with Elliot, where the ageing ex-spy would pour out his heart about the enormity of the personal betrayal he felt about Philby. At one point, Le Carré suggests: “What about the ultimate sanction, then - forgive me - could you have had Philby killed, liquidated?” Elliott replies, appalled: “My dear chap. One of us.”)

In 1939, the head of MI5 actually suggested that Soviet “activity in England is non-existent, in terms of both intelligence and political subversion”. As Macintyre notes, the bloke could not have been more wrong, with Anthony Blunt, Burgess, Maclean and Philby himself active in various branches of the security service and foreign office. In fact, reading this book, I was struck repeatedly by the incredible levels of complacency displayed at every level of the security establishment - a cultural feature that must have been exacerbated by the narrow recruitment pool many were drawn from. Writing of Philby and Elliott, Macintyre observes: “They belonged to the same clubs, drank in the same bars, wore the same well-tailored clothes and married women of their own ‘tribe’ … men bonded by class, club and education …” (pp1-2).

Farcically, Elliott was once summoned to MI6 HQ by the head of security as part of some general vetting process. The conversation went like this:

“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 [of MI6] told him in the bar at White’s” (pp85-86).

By the 1950s, the United States’ various security services were deeply distrustful of their British counterparts, which they regarded in general as feckless, traitorous and compromised by the ‘old boy’ networks of public school and Oxbridge. With the net closing in on Philby in the aftermath of the 1951 defection of his close friend, Guy Burgess, the Central Intelligence Agency chief demanded that any of his officers with knowledge of the two must report details as matter of urgency (Philby had been appointed by MI6 to maintain the Anglo-American intelligence relationship and to liaise with the CIA and Federal Bureau of Investigation). The first dossier to land on his desk was from Bill Harvey of counter-intelligence. It was forensic and devastatingly precise, building a near irrefutable case for the report’s central assertion: Philby was a Soviet spy.

Interestingly, the second report came from James Angleton, an enthusiastic Anglophile and a victim of the deadly Philby charm, and its conclusion was in stark contrast to the first: Philby was an honest and brilliant man, cruelly duped by his erratic friend, Burgess. Macintyre comments:

In some ways, the two memos echoed the different approaches to intelligence that were developing on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Bill Harvey’s reflected a new, American style of investigation - suspicious, quick to judge and willing to offend. Angleton’s was written in the British MI6 tradition, based on friendship and trust in the word of a gentleman (p157).

Macintyre observes that this was essentially because Angleton “remained, in many ways, an Englishman. ‘I was brought up in England in my formative years,’ he said, many years later, ‘and I must confess that I learned - at least I was disciplined to learn - certain features of life, and what I regard as duty’” (p127).

The network of men who emerged from Cambridge in the 1930s as Soviet agents have all too often been crudely depicted simply as damaged individuals with personality traits that made them almost organically susceptible to betrayal: drunks, misfits and, of course, ‘queers’, since Blunt and Burgess constituted what was homophobically referred to as the ‘homintern’. The British establishment - with its philistine empiricism - has always found it baffling that people can have an ideological commitment so strong that the sheer power of ideas can lead them to betray ‘their’ country. There has to be another explanation - drink, sexual perversity, avarice or whatever; an explanation which neatly pigeon-holes the perpetrators as deviants or freaks. Here is reaction grappling with that which it cannot comprehend.

In the same vein, I am reminded of The Times reporting the last ideological spy the Soviet Union ever produced, Michael Bettaney, who was arrested and sentenced to 23 years imprisonment in 1984. In its leader commenting on the case, it wondered “how it is possible for an intelligent civil servant to treat Moscow as the repository of his idealism”. That was something that “beggars belief”.4

Macintyre is particularly scathing of Philby’s apparent indifference to the fate of some of his Soviet handlers, who were swept away in Stalin’s purges. Despite praising them for their “infinite patience” and “painstaking advice”, the author suggests that, “later in life, he expressed little sadness over the murder of these ‘marvellous men’ and offered no criticism of the tyranny that killed them. Only the politics mattered” (p48).

Again, this is a slanted estimation, designed to bolster Macintyre’s contention that Philby lacked genuine fellow feeling and had cold politics, where others have a heart and human feelings. We should probably let the man himself answer:

It cannot be very surprising that I adopted a communist viewpoint in the 30s; so many of my contemporaries made the same choice. But many of those who made their choice in those days changed sides when some of the worst features of Stalinism became apparent. I stayed the course.5

Despite the horrors of the Stalin regime, there is still something heroic in those words, “I stayed the course”.

Mark Fischer



1. Sir Robert Mackenzie, quoted in P Knightly The master spy: the story of Kim Philby New York 1989, p119.

2. N Elliot Never judge a man by his umbrella London 1992, p101.

3. K Philby My silent war London 1968, pxxviii.

4. The Times April 17 1984.

5. K Philby My silent war London 1968, p7.