Betraying whom?

Michael Malkin looks at Tim Fywell (director) Cambridge spies BBC2, Fridays, 9pm

Dedicated idealists or traitors? One thing to be said for this series is that we, the viewers, are allowed to make up our own minds.

With certain relatively honourable exceptions like Alan Bennett's plays, An Englishman abroad and A question of attribution, dealing respectively with Guy Burgess and Antony Blunt, the network of men who emerged from Cambridge in the 1930s as NKVD agents - Blunt, Burgess, Kim Philby and Donald Maclean - have been crudely depicted as degenerate scum: drunks, misfits and of course 'queers', since Blunt and Burgess constituted what was homophobically referred to as the 'homintern'.

Then as now, the British establishment finds it impossible to deal with ideology, with the notion that the sheer power of ideas could lead someone 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. It is, of course, the strident voice of reaction grappling with that which it cannot comprehend.

Long before the series was broadcast, this voice was heard in the columns of the Daily Mail and in the putrid utterances of one Oleg Antonovich Gordievsky. They condemned the BBC for depicting the Cambridge spies as idealists and heroes, when they were nothing but despicable traitors.

"KGB propaganda" was how Mr Gordievsky anachronistically described Cambridge spies. When it comes to treachery, this son and grandson of staunch Chekists certainly knows what he is talking about. Spitting on his forebears' graves, and ultimately abandoning his wife and children, he spied for Britain. Remember when he was vaunted as the man who single-handedly saved the western world by telling Thatcher and Reagan all about the innermost secrets of the Kremlin? Now he is reduced to moaning about his £20,000-a-year MI6 pension, failing as a Channel Four game show host and saddled with the fact that it was he, Mr Wonderful Gordievsky, who told us that Michael Foot, aka 'Comrade Boot', was a KGB spy. Michael, the old softie, settled for an apology. He should have taken the Sunday Times and Oleg to the cleaners in the high court, but maybe someone suggested to him that it would not be a good idea?

Here, of course, is the nub of the matter. Some 52 years after the defection of Burgess and MacLean, 40 years after the defection of Philby and 24 years after the exposure of Blunt, the establishment still seems anxious to keep the subject from public view, or, when absolutely necessary, to denounce the 'homintern' through pathetic little stooges like Mr Gordievsky.

Given that the cold war is over, and that the west definitively won it, this spiky, neurotic defensiveness appears puzzling. Why, for example, should the BBC be condemned by Gordievsky for portraying the British ruling class in the 1930s as "indolent, stupid and viciously anti-semitic, lording it over the poor" (The Guardian, May 8)? Anybody with an ounce of historical knowledge can tell you that this was precisely the case. In fact one of the programme's strengths is the way in which it conveys the atmosphere and texture of life in that select social club (both literal and metaphorical) from which the Cambridge spies emerged.

Director Tim Fywell and screenplay writer Peter Moffat do a reasonable job of setting the story in a broader political context: the rise of fascism and the failure of the Labour Party in government under Ramsay MacDonald to tackle fundamental social inequality and the scourge of unemployment. The National Government of 1931, itself a perfect symbol of Labour's capitulation, and the victory of fascism in Italy, Germany, Austria and Spain, left young idealists with a stark choice. The only world power that appeared to stand against poverty and fascism, the only coherent vision of building a decent society, came from the Soviet Union and its promise of an unbounded future of collectivised agriculture, steel plants, full employment and technological wizardry. There seemed, as even Lord Healey and scores of others will tell you, no alternative at the time.

If Cambridge spies has a weakness in the first episode, it is that this choice is presented in purely emotional terms, which fails somehow to convey the fact that all of the central characters, far from being just 'socialites with a conscience' were convinced communists and revolutionaries. They had read their Marx and thought they understood it. These were men who were determined to change the world, who took their convictions into that most exclusive of Cambridge clubs, the Apostles, where the cult of friendship was encapsulated in EM Forster's words: "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

When it comes to the mechanics of how the Cambridge spies were recruited by the NKVD, the moment when their 'betrayal' became real, history and the supposedly all-revealing Moscow archives still leave us in the dark. Was it Blunt or Burgess who was the prime mover? It really does not matter now. At some stage each of them made the personal decision to serve the USSR in the belief this would aid the struggle against fascism and further the fight for a communist future.

How much did they know about Stalin, the purges, the gulags? We cannot know, but Kim's own words reflect a truth: "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" (K Philby My silent war London 1968, p7).

There is something stubbornly defiant in those words, "I stayed the course". For Philby and the others it was no easy 'secret war'. As the programme makes clear, living your cover as an agent of the NKVD involved real sacrifices and deep personal contradictions, but they made their choice and they stuck to it. The later episodes show that Philby's access to the upper echelons of MI6 involved him in difficult decisions. Would-be Soviet defector Konstantin Volkov's knowledge of the Cambridge ring meant that, having offered his services to British intelligence, he had to be kidnapped and sent home to Moscow and a certain death. Albanian counterrevolutionary terrorists, parachuted into 'their' country by the RAF, were greeted by a hail of machine gun bullets, thanks to Kim. Espionage was and never is a glamorous James Bond business; in the end it is about producing reports to be digested, or not (usually not), by politicians; there are casualties, and anybody who thinks that all the victims were on one side of the balance sheet is a fool or a paid-by-the-line dolt and knave like the poor little swine, Mr Gordievsky. Give us the proof, Oleg Antonovich: open to us the files that will show these men were "traitors" more than you were. For all their errors, the Cambridge spies were communists who did what they thought was in the interests of the working class.