(published by Hodder and Stoughton, 2015
The defection to the USSR of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in 1951 remained prominent in the British press for almost a decade. Their defection was followed a few years later by that of Kim Philby, and eventually also the unmasking and confession of Sir Anthony Blunt. These four, together with, it is surmised, John Cairncross, were known as the ‘Cambridge Five,’ the men who passed reams of secret documents to their Soviet handlers.
All five men were members of what is universally recognised as the British upper class, born into wealth, given the best education money could buy and blessed with the intelligence and ability that gave them access to senior politicians and enabled them to attain senior positions in MI5, MI6, the BBC and the Foreign Office.
Andrew Lownie’s research into the life and times of Guy Burgess, the man who is considered to have been the principal secret agent, reveals a person of outstanding intellectual ability who went through the rigorous education system accorded to young males in Britain (Dartmouth, Eton, Oxbridge). Perhaps this system had something to do with the fact that most of the Cambridge Five were avowed homosexuals, and Burgess was apparently extremely promiscuous in this regard, even though at the time homosexual behavior was banned by law in England. This may also have enabled the Russians to blackmail the men into cooperating with them.
While studying for a degree in history at Cambridge Burgess became convinced that Russian Communism was the way forward, and he supported various workers’ causes. At that time the Russians were assiduously seeking out students who would support their cause and serve as agents on their behalf. America, which was in the throes of McCarthyism, was abhorred by Burgess. After leaving university he was employed organising talks on current events at the BBC, later moving on to various posts in the Foreign Office, while Maclean, Philby and the others rose through the ranks of MI5 and MI6, the secret surveillance and espionage agencies.
There can be little doubt that the background shared by the Cambridge Five with most of the other employees of the institutions in which they were employed helped to keep them in their positions. The concept of ‘the old school tie,’ and the fact that they shared the same way of dress, habits, haunts and speech cadences served to prevent them from coming under suspicion. Referring to espionage activity, a letter sent by one Foreign Office official to another contains the sentence: ‘It seems that Donald (i.e., Maclean) is up to his old tricks.’ In a telling phrase, Lownie comments on this in one of the copious notes to the book, ‘This was alas typical of the way Maclean’s case was handled by the Foreign Office.’
Burgess’s heavy drinking eventually got him into trouble, and when Maclean’s cover was blown the two men managed to defect undetected to the USSR even though the British authorities had begun to grow suspicious of them and were investigating their activities. This, however, was pursued in a bungling and somewhat lackadaisical fashion. Reading about the episode today brings scenes from the satirical television series ‘Yes, Minister’ to mind. Only the actual events were in no way amusing.
In the final chapter of the book Lownie speculates on the reasons for Burgess’s actions, and concludes that he experienced rejection and alienation in his youth, as well as the lack of a father (his father was often away at sea, and died when Burgess was only thirteen), causing him psychological stress. While there was certainly an ideological element in his actions, he also had a rebellious streak and a desire to ‘épater le bourgeois.’ The man who loved to engage in intellectual debate, gossip with friends, visit the London clubs where the members of the upper class congregated and enjoy the good things of life, ended his days in the drab environment of Soviet Russia, drinking heavily while missing his friends and all things English.
It has taken Andrew Lownie thirty years to complete this fascinating book, which is based on an immense body of written and oral material – published and unpublished theses, books, interviews, correspondence and manuscripts. Lownie has succeeded in bringing to life – and even arousing our sympathy for – a character who betrayed his country without batting an eyelid or experiencing a single moment of regret.
I was privileged to attend the author’s talk about the book given at the Charroux Literary Festival held in France last August, and this aroused my appetite to read it. I’m glad to say that I am now able to treasure the copy signed by Mr. Lownie himself and I have derived immense enjoyment from reading it.