Top positive review
Five turn traitor in Cambridge
26 February 2018
The conceit of this intriguing book is that the significance of the Cambridge ring of spies (Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and Cairncross) has been misunderstood and exaggerated because for fifty years they have been seen and assessed out of context. In fact, from the Russian revolution onwards until the fall of the Soviet union, a constant stream of communist sympathisers in both the UK and US collaborated with the Soviet secret services. In most cases they were not publicly known because they were 'turned' as double agents, fled or were expelled, without ever being publicly revealed or tried.
What distinguished the Cambridge five from the rest were their intellectual calibre, their recruitment by Soviet agents while at Cambridge, their connections to the UK secret services, and the extent and importance of their disclosures. The notion that they emanated from a corrupt aristocratic élite is fiction. Only Maclean had been born in a titled family. None of them was from a wealthy family. Only Burgess had been sent to Eton. Only Burgess and Blunt were homosexual. Their most obvious common features were alcoholism, and that they were detected.
Their treachery was facilitated, not by any old boy network or turning of blind eyes, but by a traditional government culture in which those who volunteered to work in government, often working hard and long for little pay, were assumed to act with loyalty and discretion. That assumption only seems naive in a cynical age. But Philby, Maclean and Blunt were all suspect for some time before their treachery was revealed. Any delay in that was not due to deliberate concealment or class-based omertà. It was due mainly to the ability of clever men to evade and dissemble, but also to the presumption of innocence, and reluctance to award the Soviets any propaganda victory. For fifty years, the public perception of the five has been the product of sensational popular journalism which, in the absence of much reliable fact, was based chiefly upon the prejudices of the journalists' employers.
To present his argument, Mr Davenport-Hines writes what is virtually a history of Anglo-Soviet mutual espionage from 1917 to 1989 (or rather, so much of it as is known about). His account is sometimes remorselessly detailed. This is an academic book rather than one for the casual reader. There is an occasional air of academic disdain. It fascinates none the less.