The Cambridge Five were unreliable spies because they lived before the age of the booze-free lunch – Telegraph Blogs

Four of the Cambridge Five, and a map from the Mitrokhin archive (Photo: PA)

So the Mitrokhin files from Soviet Intelligence reveal that they were wary and critical of some of the Cambridge spies. Burgess and Maclean were unreliable drunks – Burgess careless in looking after files he had removed from the Foreign Office for copying, Maclean given to speaking rashly when in liquor. As we used to say as prep-school boys: “Tell us news, not history.” All this has been known here for a long time. It would be astonishing if it wasn’t equally common knowledge in Moscow, where, one might add, alcoholism was scarcely unusual among members of the Soviet Politburo. The Cambridge spies flourished long before the days of “Only mineral water, thanks” at lunchtime.

Nobody is, even now, quite sure how much damage the Cambridge spies did, though Philby’s responsibility for the deaths of agents smuggled into Albania and other Soviet bloc countries is well established. Arguably they were less important than the “Atom spies”, scientists Klaus Fuchs and Alan Nunn May. They were less highly valued by their masters than Melita Norwood, “the granny spy”. Working as a clerk for a company whose work contributed to the making of the atom bomb, she passed on innumerable scientific and technical documents of great use to Soviet industry. Her controllers described her as “a loyal, trustworthy and disciplined agent”. “Trustworthy and disciplined” were adjectives they would never have applied to Burgess and Maclean, while even Philby wasn’t granted the highest honour, “Hero of the Soviet Union”, perhaps because his masters in Moscow were never absolutely sure where his loyalties lay. The suggestion that he may even have been a triple, rather than merely double, agent, has been floated. Melita Norwood on the other hand was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Soviet Labour, and given a Soviet pension to ease her retirement in Bexleyheath.

For years after Burgess and Maclean decamped in 1951, it was said that Burgess had no need to do so, because there was no evidence against him and he wasn’t even under suspicion. Maclean’s case was different; he was about to be interrogated. Philby, who had learned of this, told his friend Burgess to tip him off. Burgess was about to be asked to resign from the Foreign Office, but this was because of a number of scandalous drunken episodes when he was attached to the Embassy in Washington. He was in greater danger of prosecution as a homosexual than as a Soviet spy.

Maclean was in a different category. Burgess was a fribble. He had charm, for some anyway; the unsophisticated Hector McNeil, Labour Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, enjoyed his company and valued his knowledge of the Establishment. He had respectable friends such as the former diplomat and MP, Harold Nicolson, who feared that poor Guy would be miserable in Moscow because he knew him to be “a coward”. On the other hand, the novelist Anthony Powell, who met him only once before the war, remembered him as a dirty and unpleasant “typical BBC pansy”.

Maclean, son of a Cardiff solicitor who was briefly leader of the Liberal Party, was a complicated man of considerable ability. Possibly on account of the strain of leading a double life (in more ways than one indeed) he was given to violent alcoholic bouts, during which he also gave vent to his usually suppressed homosexual impulses. Nevertheless he was outstandingly good at his job. Despite writing of him with distaste and even contempt, Rebecca West made this point in “The Meaning of Treason”. He was one of those alcoholics in whom the ability to work was unimpaired. He could merge from a three-day debauch to draft a minute of exemplary quality – concise, detailed, the argument lucidly and elegantly set out. Of course, she added, this didn’t excuse the excesses which made him not only a security risk, open to blackmail, but someone who should, on their account, have been required to resign.

The Soviet doubts about him were well-founded. He blabbed freely, declaring his commitment to Communism and the Soviet Union to all and sundry in the Gargoyle Club and Soho pubs. But nobody seems to have paid any serious attention to his boasts and protestations. It was just Donald being Donald, drunk again.

Interestingly Maclean, the most ideologically committed of the Cambridge spies, seems to have regained his balance after his defection. Relieved of the strain of his double life, he found congenial work in a Soviet publishing house dealing with foreign literature, and wrote a rather good book about British Foreign Policy. Though his wife, Melinda, left him for Philby, he doesn’t appear to have regretted his exile. In his later years he became an advocate for a reformed Communism – the more liberal “Communism with a human face”.

What a long time ago it was, and what a different world. Today’s security risks, just as dangerous as the Cambridge spies, and perhaps even more frightening, are not to be found in the Establishment, but in radical mosques and the Islamist societies of provincial universities. It makes you nostalgic for the Gargoyle, or the days when the Reform Club depressed Guy Burgess because of the absence of page boys.

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