In 1857, the Christian socialist Thomas Hughes published Tom Brown’s Schooldays, a bestselling novel about a boys’ boarding school, featuring a cowardly bully called Flashman who is eventually expelled in drunken disgrace. At some point in the late 1960s, journalist and ex-soldier George MacDonald Fraser realised that Flashman was the most interesting character in Hughes’s novel, and reinvented the Rugby tearaway as an imperial war hero. The Flashman adventures ran to twelve instalments and followed Flashman the man through the major battles and upheavals of the British Empire. Still an abject craven, Flashman hides, cowers, pleads, gets drunk, whores around and sells other people out for his own freedom – and still, somehow, ends up covered in glory. At one point, he reflects:
When I think of the number of eminent men and women, who have taken me at face value, and formed a high opinion of my character and qualities, it makes me tremble for my country’s future. I mean, if they can’t spot me as a wrong ‘un, who can they spot?
They certainly couldn’t spot Kim Philby. Educated at Westminster and Trinity, decorated in the Spanish Civil War, section chief of MI6 Washington, head of anti-Soviet intelligence, thirty-year veteran of the Service, Kim Philby OBE was charming, talented and popular. He was also a Soviet spy and cold-blooded traitor. How the two sides of this head coexisted is the subject of Ben MacIntyre’s extraordinary biography.
‘The soil that grew Kim Philby,’ Macintyre writes, ‘had produced a conventional upper-class public-school Englishman’. And MacIntyre provides a startling look at the conventions of this class. Philby’s best friend Nicholas Elliott, who was duped by Philby for three decades, was educated at a school that made Flashman’s Rugby look like Hogwarts:
Durnford School in Dorset [was] a place with a tradition of brutality extreme even by the standards of British prep schools: every morning the boys were made to plunge naked inbto an unheated pool for the pleasure of the headmaster, whose wife liked to read improving literature out loud in the evenings with her legs stretched out over two small boys, while a third tickled the soles of her feet. There was no fresh fruit, no toilets with doors, no restraint on bullying, and no possibility of escape. Today, such an institution would be illegal: in 1925 it was considered ‘character-forming’.
I mention this only to illustrate how nonconventional, how wild and dangerous, full of bird-eating plants and poisonous quicksand, that English topsoil really was. You kind of wonder how the British upper class got anything done after an education like Durnford. And it puts the Trinity bull sessions into sharp relief: ‘Late at night, over copious drinks, in panelled rooms, students argued, debated, tried on one ideological outfit or another, and, in a small handful of cases, embraced violent revolution.’ The idea of hardcore oppositionists coming out of respectable families isn’t as contradictory as it seems. A recent study by Queen Mary London found that wealth and good education were risk factors for sympathies towards radical terrorism, with poverty, discrimination and mental health issues were barely represented.
What’s striking in this age of CRB checks and psychometric evaluations is just how unprofessional the secret service was in Philby and Elliott’s day. In an age where the intelligence services did not officially exist, entry and promotion depended on who one knew, who one’s father was, where one had been to school, whose club one belonged to – the Deputy Chief of MI6 backed Philby purely because ‘I knew his people’. (Spy games back then seem also to be drenched in a ton of booze: Philby himself made Don Draper look like a model of moderation.) Things happened because of signals and gestures, intonation, phrasing, tradecraft, arrangement and code – the Enigma of the English class system. When Philby made up his mind to become a communist spy, he simply asked his supervisor, a Marxist economist, how best he could ‘devote his life to the communist cause.’ The supervisor hooked him up with a Comintern agent in Paris. Simple as.
‘What you describe as ‘amateurism’, sir,’ Lord Darlington says in The Remains of the Day, is what I think most of us still prefer to call ‘honour’. Many good men and women went into the ground because of MI6’s unprofessional honour. MacIntyre draws up Philby’s butcher’s bill: the German anti-Communist Catholics whose names were disclosed by anti-Nazi defectors and then supplied to Moscow by Philby: the US agents sent behind the Iron Curtain into deathtraps set up by the Kremlin and facilitated by Philby: the NKVD defector Konstantin Volkov intercepted by Philby, others, nameless others. This, MacIntyre is saying, is the reality: the illusion was parties in Tangiers, the ballroom of the Park Hotel, ‘Boo, Boo, Baby, I’m a Spy’, decadent suspicion, extramarital affairs… the reality was nasty covert little murders by forgotten dirt roads and in windowless rooms. After Philby had been exposed and ‘done a fade’ to Moscow, Nick Elliott got a letter from his old friend, in his old insouciant tones: ‘I would have got in touch with you earlier, but I thought it better to let time do its work on the case… What a pity we shall never be able to gather à trois at Pruniers!’
‘Put some flowers for me on poor Volkov’s grave,’ Elliott hit back.
One question remains: why did he do it? According to MacIntyre, Philby ‘wore his convictions so lightly they were all but invisible. With the £14 he was awarded for his degree, he bought the collected works of Karl Marx. But there is no evidence he studied them in depth, or even read them.’ What motivated Philby, MacIntyre said, was something deeper and yet more prosaic and fatally English.
In a brilliant lecture written in 1944, C.S. Lewis described the fatal British obsession with the ‘inner ring’, the belief that somewhere, just beyond reach, is an exclusive group holding real power and influence, which a certain sort of Englishman constantly aspires to find and join. Westminster School and Cambridge University are elite clubs; MI6 is an even more exclusive fellowship; working secretly for the NKVD within MI6 placed Philby in a club of one, the most elite member of a secret inner ring. ‘Of all the passions,’ wrote Lewis, ‘the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.’