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What more can be said about Kim Philby? This is a question I have been asked many times since I embarked on a book about the time Britain’s most notorious spy spent in Beirut. It was there that he was confronted, in 1963, on suspicion of being a Soviet agent, fleeing some weeks later to spend the next quarter of a century in Moscow.
It emerged only gradually that his treachery had caused the deaths of many Britons. As author John Le Carré put it: “The scale of Philby’s betrayal is barely calculable to anyone who has not been in the business. In Eastern Europe alone, dozens and perhaps hundreds of British agents were imprisoned, tortured and shot.”
For British people of a certain age, the Philby story provokes not only anger but a sense of embarrassment. It’s humiliating for those with any loyalty to Britain’s old boy network, a prime example of how with enough guile and drive, a ruthless deceiver can make mugs of their nice chap contemporaries. And there is plenty to be said for consigning the story to history.
But before we do so, are we sure we understand why he did what he did? I suspect not, and many in the media are happier to simply write him off and to go along with the uncomplicated assessment of his Foreign Office colleague John Sackur, who called Philby a “copper-bottomed bastard”. It is beyond dispute that he had a flair for mendacity.
Rudyard Kipling said of the character after whom Philby was named that: “What he loved was the game for its own sake – the stealthy prowl through the dark gullies”. But a talent for deception might turn someone into a seller of snake oil, or a telephone fraudster or, good heavens, a prime minister, but not the willing facilitator of so many deaths.
Yet rather than seeking to understand him, authors queue up to portray him as blacker even than the facts suggest. It is curious. The reaction of most people to Adolf Hitler is no longer anger but some attempt at rationalisation, yet trying to understand Philby is taken as trying to excuse him.
This points to the facet of his life that I suspect must have jarred with him most of all. Everyone – his colleagues in MI6, his wives, his Russian controllers – underestimated the strength of the commitment he made in the 1930s to fighting fascism and building what he naively believed would be a better world under communism. He was ideologically committed, yet in pragmatic, liberal, individualistic Britain, where doctrine and in some cases mere conviction are thought suspect, this was outlandish.
Stalin’s remark about Poland applied even better to Britain – trying communism there would be like trying to put a saddle on a cow. Few in the influential circles in which this gifted Cambridge graduate moved doubted that he had grown out of his youthful alien radicalism, yet as an angry young man, fired by the failure of the Labour Party in 1931 to stand up for its voters, he had visited Germany with his oldest friend (and later MI6 colleague) Tim Milne.
He had stood in market squares, heard Hitler speak and seen the power of the demagogue to move people. He had little faith that, with so many talking of never having to go through another world war, Britain would stand up to Nazism. Democratic, left of centre politics was destined to sell the pass, he concluded. Russia looked like the true bulwark against fascism.
Poet Cecil Day-Lewis once said: “No one who did not go through [the 1930s] can quite realise how much hope there was in the air then, how radiant for some of us was the illusion that man could, under Communism, put the world to rights.”
The fact that Philby excelled at deception does not disqualify him from sharing that dream. Indeed, as his recruiter Arnold Deutsch explained to him, that talent could be a valuable instrument towards achieving it, and it is the decision to go undercover that his British critics find so hard to forgive.
Couldn’t he, like the others who signed up to work for the USSR, have played the game like the rest of us. Couldn’t he have been honest enough to wear his politics on his sleeve and simply, publicly, join the Communist Party? No, because he could be more effective this way, rather than being – as he might have seen it – a lost oddball among the millions of naïve souls playing a democratic game. And setting aside the morality, who can say he was wrong to think covert means would achieve more? As Deutsch put it: “An avowed communist can never get near the real truth, but somebody moving as real bourgeois among bourgeois could.”
This is not to excuse Philby’s crimes. To understand, emphatically, is not to excuse. Spy writer Michael Smith says the number of British deaths Philby caused is incalculable. And what sort of monster could smilingly reassure east European democrats fleeing Stalin while sending them back to certain death? But looking beyond the understandably aggrieved bereaved, we are entitled to a little more than ritual denunciation.
I don’t claim to understand Philby, but the picture of him that emerges from his time in Beirut and afterwards – his deeply sentimental nature, his neediness, his unshakeable dogma and conceit, his tormenting inner conflicts – will surely be needed by anyone who aspires to. And I think I have uncovered some facts about both his relationship with his third wife Eleanor, and about what led to his departure from Beirut. I have, I believe, pushed the story forward. I hope those who retain some curiosity about him will agree.
James Hanning is author of ‘Love and Deception: Philby in Beirut’, which is published this week by Corsair