A Spy Named Orphan by Roland Philipps review – the Enigma of Donald Maclean

An effective counter to ‘He-Man’ espionage history, this humane study emphasises the Cambridge spy’s strength of political feeling

For generations the history of espionage has been dominated by He-Men. Wrapping themselves in the union flag, trampling down subtleties, recycling one another’s hoary old half-truths, mixing wrathful indignation with false bonhomie à la Farage, they churned out their crude and misleading potboilers. It was a heavily gendered approach, with good blokes and bad, black and white, straight and bent.

Improvements began in this century with Miranda Carter’s superb life of Anthony Blunt, and then Gill Bennett’s biography of Desmond Morton. Now a new generation of male authors is learning from their example. Andrew Lownie’s study of the “Cambridge” spy Guy Burgess, and now Roland Philipps’s biography of Burgess’s fellow agent Donald Maclean, show that it is possible for men to write espionage history without patriotic bluster or imperialist nostalgia.

Maclean was born in 1913. His father was a solicitor who was active in Cardiff chamber of commerce and elected as a Liberal MP. His paternal grandfather was a Hebridean fisherman and shoemaker. Gaelic was his grandmother’s first language. In the 1930s his mother ran a knitting shop and jigsaw-puzzle lending library. Donald helped to fit it out. Despite the later allegations of establishment protection and cover-ups, he was never a “toff” by birth, tastes or assimilation.

Maclean gained a first in modern languages from Cambridge in the early 1930s. His open avowal of communism halted after his recruitment in 1934 as a penetration agent of the NKVD (later renamed KGB): his codename was Orphan. He joined the diplomatic service in 1935, and began remitting to Moscow intelligence he gleaned while working in key Foreign Office departments and in the Paris embassy. He perfected, Philipps says, “the spy’s most essential art of keeping himself hidden while remaining a model of conformity in plain sight”.

Britain and Stalinist Russia were close allies against Germany in 1941-45. Conservative leaders, including Churchill, hailed the Red Army and even Stalin as saviours. This enabled Maclean to rationalise his continuing betrayal of top secrets after he was sent in 1944 to the Washington embassy. As a diplomatic high-flier he had, as Philipps writes, “Access All Areas”, including dossiers on the atom bomb and the beginnings of the strategy of nuclear deterrence.

A crisis came when he was transferred to Cairo in 1948. He-Men historians venerate the epoch when world maps were covered in the red of the British empire. They seldom mention the fervent anti-colonialism of Maclean and other Cambridge spies as a motivation, but it deserves respectful consideration. Maclean’s loathing of the exploitation of developing world labour and resources would now be considered mainstream decency. In Cairo the strain of his double life and his repugnance at the racism, privileges and smugness of other Anglo-American officials drove him by 1950 to alcoholic violence, a nervous breakdown and an emergency repatriation to London for medical treatment.

Red Square, Moscow, in 1950.
Red Square, Moscow, in 1950. Photograph: Frederic Lewis/Getty Images

The decrypting of intercepted Soviet espionage messages brought him under MI5 investigation in 1951. He and Burgess absconded days before he was going to be detained for questioning, and did not reappear until a press conference in Moscow in 1956.

Maclean wrote one book in retirement, British Foreign Policy Since Suez (1970), which covered the years between 1956 and 1968. It is often described as boring verbiage by commentators who have clearly never read it. In chapters of mandarin elegance and precision, he examined Britain’s failure to adjust its self-importance in a post-colonial world, and made a coded plea for the Soviet Union to move towards glasnost. Philipps rightly calls the book’s arguments “compelling”.

In the early 50s London officials were cowed by the US’s accusations of lax security in government departments. They did not counter that security had been no better in Washington – the American equivalent of MI6, the OSS, had been riddled with Soviet agents. Part of London’s self-defence relied on a campaign of sexual scapegoating. Burgess had been openly gay, and faced the world, it was said, with his flies unbuttoned. The widespread story that Maclean was bisexual is false. As Philipps shows, his orientation from the age of 20 was towards women. Nevertheless, in order to placate J Edgar Hoover, the homophobic closeted head of the FBI, Whitehall made homosexuality a reason for withholding security clearance. The police launched a campaign of surveillance and entrapment that damaged tens of thousands of lives in the 50s and 60s, and drove men such as Alan Turing to suicide. He-Men writers have nevertheless upheld the fiction that Maclean was gay or bisexual, and encouraged half a century of homophobia.

Espionage history writing still has too much high-testosterone nationalism. The subject should be integrated into all studies of contemporary politics: intelligence and counter-espionage have been central to government since the late 40s, when the prime minister, Clement Attlee, and the head of MI5 counter-espionage talked almost daily. Philipps sets a great example by being punchy and hard-nosed in his handling of facts, but pliant, imaginative and humane in his understanding of motives and emotions.

A Spy Named Orphan: The Enigma of Donald Maclean is published by Bodley Head. To order a copy for £17 (RRP £20) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Richard Davenport-Hines

The GuardianTramp

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