Friday 26 December 2014

Blunt and Philby files highlight how good British class system is at deceit

Gerard O'Regan

Published 11/01/2014 | 02:30

Kim Philby, pictured in 1955 at the British Embassy in Washington. Photo: PA.
Kim Philby

The British upper classes -- including the inner circle around the royal family -- went all out to cover up the fact that some of their own were for many years working as spies for the Russians, during a time when communism was a dire threat to the free world.

As one official remarked, it would be "unEnglish'' to put undue pressure on those under serious suspicion of betraying their country, so as to try and force them to confess their wrongdoing.

This and much more is contained in a series of once classified highly secret documents released last week in London under the 50-year rule.

The papers throw further light on one of the most remarkable spy rings in human history, and more especially the intriguing life and times of Kim Philby. He was the enigmatic double agent who, operating at the heart of the British establishment, supplied secrets to the Russians for many years.

There is no doubt that some of the information he provided led to the killing of British agents working under cover abroad.

But as the "unEnglish'' comment suggests, many of his compatriots found it impossible to accept that a man of his social background would spy for their most dangerous enemy. It is the main reason why he got away with so much for so long.

Philby was born in 1912 into a well-heeled and well-connected family. It had one unusual link with Ireland, when his father -- who was a highly respected expert on the Arab world -- brought a Saudi prince to, of all places, Wexford in 1919.

The somewhat bizarre point of the trip was that they would try and shoot some wild game, and a local solicitor, MJ O'Connor, played host. It seems he did help both Philby Snr and the prince to enjoy some of the pleasures of outdoor life in pre-independence Ireland.

Meanwhile, young Kim, went to the elite Westminster School, and then on to Cambridge university, graduating in 1933.

But this was the middle of the so-called hungry '30s when the great depression was causing untold misery for millions in both Britain and many other developed countries. The inability of governments to alleviate the grinding poverty, which blighted the lives of so many, had a huge effect on Philby as a young man.

He became convinced the tried and tested capitalist system should be overthrown. He wanted it replaced by the communist ideal -- where all would be shared between rich and poor.

And as far as he was concerned, Stalin's Soviet Union was where this ideal was best put into practice. Philby, on a visit to central Europe, fell in love with and married a young communist Austrian woman. Both of them had watched with horror the growth of fascism and the coming to power of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. She would become the first of his four wives.

Using the mask of ostensibly working for British intelligence, he offered his services to the KGB, and over the years supplied his bosses in Moscow with an endless stream of vital political, military and economic secrets.

But in early 1963, realising his cover was about to be blown, he made his escape to Russia. There he would remain for the next 25 years until his death at the age of 76.

Philby was the key figure in a remarkable spy ring dubbed the Cambridge Five -- essentially a group of well-bred Englishmen who became enthralled with the Soviet system in the 1930s. Another infamous member of this quintet was Anthony Blunt, who was a third cousin of the late Queen Mother.

For many years he was also an overseer for the royal family's multi-million-pound art collection. But when following a bizarre set of circumstances he confessed his treachery in 1964, it was hushed up by all concerned.

Those anxious to 'protect' the royal reputation were particularly concerned that sleeping dogs should be let lie. Eventually, Blunt was outed following questioning of the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in parliament in 1979.

Blunt's explanation of his spying years, and his close involvement with Philby and others in the Cambridge Five, was vague and unsatisfactory.

But his only punishment was to be stripped of his knighthood and an end put to his involvement with the royal art collection. He was allowed to fade into obscurity and died a recluse.

For his part, Philby lived out his final years in Moscow comforted by his last wife, who happened to be Russian. They had married in 1971 when he was 59 and she was 38. He was given an apartment and pension -- a comfortable standard of living by the country to whom he had given so many secrets.

The ever-grateful Soviets even made efforts to supply him with some of his specially requested luxuries -- tweed jackets, scotch whiskey and Frank Sinatra records -- in the rather austere Russia of the time.

There are those who maintain he became disillusioned with communism during the final years of his life -- although he always denied this. And he did not live to see the Berlin Wall come down in 1989 -- the ultimate testament to the failure of the communist system he had so much believed in.

He had died the previous year, and is buried in a Moscow graveyard, to remain forever more in his adopted homeland.

The release last week of those once-top-secret files will only add to the fascination many have with a man aptly described as a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

But these papers also show that, even when it comes to betraying queen and country, the British class system is still capable of great delusion and deceit.

Irish Independent

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