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Donald Maclean with his family in the 1950s. His wife Melinda knew his secret from the start (©Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

It is hard to believe that there is more to say about the Cambridge Five, the  clutch of communists at the heart of the British establishment who spied for the Soviet Union more than half a century ago. Yet they still fascinate. Partly it is because they make a terrific, page-turning detective story. How did they get away with it for so long? How were they unmasked? How did three of them escape? What really motivated them?

For me, who lived in the Soviet Union in the 1980s and tried to scrutinise the serene, almost smiling features of Kim Philby as the lid was closed on his coffin at his funeral, the puzzle is not so much what inspired them to betray their country in the beginning, when many clever, privileged idealists saw communism as a noble cause, as whether they truly went on believing in it. After all, it must have been clear to the dimmest observer, especially if you had seen its workings up close, that the Soviet model was an irredeemable disaster based on mass murder.

And then there is the puzzle of trying to fathom which of the quintet did most damage to the West and which of them went to his grave with a truly good conscience. As a frivolous extra riddle, one might also speculate as to which of them would have been most fun to have dinner with.

Roland Philipps, an admired publisher and first-time author, has written a ripping tale, tapping into a bundle of newly released papers from the archives of the British Foreign Office and a wodge of other fairly new sources, some of them culled from less noticed books, including chunks of material purloined from the KGB. Though serious historians of espionage will still argue over this, he makes a strong case that Donald Maclean was, from the Soviet point of view, the most valuable of the five. He also makes a case that, though he was a psychological mess, he was the least ignoble of them.

The starting point was a daddy complex. Sir Donald Maclean, the spy’s father, was a repressively high-minded teetotal Presbyterian Scottish Liberal who led the parliamentary opposition after the first world war and was later a member of Ramsay MacDonald’s national government, dying when young Donald was 21. The future traitor had been a golden boy, handsome, scholarly and athletic, at Gresham’s, a school that was then an odd mixture of progressive and repressive, where you had to take an oath against “impurity”. One of his closest friends there was James Klugmann, who went on with Maclean to Cambridge, where they both became communists. But whereas Klugmann never concealed his beliefs, even while serving in the Special Operations Executive during the war, Maclean had to bury them, once another Cambridge friend of his, Kim Philby, had had him recruited into the Soviet secret service in 1934, shortly before he joined the British diplomatic service the next year.
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July 27th, 2018
10:07 PM
Interesting read. I have often wondered what became of these individuals and what motivated them. I intend to read this book. Thanks for the article.

July 27th, 2018
7:07 PM
Solzhenitsyn was like minded to Maclean? Ridiculous.

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