A Spy among Friends. Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

By Ben Macintyre.

This is one of those books where at the end of the day, I have little to say about it.

It tells the tale of Kim Philby who got a job with MI6 because of the Old Boy Network, but was, in fact, a Soviet agent. He was charming and charismatic, and an alcoholic. He was lucky that he was not rumbled several times, but was kicked out of MI6 after Burgess and Maclean defected only to be readmitted after the fuss died down. He was also so committed to the cause that the purges of the 1930s did not cause him to waver, and when he was approached by the Russians in Beirut after his period of exile, he resumed his work for them without, apparently, a second thought.

All the while, Nicholas Elliott, who had also been recruited through the Old Boy Network, idolised Philby and strongly defended him against allegations that he was the Third Man; but he also confronted Philby in Beirut when incontrovertible evidence of his treachery came to light and was the one who let him escape to Russia – probably to spare HMG’s blushes as well as MI6’s and Elliott’s own.

Macintyre tells a very readable story about Philby which had me ploughing through the entire book in one day. It tells Philby’s story, but like the two main protagonists, it has a gentlemanly tone, never degenerating into some subjective rant about what a vile traitor the man was.

I myself do not really understand why Philby would have spied for Soviet Russia because presented with the choice of Hitler and Stalin, I would’ve chosen neither, regarding both as equally inimical. Dictators only care about themselves, and one-party states are only paradises for the people who have the power and inevitably the money. Betrayal is not the problem, but rather the wilful preference for a far worse system; but perhaps there was a certain political naivety stemming from the inexperience of youth.

Curiously, in spite of his political leanings, Philby never really seems to have been a man of the people. He never sneaks off to the East End for a convivial evening with “real” people, although because of his job, that would have been a potentially risky proposition. It’s hard not to suspect that Philby would’ve been outwardly jovial, but inwardly horrified by the working classes at close range unless they were female and attractive.

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