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The Last Cambridge Spy: John Cairncross



Throughout the 1930s, Soviet ‘illegals’ – resident agents operating in Britain – carefully selected, recruited and nurtured emerging talent at Britain’s ancient universities of Cambridge and, to a lesser extent, Oxford. After their graduation these recruits forged highflying careers in the civil and intelligence services, all the while leaking key information to their Soviet handlers. Their elite education and backgrounds ensured that they were trusted implicitly and without question.

Crude assumptions and prejudices regarding class among Britain’s civil servants facilitated the worst intelligence failure in modern British history, and the Soviet Union ruthlessly exploited this blind spot. Over the course of the Cold War, as these agents were eventually discovered, a steady stream of embarrassing revelations emerged in the press. Of the agents that Moscow recruited in this fashion, five emerged who stood out from the rest. The quality and quantity of the material they supplied was unparalleled; they were, in the words of the former KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti or Committee for State Security) officer Yuri Modin, ‘the most valuable spies.’ These men, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby and John Cairncross have widely been labelled the ‘Cambridge Five’.

In the Second World War Cairncross worked shifts as a translator at Bletchley Park, where he hid top secret paperwork in his trousers. Contrary to some of the somewhat whimsical claims that the wartime inhabitants of Bletchley Park were the ‘geese who laid the golden egg and never cackled’, Stalin’s intelligence officials had enjoyed first-hand access to Britain’s most secret intelligence nerve-centre. Before that Cairncross had served in the Foreign Office, the Treasury and had been the personal private secretary to Lord Hankey, a member of the Cabinet. Afterwards he would serve in MI6, the Treasury and the Ministry of Supply.

Cairncross claimed that the Cambridge Five, such as it was, did not really exist and that he worked alone. Certainly he had known the other key players. He worked with Maclean in the Foreign Office and Philby in MI6, he had been in the same Cambridge college (Trinity) with Blunt and knew Burgess socially, but he claimed to be ignorant of their activities. He categorically denied being part of an intelligence cell with them. Further, he said that the charge that he had been an atomic spy was risible. He had been, he claimed, a very small fish in a very large pond.

Even after Cairncross was publically exposed as a spy he denied anything other than a brief and youthful flirtation with Communism while at Cambridge. However, it is difficult to accept that conclusion after examining his life. After all, he did spy for the Soviet Union. One of his later MI5 inquisitors, Peter Wright, claimed that even long after his espionage career was over, his Communist sympathies remained undiminished. However, this still leaves the question of why Cairncross found Communism attractive in the first place. Despite his careful efforts to underplay this issue in his autobiography, Cairncross grew up in the coalmining community of Lesmahagow in South Lanarkshire, which was beset by considerable social and economic hardship and upheaval. It is, therefore, imperative to at least consider the impact of episodes such as the post-First World War recession, the 1926 General Strike, and the Great Depression on his development.

Lastly, the rise of fascism in Europe had a profound influence on the mindset and political outlooks of Britain’s Soviet spies. In particular, they were concerned by the rise of Nazism in Germany and the threat it posed to peace, security, minority groups, both in Germany and the world more generally. The Cambridge Five seem to have viewed western democracies as lacking both the moral fibre and the ideological commitment to defeating such a menace; salvation could only lie with the Soviet Union. Certainly, although Kim Philby was already a Communist, it was only after a period aiding stricken refugees from Nazi Germany, while in Vienna in 1934, that he turned decisively towards the Soviet Union. Cairncross also saw Nazism first hand and this would prove a significant moment in his political development. It was this, in combination with his early awareness of the injustices of poverty and hardship, which would steer him towards the Soviet Union.

Perhaps more important though was the fact that Cairncross never fit in with the aristocratic and upper middle-class world that he would join. He was a difficult man, keen to argue and lacked the social and economic graces to succeed in an environment where born privilege ruled. He was propelled to reveal his country’s secrets, not only because of a contrarian personality, but because he felt rejected by the high society he had worked so hard to enter – a fact that he greatly resented.

Extracted from The Last Cambridge Spy  by Chris Smith

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