Book review: Guy Burgess — The Spy Who Knew Everyone

The infamous spies who infiltrated Britain in the 1950s and ‘60s came from the wealthy upper classes and went unchallenged in their roles, writes Neil Robinson.

Stewart Purvis and Jeff Hulbert,

Biteback, £25

THE Cambridge spy ring has an uncanny hold on the British imagination. 

It is more than 60 years since the ring’s first members, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, defected to the USSR. Kim Philby followed Burgess and Maclean into Soviet exile a decade later.

The 1980s saw the public unmasking of Anthony Blunt as a member of the ring. 

In between Philly’s defection and the public revelation of Blunt’s treachery, discussions of the identity of the ‘fourth man’ (and the possibility of a fifth, sixth, and more) were endless.

The reason for British fascination with the Cambridge spies — and the reason that they’ve been so often portrayed on film, stage, and in books by John Le Carre, John Banville, Alan Bennett, and many others — is Britain’s obsession with social class.

All of the Cambridge spies came from wealthy, upper class families. Burgess, Maclean, and Philby went to Cambridge via Eton. 

Blunt was a third cousin of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. 

He finished his career as an art historian as surveyor of the Queen’s pictures even after his treachery had been discovered by MI5.

At Cambridge they were members of student societies such as the elitist Apostles discussion club. 

After graduation they smoothly entered the heart of the British establishment, taking up government posts in the Foreign Office (Maclean), writing for The Times (Philby), working for the BBC (Burgess), or becoming Cambridge dons (Blunt).

Eventually all of them but Maclean ended up working for British intelligence, Philby for MI6 and Burgess and Blunt for MI5. Maclean stayed with the Foreign Office, where he was later joined by Burgess.

Their membership of the British elite made the Cambridge spies traitors to their class as well as to their country and democracy. 

Almost as bad for the establishment as this personal betrayal was the questions that it raised.

Was the establishment as corrupt as the spies were? 

Did their betrayal of the establishment show the hollowness of the British elite’s claim to rule, highlighting its laziness, complacency, and hypocrisy? 

Were the Cambridge spies tolerated and protected because of their social class?

Stewart Purvis and Jeff Hulbert’s study of Guy Burgess’s life and career points towards the affirmative in both instances.

The Cambridge spies were born into an age of change and uncertainty. British influence in the world was in decline as they came of age after the First World War. 

The liberalism of the early 20th century had not managed to prevent war and seemed to have few solutions to post-war problems.

The choice to side with the Soviet Union was an easy one for Burgess and many other privileged students. 

Communism promised active resistance to the fascism that was growing in Europe. 

The USSR looked economically dynamic compared to capitalist economies fractured by depression and war debts. 

Marxism broke with the failing conventions of religion and respectable society in ways that the far right generally did not.

Spying for the Soviet Union, becoming an agent of Comintern, the Communist International that was a front for Soviet intelligence in the 1930s, put the gilded youth of Cambridge on the right side of history in a way that the bankrupt old order and the ruling class of which they were scions could not.

How much of Burgess’s decision to be a spy was thought through and how much it was grandstanding is hard to tell. 

It was probably a bit of both.

He was committed to Marxism, but also wanted to be at the centre of things. 

Being at the centre of a conspiracy, and one that could be justified to one’s self and one’s peer group as morally right, satisfied Burgess’s sense of drama and self-importance.

Ironically, Burgess’s success as a spy depended on the tolerance and social solidarity of the elite that he was rebelling against. Burgess would not have got far as a spy, or anything else, if he had been from a different social background.

Burgess was an alcoholic, a well-known homosexual at a time when homosexuality was criminalised, poorly disciplined, a gossip, and a name dropper. 

Derided for being dirty and uncouth, he could be charming, but was as often as not boorish, indiscreet, and insensitive.

Not surprisingly, Burgess bounced from job to job, often in trouble and leaving for some new post under a cloud. He was saved from unemployment by the old boy network. 

As the subtitle of Purvis and Hulbert’s book has it, Burgess “‘knew everybody”. 

Connections from Eton and Cambridge, and from what Maurice Bowra, the Oxford don, notorious networker, and acquaintance of Burgess, called the “homintern”, the network of establishment gay men, kept him in work at the heart of the establishment.

Burgess did most damage as a spy while at the Foreign Office during the Second World War and immediately afterwards. 

Working as a ministerial aide and in the press department, he had access to a wide range of material, all of which he duly passed to Moscow. 

No one checked on his activities even as his behaviour became more erratic. This was par for the course: No one had vetted him thoroughly when he had worked for the BBC or MI5 either.

Many people were aware that Burgess had been a communist at Cambridge but his past was written off or ignored by his bosses and the security service. 

His errant behaviour was not seen as a security threat but as proof he was so unreliable that no one would think of recruiting him as a spy. 

His numerous sexual exploits were accepted within his social milieu, which was prepared to condone behaviour in one of its own class that it refused to accept in society as a whole.

Burgess was never caught as a spy. Even after he defected there was little actual evidence of his betrayal. 

His defection was forced by Maclean’s imminent arrest and mental breakdown. Burgess had to accompany Maclean as he fled to Eastern Europe to ensure he made it to exile. 

Whether Burgess then decided to stay, too, or was forced to by the Soviets, is unclear.

Whatever the reason for his defection, Burgess kept up his links to the elite he had betrayed. 

Indeed, he seems to have had more contact with members of the English upper classes while in Moscow than he did with Soviet society. 

The Soviets indulged him as a former agent, but they don’t seem to have liked or trusted him and he definitely did not like them.

Purvis and Hulbert are forensic in their attention to the details of Burgess’s life and crimes.

What sticks in the memory from their book is not, however, a tale of daring espionage.

This is not a James Bond story. 

The lasting impression from the book is of the failures of the British elite, their parochial self-regard and ineptness. 

It is no wonder that one of them invented James Bond not long after Burgess defected.

If you can’t deal with the modern world and its evils, invent a myth that says you can and hope that no one notices the difference.


Their paths first crossed in the classroom 13 years ago for childhood sweethearts Emma Murphy and Kevin Leahy.Wedding of the Week: Lessons in love started in the classroom for childhood sweethearts

“This podcast features something never previously heard — anywhere, from anyone — the confession tape of an Irish serial killer.'Podcast Corner: Chilling story of an Irish serial killer

Children’s creativity is inspiring, says Helen O’Callaghan.Inspiring creativity: Kids on call for climate essay

'I came here for one thing, and that's to shine. That's why I'm wearing all this sparkly shit.'Review: Mick Flannery and Valerie June, Right Here Right Now festival, Cork Opera House

More From The Irish Examiner