Third Man Still Rules OK
He doesn’t g o away. Years go by and up he pops again. Suddenly we are awash with Philby mania again. Ben Macintyre’s The Spy Among Friends” storms into the charts and begat a two part tv show. Down at the Trafalgar Studios “Another Country” plays with the delightful proposition that foul play at top public schools led the boys turning against their country and class. The weekend saw a conference dedicated to the Cambridge spies starring a talk gave the KGB while in exile after 1963. He died in 1988.
Me? I cant get enough, not only all the above but reading at the moment the excellent The Untouchable by John Banville which looks at this compulsive story from the educated perspective of Anthony Blunt. No man had a less appropriate surname.
But I always feel that a couple of points are often forgotten as we dive back into this great story. Basically MI6 was for a good twenty years all but run by the KGB. We know that certain agents lost their lives because of this fact and Philby’s betrayal of CIA secrets. But in the end whose Empire fell apart.?Did capitalism wither and die or did the USSR implode? OK so they knew all our intelligence secrets, they knew what was going on in the sewers of East Berlin, the goings on in Prague and Budapest, so what? This was game played between two intelligence services with no doubt wins and losses on each side (is that you Smiley)but of no real consequence to the outside world.
MI6’s incompetence was underlined by the fact that when they finally got a confession out of Philby in Beirut in 1963 the tape recording was useless as traffic noise drowned out the voices!
In fact in Macintyre’s other brilliant book Double Cross on how MI6 ran all the German agents throughout Europe during the war and made Hitler believe, even after the landings had started, that the real invasion was coming in at Calais. In this book he spells out that one of the reasons was that the Abwer, the German secret service lapped up for years phony information was that a) the information was brilliantly place and timed and b) the Germans were so corrupt,incompetent and fearful of their jobs that if they admitted they were being duped then it was no more birthdays for them. And of course that went for MI6 and Philby, while they refused to believe that such a good fellow could being playing for the other team.
Years ago I did a story about some City scam. Every major finance house but one had been taken in. I asked the director of the odd one out why he hadn’t followed. Didn’t like his tie or the way he wore it said the old fart. He was right but MI6 always liked Philby’s tie and the way he wore it. And they were wrong. Very wrong.
And then there is the personal motivation. Was it some slight at school, some snub by some prefect or some captain of sports that sent them on the track of deception. Or was it like many the simple choice between the wars Communism or Fascism. And then once set it was difficult to dismount. Especially if you were of the superior type and you loved the idea that whatever anyone else felt you had something on them that they never knew. We all know men and women who enjoy secret affairs, the duplicity the other life. At the heart of this personality lies the pleasure in feeling superior ,not being run of the mill and being the only one who knows. Information is power, secret information magnifies that power and when it has a bearing on a relationship the one with the secret has every reason to feel rather superior. He or she is getting away with it, beating the system.
Philby may have escaped to Russia but his 25 years exile were pretty miserable reading Wodehouse and Dick Francis and pining after kippers, marmalade and mustard. The year after he died the Berlin wall fell. But long before that Philby had realised he had not fought all those years for a workers paradise. He after all wasn’t stupid, just superior.