We have had a lot of discussion in recent years about ‘The Establishment’ – its power and privileges, indeed on whether it is even meaningful term - but a new book about the spy Guy Burgess by Stewart Purvis (once Editor in Chief of ITN) and Jeff Hulbert, sheds some rather startling new light on just how unreliable class ridden Britain turned out to be.
Guy Burgess really was the man who had everything. Born into a privileged family, he was educated at Eton and Cambridge and went on to rise through the ranks of MI6 and the Foreign Office. Along the way, he became a communist and started to work for the KGB. He was never, in fact, formally unmasked but fled to Moscow to help his fellow spy Donald Maclean, who was about to be exposed.
If you think you already know everything about just how narrow, nasty and unreliable the ruling class was at times, then this book may still shock you. For starters, how many diplomats in the Foreign Office in 1919 do you think might have been educated at Eton?
Ten percent? Twenty? Thirty?
No, a staggering seventy-five percent.
If you had the golden ticket, the world was your oyster and this book uncovers just how many people Burgess knew and just how far and wide he was able to roam in the corridors of power. It reckons he knew at least ten cabinet ministers and many other leading figures in the world of culture and the arts besides. There are some interesting new documents.
This is a letter he wrote to Clarissa Churchill (whom he called a former girlfriend, though he was gay), niece of the famous Prime Minister, after her marriage to another huge Tory figure, Anthony Eden:
This is another he wrote to the Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft (who was an old friend of his from Eton) after his defection to Moscow, pleading for his bank account to be unfrozen. You will note it has an interesting ‘stuff you’ P.S. in the form of confirmation he was still able to access his tailor and shirt-maker, not to mention Fortnum and Mason.
The book also sheds interesting new light in other areas. It suggests that far from being the ‘Cambridge Five,’ there may in fact have been eleven KGB spies or recruiters from two Cambridge colleges alone (Trinity and Trinity Hall). It also argues that, whilst the Establishment might have been completely useless at detecting spies in its midst – on the grounds that an old Etonian couldn’t possibly be a traitor – it was much more effective at orchestrating a cover up.
In fact, MI5 never had enough evidence to prosecute Burgess and its leaders lived in fear that he might choose to come back and embarrass them all. Consequently, it orchestrated a ruthless campaign to dissuade him from ever getting on a plane.
This is a letter Burgess wrote to an old friend (revealing in a number of ways of his state of mind) from Moscow.
And this is the MI5 file which discusses how Anthony Blunt (MI5 officer and also KGB spy) was encouraged to write (on the lavatory, bizarrely) a letter urging Burgess never to return.
The book is an engaging read and, if you are interested, you can find it here.