Belfast Telegraph

Why we will never get to know the real Kim Philby

Kim Philby died an alcoholic in a shabby Moscow flat in 1988. Long before then, he had lost the golden boy aura, the gilded good looks and charm and had simply become the unadorned traitor he was.

A quick Google search reveals two contrasting images. The post-war sophisticate, handsome, privileged, used to exclusive London drinking clubs and talk of the cricket and then, snapped six years after his defection to the USSR, the hollow-eyed face in the Red Square crowd, utilitarian flat cap and shabby overcoat.

Is that the onset of disillusion in his eyes? The contrast is what makes Philby endlessly fascinating. All these years on, we cannot get Philby, or indeed any of the other three (or four?) members of the Cambridge spy ring, who treacherously wormed their way into British intelligence and diplomatic circles and told all they knew to the Soviet regime of mass-murdering Joseph Stalin.

Philby was the king of the double agents. His information led to the deaths of hundreds of British agents and anti-communist fighters. Dozens of books have been written about him and I'm reading the latest now.

Ben Macintyre's A Spy Among Friends is a rattling good read. But for all Macintyre's skill as a journalist and for all the page-turning qualities of his book, even he cannot remove the Philby mask.

What he can do is set out what happened. It is a sensational story worthy of that devalued adjective. Read how this son of privilege and public school went to Cambridge because he was in the right social class and found his way into the secret service thanks to Britain's "old boy" network.

Merit counted for little here. And how that horrendous, class-ridden system failed to ask questions about Philby's unhidden radicalisation at university.

While many people in the 1930s embraced communism in response to the rise of fascism in Europe, few took it as far as Philby. And yet, for 40 years as he rose through the ranks to become MI6's head of anti-Soviet operations, he was meeting KGB spies in London parks, handing over thousands of documents.

Even as evidence began to pile up, the dim-witted toffs who ran our security services wouldn't believe it because Philby was "one of us".

His defection in 1963 was a huge coup for the Soviets and a shattering blow for Britain. Alongside the Beatles, dope and the rise of free-loving counter-culture, the sight of Philby being paraded by the Soviets rocked the cosy certainties of class-bound, stiff-upper-lipped Albion.

If he were alive today, though, I suspect the master spy would question how much has really changed. Many comprehensive school boys (or girls) in MI6 these days? I doubt it.

For all his murderous treachery, it is difficult not to find oneself fascinated by Philby. One keeps being drawn back to that picture in Moscow taken surreptiously in the mid-1970s, the bags under the eyes formed through years of deceit and swimming pools of conscience-erasing spirits, London's gin replaced by Moscow's vodka, the thinnest of smiles, the dreary street backdrop a million miles from White's gentlemen's club in St James's.

Was it all worth it, Kim? That dogged adherence to a philosophy that had long ago turned to dictatorship and genocide. And from so unlikely a candidate for treason.

As I finished the book in two sittings over the weekend, what seemed clear to me was that Philby's story will forever be one of the most riveting in British history, but Philby himself will always remain missing from it.

Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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