Friday, 19 April 2019

Traitor was a true believer

Roland Philipps
Henley Town Hall

IN 1951 Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess absconded to Moscow just as they were about to be unmasked as Soviet spies; a few years later they were followed by Kim Philby.

Each man had held a senior position in the Foreign Office or the security services. Almost three-quarters of a century has passed but the fascination of these spy stories seems only to grow stronger.

Philby has been exhaustively covered, Burgess was the recent subject of a major biography, and now Roland Philipps has produced his debut book, A Spy Named Orphan, on Donald Maclean.

Philipps, a publishing editor for more than 30 years and a friend of Maclean’s brother, Alan, talked with journalist Michael Smith about the spy’s background, his secret life and his motivation.

It was a fascinating glimpse into a world where, provided you were from the right family, school, college or club, your good faith and trustworthiness went unquestioned. Donald Maclean was, simply, “one of us”.

Yet he came from a relatively modest background, and Philipps speculated that one reason for his betrayals might have been class resentment. He was also the most ideological of the “Cambridge spies”, never losing his belief in the communist system.

Maclean’s senior position in the Foreign Office and his postings in Washington and Cairo during and after the war years enabled him to pass over key secrets to the Russians, including telegrams between Churchill and Roosevelt.

Even when he fell under suspicion, MI5 played by its own hidebound rules, knocking off surveillance after six in the evening and at weekends. (Maclean fled on a weekend.)

Roland Philipps revealed that Maclean’s American wife, Melinda, once thought of as an innocent dupe, was probably in on the secret all the time. He also talked of the pain caused to Alan Maclean by his brother’s treason.

In addition, one of Philipps’s grandfathers had been a lifelong communist while the other was for a time Maclean’s boss at the FO.

This was a highly informative and absorbing talk from an author whose connections, knowledge and expertise make him uniquely qualified as Maclean’s biographer.

Philip Gooden

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