Book review: Enemies Within
Richard Davenport-Hines' account of spying in the 19th century is both provocative and stimulating.
This book has been published at a time when the news has been dominated by allegations concerning links in the past between Jeremy Corbyn and the Czech intelligence services and the confrontation with Putin over what appears to be the use of toxic nerve agent against a former Russian spy.
Richard Davenport-Hines is a prolific author and Enemies Within must be seen alongside his last book An English Affair which covered the Profumo scandal and in which the author was rightly critical over the exaggerated behaviour of the press and the police.
Now in Enemies Within he looks at the history of how the Soviet Union recruited a wide range of agents in Britain, Europe and America over a fifty year period. There have been many books looking at this subject, with a great deal of criticism of the British intelligence and security agencies. But Enemies Within isn’t a recycling of old material. Davenport-Hines writes that it is a set
of sketches in character – incidentally of individual character, but primarily a study of institutional character. The operative traits of boarding schools, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the Intelligence Division, the Foreign Office, M15, M16 and Moscow Centre are the book’s subjects.
Davenport-Hines argues that the Cambridge spies did their greatest harm to Britain, not during their clandestine espionage in 1934-1951, but in their insidious propaganda victories over British government departments after 1951. The undermining of authority, the rejection of expertise, the suspicion of educational advantages, and the use of the words “elite” and “”Establishment” as derogatory epithets transformed the social and political temper of Britain.
Rather controversially Davenport-Hines concludes that the results of the Burgess and Maclean defection reached their apotheosis when joined with other
forces in the referendum vote for Brexit on the 23 June 2016. Where the author makes a new claim is when he argues, quite rightly in the view of this reviewer, that the first priority of counter-espionage was to understand the organisation and techniques of their adversaries. The lowest priorities were arrests and trials.
Furthermore Davenport-Hines argues that during this period the supposed class exclusivity of the Foreign Office mattered little compared to gender exclusivity. The key to understanding the success of Moscow’s penetration agents in government ministries, the failures to detect them swiftly and the counter- espionage mistakes in handling them lies in sex discrimination rather than class discrimination. Masculine loyalties rather than class affinities are the key that unlocks the closed secrets of communist espionage in Britain.
Davenport-Hines argues that in the Soviet Union distrust between individuals and organs of state was actively encouraged and that their objective in penetrating Western democracies was to undermine the personal and institutional trust.
Enemies Within is a substantial piece of work but does not claim to cover all aspects of the Soviet penetration of British government and intelligence agencies or the attempts to counter them. As in his previous study An English Affair Davenport-Hines is very critical of the press and those journalists whose reputation was built on being so-called investigative journalists.
Some readers may conclude that he has been rather indulgent of the activities of the intelligence and security services and has exaggerated the recruitment and operations of communist agents. Between the 1920s and the 1970s many people living in democracies believed that only the Soviet Union and the Communist Party could fight right wing totalitarianism and fascism. What strikes the reader of Enemies Within or those who have read the authorised histories of M15 and M16 is the scale of the problem.
A provocative and stimulating read, Enemies Within has interesting observations that are relevant to the ongoing confrontation between Putin’s Russia and Western democracies.
Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland and books editor for Total Politics.
Enemies Within Communists, The Cambridge Spies and the Making of Modern Britain is published by William Collins.