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Why Spy? Roland Philipps on The Enigma of Donald Maclean

Posted on 27th April 2018 by Martha Greengrass

An early contender for the year's finest non-fiction read, A Spy Named Orphan is Roland Philipps mesmeric account of the life of Donald Maclean, star diplomat, establishment pillar and perfect spy. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, Philipps describes how he became drawn into the intriguing double life of Britain's most damaging traitor.

Donald Maclean had always been a figure in the background of my life: one grandfather had been his boss in the Foreign Office, the last public servant to see him in that august institution; the other was a lifelong Communist whose patriotism survived knowledge of Stalin’s Purges, the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the 1956 invasion of Hungary – he and I spoke about his beliefs after the collapse of Communism in 1990 and how they had managed to hold firm, just as Maclean’s had.  My career has been in publishing, and one of the names frequently mentioned early on was that of a family friend, Alan Maclean of Macmillan, the defector’s brother who had to find alternative means of employment to the Foreign Office after his brother’s flight to the Soviet Union.  

Donald would probably have remained in the background except that a friend mentioned in May 2015 that the Foreign Office and MI5 files were finally due to be released into the National Archives.  My interest was reawakened: why had these records been kept secret so long past the usual thirty and fifty year guidelines?  I could only think to protect Melinda Maclean, Donald’s wife, but she had died in 2010.  As I read the existing material on Maclean, including contemporary newspaper reports following his defection and on his reappearance five years later in a Moscow hotel room, it occurred to me that official embarrassment might be the reason for the delay.  Was it possible that the failure of what was to become known as ‘the establishment’ following the debacle of the defection was still reverberating all these decades later, to the point where the very words ‘the establishment’ are hardly likely to be said approvingly today?

What I found in the files was both riveting and extraordinary.  There was such seismic shock at the defection that the authorities dug back through everything they could find on his upbringing and talked to everyone he had known at Cambridge and after.  The MI5 files were a thorough record of his life, the Foreign Office papers of his career, and gave a shape to the book and its central questions: how could a man born to a family that seemed themselves part of the ruling establishment (his father was a Cabinet Minister who died when Maclean was twenty), who got a first-class degree from Cambridge and passed the excruciatingly difficult Foreign Office examinations with flying colours before embarking on a stellar diplomatic career, betray some of his country’s greatest secrets before and during the Second World War and, most treacherously, in the early, terrifying days of the Cold War?  How could such a staunch patriot also be a gifted traitor?  And how was he allowed to get away with his treachery after a pre-war Russian defector and a near-miraculous brilliant piece of American codebreaking seemed to point straight at him?

The answers to these questions lie at the heart of A Spy Named Orphan.  They took me down some unexpected routes, many of which were so intimately related to the backdrop of the turbulent middle years of the twentieth century that Maclean began to stand as a character carried along by the tides of history, as well as one who affected them.   His family background and his father’s rigid belief system were crucial; his schooling at a remarkable liberal establishment surprisingly gave him the very tools necessary for a successful spy; Cambridge in the early 1930s was a left-wing proving ground as reports came in of the brutal rise of fascism in Europe and the Hunger Marchers from the north of England struggled through on their way to protest in London.  Yet thousands of Maclean’s contemporaries, and some of his great friends, were left-wing at university before passing into the roles expected of them and did not turn to espionage.  It was when I looked into his recruitment by a gifted and charismatic Viennese psychologist who analysed the traits necessary in a traitor, and in so doing produced a spy ring that eventually penetrated the highest echelons of British life, that the full picture fell into place.

My acquaintance with Alan Maclean’s family gave me access to an unlikely, seemingly scrappy document that told a radically different story about his last day in Britain before he disappeared for five years.  And in so doing opened a new window into his marriage and his wife’s critical role in his life.  Finally, with only days to go before the book went to press, I found thirty pages written by Donald Maclean whilst he was terminally ill that read like notes to a future biographer (something he always resisted, in fact).  He wrote about his loathing for spying, but why he was compelled to do it, and the difference he thought he had made to world affairs.  He spoke of the impact his actions had had on his family and his hopes for the future.  It was extraordinary to get his unfettered voice at last, away from the dissembling of his double life and the knowledge that his every letter from Moscow would be pored over by the authorities.  This was the final key to the enigma at the centre of this troubled, brilliant and, to me, in many ways admirable figure. 

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