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Odd man out: The Cambridge spy who was left out in the cold

Former British Spy John Cairncross at Home (Photo by Pascal Parrot/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images) - Credit: Sygma via Getty Images

John Cairncross, the so-called ‘fifth man’ of the Cambridge spy circle, has long been overshadowed by the other, more colourful, four. Yet a new book suggests he is most intriguing. IVOR GABER reports.

John Cairncross, the fifth man of the Cambridge spy circle, was a spy like no other, as a recently published biography makes clear.

Forget James Bond, or even George Smiley, the story of John Cairncross is the story of a spy who wanted nothing more than to sit in an ivory tower writing about 17th century French literature.

Instead he found himself working inside the British ‘secret state’ passing on secrets to the Soviet Union.

So how did this little boy lost find himself in the pay of Moscow’s spy masters?

In Agent Molière: the life of John Cairncross, the Fifth Man of the Cambridge Spy Circle, Geoff Andrews, an Open University politics lecturer, throws new light on this mystery.

By tracing in detail Cairncross’s early life Andrews reveals how, despite selling secrets to the Soviets (and not for a great deal of money either) Cairncross saw himself not as a traitor to Britain, nor as secret agent working for the Soviet Union, but as a fighter against the growing threat of fascism in pre-war Europe.

This was in contrast to the other members of the Cambridge Spy Circle – Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt – who, unlike Cairncross, came from privileged backgrounds and were dedicated communists who (with the exception of Blunt) sought sanctuary in Russia after their treachery had been uncovered; not so Cairncross.

He was born in a small town in Lanarkshire, his father was an ironmonger and his mother a teacher. One of eight children, three of whom went on to become university professors, Cairncross was a star European languages and literature student at Glasgow, the Sorbonne and finally Cambridge.

He hoped to pursue a career in academia but failed to win a research scholarship at Cambridge.

According to his widow Gayle Gow (who now trains opera singers in Edinburgh) he believed that it was because he didn’t have the right connections – it might also have been because he could be difficult to get on with, a characteristic that was to haunt him throughout his career in government.

So instead he entered the Foreign Office having come top in the entrance exam. But his career there was less than sparkling, perhaps because of his personality or his increasing disillusionment with the government’s policy of appeasement.

Indeed, Cairncross believed that the top echelons at the Foreign Office were, at best, unconcerned about, or, at worst, enthusiasts for, the rise of the fascist powers in Europe, and saw defeating, or neutralising, the Soviet Union as their number one priority.

This, according to both Andrews and Cairncross’s widow, is what drew him into the world of cloak and dagger espionage.

Cairncross felt particularly strongly about the rise of fascism because, as a student during his vacation travels in pre-war Europe, he had seen it at first-hand in Germany, Austria and Italy.

Back at Cambridge he joined the student wing of the British Communist Party but unlike the other members of the spy ring he never joined the party itself.

In fact, to call it a ‘ring’ is, says Andrews, is somewhat misleading – the only thing that linked them was that they all went to Cambridge and, of course, spied for the Soviet Union.

Apart from Blunt, whom he despised, Cairncross did not know any of the other three at Cambridge and only encountered them during his time working for the government, for the most part unaware of their espionage activities.

At one stage Cairncross worked at the Bletchley Park code-breaking centre and was portrayed in The Imitation Game, the 2014 film starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, where he is seen threatening to blackmail Turing because of his homosexuality.

‘A complete fiction’ says Andrews. ‘He worked in a different hut and probably never met Turing.’ But it was at Bletchley that Cairncross performed his most valuable service for the Soviet Union, alerting them to German military manoeuvres prior to, and during, the decisive Battle of Kursk, fought in the summer of 1943.

At the time, Britain and the Soviet Union were allies and were supposedly sharing secrets, but Churchill didn’t want Stalin to know the extent to which Britain had broken Germany’s codes, and so the information passed to Russia was limited.

According to Andrews, Cairncross believed that in providing Moscow with this intelligence he was contributing to the war against fascism, rather than betraying his country.

Ironically, given their testy relationship, it was Blunt who inadvertently saved him from going to prison.

Cairncross confessed his spying to MI5 investigators in the 1960s but because the confession was not given under caution and took place in the United States – where Cairncross briefly held an academic post – it was not valid in British courts.

He was subsequently revealed to be the famed ‘fifth man’ a decade later by Sunday Times reporters who confronted him during his time in exile in Italy. ‘John was prepared to go to prison for what he did. He was surprised it never happened’ says Gayle Gow. She believes he was never prosecuted because any such prosecution would have revealed that Anthony Blunt, then the Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, had also been part of the spy ring.

This would have been one embarrassment too many for British intelligence, still reeling from revelations about how effectively it had been penetrated by the other members of the Cambridge spy ring.

Andrews’ book also reveals the other John Cairncross – the man of letters. Cairncross first came under suspicion in the early 1950s and was sacked from the civil service in 1952.

From that time on until his death in 1995 his life – mainly spent in Italy and France – was devoted to his scholarship, principally focussed on European literature and writing poetry.

He became an international authority on the works of the 17th century French playwrights Molière, Racine and Corneille, publishing eight books and translations about their works, though Cairncross was particularly drawn to Molière, whose iconoclasm and anti-establishment views greatly appealed to him.

But it would be wrong to see Cairncross as only a minor figure in terms of Soviet espionage activities in wartime and post-war Britain.

Because of the positions he held at the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office, MI6 and Bletchley Park he was in position to supply the Soviet Union with valuable intelligence over a number of years.

While Andrews and Gow might maintain that his motives were not borne of any loyalty to the communist ideal but to a profound anti-fascist commitment, Cairncross nonetheless betrayed his country – not that he necessarily saw it that way. Gow says he felt no great attachment to Scotland and even less to Britain.

He saw himself as an internationalist engaged in the fight against fascism, working with what he saw as an ally – the Soviet Union. What is less apparent, and Andrews remains as puzzled as did Cairncross’s friends on learning of his treachery, was why he continued passing information to Moscow in the years after the war had ended and once the Cold War was in full swing.

Gow, who only met him in the 1980s, suggests that Cairncross felt trapped: ‘How do you quit?’ she asks ‘You can’t just walk away’

Another explanation might be that it was as a result of his contempt for British intelligence, which allowed him to spy for so many years without coming under serious suspicion.

Although the more cynical might suggest that Cairncross continued because his devotion to the communist cause was far more significant than he himself admitted. But that is to paint in black and white the life of a very complex man, one who questioned himself more than he questioned others and who rarely, if ever, came up with answers.

Gow believes that to understand Cairncross one has to see him as he saw himself, as an outsider – whether at Cambridge, the Foreign Office, MI6, Bletchley and while living abroad. ‘From his vantage point outside the main framework of English society, he saw perhaps more sharply the impending danger of Hitler. Unlike the Cambridge Four, he was not a communist or an ideologue. He would have been happiest living as a scholar.’

And although the more cynical might think of him as one of Lenin’s ‘useful idiots’ perhaps Cairncross himself expressed his motives best in one of his poems…

Lastly, whatever be my creed,

Free me from blind conformism’s chains;

Intellectuals of the word unite!

You have nothing to lose but your brains.

Ivor Gaber is professor of political journalism at the University of Sussex and a former broadcaster

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