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Enemies Within by Richard Davenport-Hines

Enemies Within by Richard Davenport-Hines
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In his latest book, the biographer and historian Richard Davenport-Hines offers an “exhaustive, and occasionally exhausting, chronicle of spies in Britain”, said Craig Brown in The Mail on Sunday. He begins in the 16th century, with Queen Elizabeth I’s “spymaster” Sir Francis Walsingham. It isn’t long, though, before his focus comes to rest on “our old friends/enemies”: the Cambridge spies. The story of how Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt came to betray British state secrets to Russia is one that has been told countless times, but even now, it retains its power to fascinate. Enemies Within is a vivid, often “rollicking” work by “one of our greatest modern masters of non-fiction”.

This book does more than simply tell an entertaining story, said Lewis Jones in The Daily Telegraph. It’s also a work of “polemical revisionism” that sets out to dismantle the prevailing “myths” about the Cambridge spies: that they were very posh young men who rebelled against their privilege; that the establishment connived in, or at least covered up, their activities; and that the secret service of the time was stuffed with upper-class twits. Such beliefs, Davenport-Hines argues, enabled the spies’ betrayals to be co-opted into a larger narrative about establishment corruption. This has led to a host of “regrettable developments”, including the undermining of authority, the ever-increasing suspicion of expertise, and the use of words such as “elite” and “establishment” as “derogatory epithets”.

At a time when “every dreary mediocrity” rails against the establishment, this “unapologetically ‘elitist’ counterblast” is refreshing reading, said James Bloodworth in The Spectator. Enemies Within provides a “comprehensive demolition of many widely accepted myths”. Davenport-Hines is certainly a gifted historian, said Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times. As in his earlier book on the Profumo affair, he shows himself to have a particular mastery of context: “he is brilliant, for instance, at evoking the ‘fuggy and frenetic’ atmosphere of the Foreign Office between the Wars”. Yet some of his arguments are “wildly overstated”. To claim that the Cambridge spies “single-handedly shattered public faith in the political elite” is surely ridiculous, given the long history of Anglo-American populism. And as for his conclusion – that they “paved the way for Brexit” – well, I “quite often get letters making similar arguments, invariably written in capital letters and green ink”.