…The myth of espionage as an essentially patrician sport, like polo, had some slight foundation. In the early twentieth century secret service budgets, except possibly in Russia, were still modest, and to stretch them as far as possible the professionals often had to rely on unpaid, part-time helpers, motivated by patriotism or the love of adventure and recruited in the higher levels of society. The French, especially in colonial areas, made extensive use of such volunteer informants among certain of the missionary orders. The British SIS early began recruiting promising Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates, sometimes merely for vacation espionage jaunts of the butterfly-catching type, sometimes as full-time professionals.
T.E. Lawrence, according to Philip Knightly and Colin Simpson in The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia, was introduced to the Great Game by his Oxford patron, the well-known scholar D.G. Hogarth, during summer archaeological outings in Turkey.
As the secret services of the great powers acquired ever increasing importance in our century of technological and political revolution, the bureaucrats who ran them became more respectable in the eyes of their colleagues, and the espionage establishment tended to merge with the Establishment. The trend, as usual, was most marked in England. The World War II head of MI6, its legendary “C,” Major General Sir Stewart Graham Menzies, was a member of White’s, one of the two most prestigious clubs in the kingdom; as the authors of The Philby Conspiracy remarked, his fellow members saw nothing odd in his conducting a significant part of his department’s business from White’s bar and dining room.
And as John Le Carre wrote in his brilliant introduction to the book, that clubby British attitude was one of the key reasons why Philby’s treason was not uncovered much sooner.