Sir Anthony Blunt. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The Spy, the Scholar and the British Academy

David Cannadine’s thoughtful commentary of the Anthony Blunt affair utilises previously unpublished sources

Artillery Row Books

In November 1979, the newly elected Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, named Professor Sir Anthony Blunt, one of the most distinguished art historians in post-war Britain, as the “Fourth Man”, one of the traitors known as the “Cambridge Spies”, a group of spies working for the Soviet Union from the 1930s to at least the early 1950s. Mrs. Thatcher did not pull her punches. She regarded Blunt’s behaviour as “contemptible and repugnant”, and she was appalled by the evidence of treason and treachery at the heart of the British establishment.

What set Blunt apart from the others – Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby – was his distinguished academic career. Blunt was professor of art history at the University of London, director of the Courtauld Institute of Art and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures.  He was related to the Queen Mother. His students included such famous figures as Anita Brookner, Sir Nicholas Serota, Sir Neil Macgregor and Sir Alan Bowness. He also passed 1,771 documents to his Soviet spymasters during the war while working for MI5. For some of this time, the Soviet Union was a foreign enemy, allied to Nazi Germany.

It was a spectacular bunfight and the press had a wonderful time

The mix of homosexuality, 1930s Cambridge and treason, the scholar and the spy, made a compelling story and Blunt has been the subject of a famous essay in The New Yorker by George Steiner (The Cleric of Treason, 8 December, 1980), plays by Dennis Potter (Blade on the Feather, 1980), Alan Bennett (A Question of Attribution, 1988) and a novel by John Banville (The Untouchable, 1997). More recently, he has turned up in the third season of The Crown (2019), played by Samuel West. Had Alex Jennings not already played the Duke of Windsor in earlier series of The Crown, he would have been perfect casting.


A Question of Retribution? The British Academy and the Matter of Anthony Blunt Edited by David Cannadine. Oxford University Press, 2020, £50

After Mrs. Thatcher’s revelations in the House of Commons, Blunt was immediately stripped of his knighthood and he was subsequently forced to resign his Honorary Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge. The University of London, however, did not take away his Emeritus Professorship and the French government did not strip him of his Legion of Honour. There could be no criminal proceedings against Blunt because in 1964 he had only admitted his guilt in exchange for guaranteed immunity for any subsequent prosecution for the rest of his life.

The question then arose how should the British Academy respond? Blunt had been a Fellow for almost twenty years. He had served as a Vice-President and was talked of as a possible future President.

Almost immediately lines were drawn and leading figures like the historians John H. Plumb and A.J.P. Taylor threatened to resign from the Academy. It was a spectacular bunfight and the press had a wonderful time.

Forty years on, one of our leading British historians, Sir David Cannadine, himself President of the British Academy, has edited this book about the debate within the Academy. Much of the book consists of documents and letters that Sir Kenneth Dover, President of the British Academy during the Blunt affair, donated to the Academy, which have never before been made public, linked by a clear and thoughtful commentary by Cannadine.

Mrs. Thatcher unmasked Blunt on 15 November 1979. The very next day, the historian John H. Plumb wrote to the President of the British Academy, demanding that the Academy take “immediate action” to remove Blunt from its Fellowship. “I do not think we should harbour traitors,” he wrote. In December Blunt resigned from his honorary fellowship at Trinity, Cambridge. Some disagreed passionately with Plumb. Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote to Dover in January that Blunt had been “elected a Fellow for his scholarship, not for his politics, morals, or patriotism.” From the very beginning the line of battle was clear. Should the Academy “harbour traitors” or were allegations against someone’s scholarship the only grounds for expulsion?

The debate didn’t really move on from here. This partly explains why the book is so short (100 pages including numerous photos, reproductions of letters and indexes). The rest, from the first letters from Plumb and Trevor-Roper, is about meetings and personalities rather than principles. There is a lot of repetition, threats of resignation and, in truth, moral grandstanding, with much talk of “witch-hunts” on one side and “treason” on the other. Figures like Plumb and A.J.P. Taylor, you feel, could have started a fight in an empty room. This may also explain why the Blunt affair only takes up only four pages in Adam Sisman’s excellent biography of Taylor and three pages in his biography of Trevor-Roper.

What, then, explains the heat and acrimony of the debate? In part, there were issues of past allegiances; unfinished business with mid-twentieth century communism. Eric Hobsbawm defended Blunt. But was that because he was a lifelong communist or as a matter of principle about intellectual freedom? Cannadine doesn’t really address this. Nor does Richard J. Evans in his 800-page biography of Hobsbawm. There was no simple left-right split. Plumb had been a onetime communist in the 1930s but was unforgiving towards Blunt. Hobsbawm sided with Trevor-Roper and Michael Howard and Robert Blake, a lifelong Tory, sided with Plumb who had hoped for a knighthood from Harold Wilson.

Cannadine’s book is excellent on detail but sometimes less interested in the bigger picture

Then there was the new Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher had only recently been elected but already many academics and intellectuals couldn’t stand her or her politics. Cannadine doesn’t speculate about this, but just as Thatcher used the Blunt affair to attack the establishment, did some in the establishment use it to get back at her? Those who defended Blunt seemed to come from a different country to the right-wing press which was already pro-Thatcher, homophobic and anti-Left. John Carswell, Secretary to the Academy, thought the adverse publicity was motivated by “class hatred, philistinism, anti-elitism, and anti-establishmentism.” He might have been speaking of Brexit, almost forty years later, and this cultural fault-line deserves more attention than Cannadine gives it. His book is excellent on detail but sometimes less interested in the bigger picture.

The book reminds us how remote the late-1970s now seem. It’s like watching the archive film from the recent BBC series about Margaret Thatcher of Mrs. Thatcher standing surrounded by her cabinet, the only woman in a sea of middle-aged white men in suits. The British Academy come across, in Cannadine’s words, as “a very small, very male, very Oxbridge-and-London dominated world.”

What it doesn’t come across as is very worldly or full of brilliant minds. Michael Howard wrote that “Blunt’s treachery was a youthful folly.” Really? Blunt was in his mid-40s when he tipped off Burgess and Maclean that the British security forces were closing in. The art historian John Beckwith (like Blunt a Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford) thought that Blunt had suffered enough though he didn’t specify how Blunt had suffered.

Blunt does not emerge well. Nor does the then President of the British Academy, Sir Kenneth Dover. Dover seems hopelessly out of touch. He later said, “The news of [Blunt’s treachery], closely followed by the revocation of his knighthood, did not raise in my mind any questions at all about the maintenance of his status as a Fellow of the British Academy.” He failed to keep copies of important letters and he went missing in action at crucial moments, going up to Scotland in August 1980 when he should have taken charge in London. As Cannadine puts it pithily, “Dover’s current remote location was inevitably hampering his communication with the Academy’s offices in London.” More seriously, Dover moved between denouncing traitors and talking of the virtues of forgiveness. Cannadine sums it up well: “This all seems very jumbled: perhaps a sign that Dover had been ill-served by his lifelong lack of interest in ancient Greek philosophy.” Dover retired after three years as president, the only president not to serve his full term, and then became more famous for his disastrous memoir, published in 1994.

Some mysteries remain. We are not told why Blunt was granted immunity from prosecution. Unlike the other Cambridge spies, Blunt did not spent the rest of his life in the Soviet Union but, in Cannadine’s words, “remained a widely-esteemed scholar and a well-connected figure at the heart of the British establishment during his retirement.” Why? Nor are we told what the consequences of his treason were. According to Cannadine, Blunt’s actions may have been unpatriotic and unwise, but “it is still unclear whether his actions led to the deaths of British agents or allied personnel, and if so, how many.”

In the end, Blunt was not expelled, but he did eventually resign. By the end of 1980 the press had lost interest.

Perhaps the last words should go to the late Tudor historian, Professor Geoffrey Elton. He said that the whole affair had been “a prime example of the academic skill in making mountains out of molehills or finding issues of principle in the most unpromising corners.”

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