Bolton touts public’s ‘right to know’ in new book on infamous British spy ring

Published: March 16, 2021

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Described as the most successful spy ring in modern history, the “Cambridge Five”—as they have come to be known—have been portrayed, characterized and analyzed in a variety of media formats over the decades following their most active period between World War II and the 1960s.

Jonathan Bolton, the Hollifield Professor and chair of Auburn's Department of English, recently published a new book, The Blunt Affair: Official Secrecy and Treason in Literature, Television and Film, 1980-89. Bolton examines more recent media treatment of the Cambridge Five in popular culture through books, plays, movies and TV. His book particularly is focused on the public exposure of one of its members, Anthony Blunt, and the degree of secrecy with which Blunt was awarded immunity by key figures of British government. Bolton also discusses the argument for the public’s right to government transparency.

The case of the Cambridge Five, a group of British spies who passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II, has long captured the public's attention, but perhaps never more so than in the wake of the public exposure of Blunt as the fourth man in 1979 by then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—an event that has become known as the Blunt Affair. Bolton notes, “With the Cold War intensifying, patriotism running high during the Falklands War and the AIDS crisis leading to widespread homophobia, these notorious traitors were more relevant than ever.”

Blunt was recruited into the spy ring while he was a fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge in the 1930s. The group was made up of upper-middle-class young men who, in contrast to the philosophy of their native British government, were attracted to ideals of communism and anti-fascism. The ring remained highly active into the 1950s and 60s, and Blunt went on to become a leading art historian and surveyor of the royal family’s art collection. Eventually, he was even knighted.

During the period between 1941 and 1945, Blunt is credited with providing Soviet intelligence officers with more than 1,700 official British documents. Blunt’s espionage became known to some in the British government, but in exchange for his cooperation in ongoing investigations, he was granted immunity in 1964. That immunity, however, was not common knowledge outside of Britain’s counterintelligence organization and some members of the royal inner circle, who seemed satisfied that Blunt was no longer active as a spy. Blunt’s involvement in spying was all but ignored. However, when Thatcher learned about his early espionage activities, she publicly revealed his past in 1979. Blunt was stripped of his knighthood and other honors and spent the remainder of his life in relative seclusion until his death in 1983.

Bolton notes that it was author Andrew Boyle’s book Climate of Treason, published in 1979, which enabled the public to deduce that Blunt was the fourth member of the spy ring. A media circus of sorts ensued once Blunt’s identity was revealed. The resulting publicity reflected very negatively on the British government, and that enraged Thatcher, who pulled out all stops to punish Blunt.

“I discuss the handling—or perhaps the mishandling—of Blunt’s case, the treatment surrounding his treachery and his granted immunity in 1964, and—how at least in the eyes of Prime Minister Thatcher—Blunt’s identity was kept from the public,” Bolton said. “I examine media treatments of the Cambridge Five that raise the argument that governments should be more transparent in the sharing of knowledge and information that its public constituency should rightfully know.”

Bolton also looks at the culture of the day and a time when homosexuality was deemed to be a criminal act in Great Britain. Among the works he examines are What I Believe by E.M. Forster, which suggests the argument that one’s loyalty to friends may be placed higher than loyalty to country when one’s country views the friends as criminal because of sexual orientation.

“Foster’s book is considered important primarily because it was a kind of sacred text for two of the Cambridge spies, and perhaps shaped their actions,” Bolton said.

Bolton also considers the question of conflicting loyalties portrayed in Julian Mitchell’s successful play Another Country and the private suffering of Blunt living a dual life as characterized by Alan Bennett in A Question of Attribution.

Bolton writes in the book’s introduction: “However, from our vantage point (today), the most relevant consequence of the Blunt affair has to do with withholding information that has no bearing on national security, and Thatcher’s warning about official secrecy and the public’s right to know has proved to be prescient. …This level of secrecy in government intelligence agencies should sound painfully familiar.”

Bolton adds, “This mindset of secrecy has persisted, even under the current pandemic, and the citizen’s right to know remains a battle people are not especially willing to fight.”

Published by Manchester University Press, Bolton’s book examines works by other distinguished writers, including Dennis Potter, Tom Stoppard and John le Carré. It sheds new light on the Blunt affair, asking why such privileged young men chose to betray their country, whether loyalty to one's friends is more important than patriotism and whether we can really trust the intelligence services.

Submitted by: Mitch Emmons