The name of Anthony Frederick Blunt is no longer on the tips of tongues. If he is remembered at all, it is as the “fourth man” of the Cambridge Five, unmasked after Philby, Burgess and Maclean as part of the infamous Soviet run spy ring that infiltrated British intelligence at the height of the Cold War.

In more rarified circles he is still regarded as one of the great experts on the French Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin, but, in general, he has been rightly allowed to slip into ignominious anonymity.

Nicolas Poussin’s Le Mort de Chione. Anthony Blunt was an expert on the artist.

Forty years ago, matters were very different. Although Blunt had confessed to MI5 as far back as 1964 that he had been a Soviet spy, it was not until 1979 that the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, informed Parliament (initially by written answer) of Blunt’s treachery and that he had been granted immunity from prosecution after his confession. The House of Commons was astounded, and outraged that no minister had come to the despatch box to make a statement and take questions on the issue.

A week later, Thatcher opened a debate on Blunt (who had been stripped of his knighthood a few days before and was now referred to rather primly as ‘Mr Blunt’). She explained that the attorney general at the time of his confession, Sir John Hobson, had agreed that the art historian should be granted immunity, and that this was not an extraordinary practice. Opposition Members remained unsatisfied with the handling of the case, and expressed their unease.

The unmasking of a fourth spy was serious enough, but what made Blunt’s deception more shocking was his status as a pillar of the Establishment. Educated at Marlborough and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he later became a fellow, he had become Surveyor of the King’s pictures in 1945 on the recommendation of the royal librarian. He was a professor of art history at the University of London, director of the Courtauld Institute and a fellow of the British Academy. His academic and social credentials could hardly have been sounder.

It was Blunt’s fellowship of the British Academy that caused one of the more public scraps in the fallout from his unmasking. While he was removed as surveyor of the queen’s pictures and stripped of his knighthood, he remained an FBA of 20 years’ standing; moreover, he had previously been a vice-president of the institution and might reasonably expect to be considered a candidate for the presidency in the future. Was this acceptable?

The British Academy

Academic battle lines were soon drawn. J.H. Plumb, the professor of history then serving as master of Christ’s College, Cambridge, declared that he would resign from the Academy unless Blunt was expelled. “I do not think we should harbour traitors”, was his crisp analysis. But A.J.P. Taylor, the left-leaning historian and broadcaster, took the opposite view. “The academy’s only concern,” he insisted, “should be his [Blunt’s] scholarly credentials, which are unaffected by all this.”

Taylor’s remark hit the nail squarely on the head. Blunt was famous and respected as an art historian with a deep knowledge of painting and curation. His learning did not disappear because of his politics or his political activity, whether or not it had been criminal. One can understand those who, like Plumb, felt uneasy at the idea of a learned society such as the British Academy continuing to fête a scholar who, however sympathetically one viewed his motives, had betrayed his country and almost certainly cost British lives.

Caught on the horns of this dilemma was the president of the Academy, the brilliant but mercurial Greek scholar Sir Kenneth Dover. He was President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and was not to preside over a happy ship: a few years later, after a long dispute with Sir Kenneth, the college librarian, Trevor Aston (who suffered from bipolar disorder) would commit suicide, to few regrets from the president.

Professor Sir Kenneth Dover, president of the British Academy 1978-81

Dover’s feelings were mixed. He had not initially even entertained the idea that Blunt’s fellowship might be imperilled; once the notion was forced on him, he swung between feeling that traitors had no place in the organisation, and preaching forgiveness. His indecision was forgivable, perhaps, and probably reflected the views of many of the fellows—but for a man in a position of leadership, they were fatally unmoored and unhelpful.

The matter dragged on at a glacial pace. As the arguments were batted back and forth fruitlessly throughout 1980, Dover made no decisive intervention. Worse, that August, he retired to Scotland and was out of contact for some weeks, at a time when someone should have had a grip on the Blunt matter. In the end, it was Blunt who decided things: having created this furious row in academia, he made it moot by resigning his fellowship. He had only a few years to live.

Thicker than ink

So how do we square this circle of ethereal scholarship and the dust and stains of the real-life arena? Can a scholar take off his political hat and shrug on his academic gown, effecting a detachment, even a transformation? Clearly, some in the British Academy thought so in 1979-80. “He might have been a spy and a traitor,” they seemed to say, “but he knows an awful lot about paintings.” It does not seem a wholly satisfactory conclusion.

Yet how far do we pursue this line or argument? The current plague stalking university life is that of conformism to a supposed liberal agenda, of wokeism and cancel culture. If a right-leaning academic has the independence to espouse criticism of prevailing gender theory, then surely a left-leaning colleague has the same right to discern in another country a régime fairer and more just than their own? 

Perhaps the inevitable conclusion is that neither is true. Maybe the groves of academe should resound to nothing but the polite and informed exchange of ideas, rational debate conducted with courtesy and mutual respect: but if it ever was like that (which many doubt), it certainly is not now. Instead, we are left with grubby compromises. Whether we like it or not, in anything other than anarchy we do judge opinions ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’, however sotto voce [quietly] we may do so. The issue is really about finding boundaries on which most of us can agree.

That was, in fact, the conclusion to which the British Academy, maybe without even realising it, came in 1979-80 over Anthony Blunt’s fellowship. There was vitriolic combat, but no decisive ending, until the man himself simply slipped away from the battlefield.

Eliot Wilson

Eliot Wilson is policy editor of Culturall. A writer and strategic adviser, he is co-founder of Pivot Point Group, and is also a columnist for The Daily Telegraph and City AM. He was previously a clerk in the House of Commons.