Queen Elizabeth and the Spy

An infamous name returned to the British headlines last week when a memoir written by Anthony Blunt, a wartime spy for the Soviet Union, was made public by the British Library. Blunt was the fourth figure in a spy ring that included Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and H.A.R. (Kim) Philby, formed while they were at England’s Cambridge University.

As a member of MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence organization, Blunt was well-placed to pass on valuable information to the Russians. Burgess and Maclean were diplomats, and Philby an intelligence officer in MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA. The last three had spied for Moscow from the British Embassy in Washington, as well as elsewhere.

It is not clear when Blunt — a prominent art scholar — wrote his 30,000-word memoir. It was passed on to the British Library in 1984 on condition that it be kept secret for 25 years. Blunt covers familiar ground, naming no new names, and providing no new facts. He calls his recruitment (by Burgess) to spy for Moscow “the biggest mistake of my life.” He attempts to justify it in the context of the climate of uncertainty in the 1930s, with the rise of two rival totalitarian systems: communism and Nazism. But he shows no contrition for providing the Russians with valuable information that led to the death of many British agents.

The media replay of the Anthony Blunt saga was like the rustle of dead leaves underfoot. One aspect of the story received scant attention, and that was Blunt’s controversial royal connection.

In 1957, the queen appointed him Keeper or Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures in charge of the large royal art collection. He was then already under suspicion, but because there wasn’t much to go by, the government of the time decided not to warn the queen that she might be employing a spy.

In 1964, the evidence against Blunt piled up when an American, Michael Whitney Straight, confessed to the FBI that while at Cambridge, Blunt had recruited him to spy for the Soviet Union. Blunt confessed to his activities as a double agent. When he agreed to be debriefed on condition of immunity from prosecution, British intelligence persuaded an extremely reluctant Queen Elizabeth to keep him on.

Intelligence officials were hoping to learn what secrets Blunt had passed on, and who had been his contacts. They argued that if Blunt were fired or quit the royal service it might arouse suspicion in Moscow that he had been busted. Much to her displeasure, according to published reports, the queen was forced to keep Blunt in his post for 10 years, until 1974, when he retired, highly respected in the art world, and with his shameful secret intact. A knighthood came with retirement, and the queen had no choice but to grant it to him.

In 1979, the government was warned that Blunt — now Sir Anthony — would be identified as the fourth man in a soon-to-be-published book on Burgess, Maclean, and Philby. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pre-empted publication by revealing Blunt’s name in parliament. Blunt was stripped of his knighthood, but his immunity from prosecution stood. He died in 1983.