The story of Clegg's aunt

She had affairs with HG Wells and Maxim Gorky and was a suspected Soviet spy but can Moura Budberg l

The odd punch up on The Politics Show aside, the Liberal Democrat leadership election has so far failed to enthuse the public. But one of the candidates has a relation who scandalised Europe in her day.

Baroness Moura Budberg, so the legend goes, was a Russian aristocrat who became a Soviet spy. She conducted an affair with the British spy R. H. Bruce Lockhart during the Revolution and later became the lover of both Maxim Gorky and H. G. Wells.

What is more, Moura Budberg is Nick Clegg’s great great aunt.

In a battle of "my personable Westminster-educated former MEP is better than your personable Westminster-educated former MEP," who knows, this scattering of stardust could be decisive.

It certainly puts the candidates’ own youthful delinquencies - Chris Huhne’s druggy student article; Clegg’s spot of teenage cactus arson - into deep shade.

Today it is hard to untangle fact and fantasy in the Budberg legend, not least because Moura largely wrote that legend herself.

Bruce Lockhart described her as "A Russian of the Russians ... She was an aristocrat. She could have been a Communist. She could never have been a bourgeoise." But the truth is rather different.

Moura was the daughter of a Senate official, and her first husband (murdered while she was away in Russia) was a minor Estonian noble. She gained the title of ‘Baroness’ through her second husband. He was soon discarded: the title never was.

She had met Bruce Lockhart in Petrograd after travelling there alone to try to secure family property amid the turmoil. She later followed him to Moscow, where both were arrested by the authorities.

The legend maintains that Moura secured her own release from the Lubyanka by offering the commandant sexual favours. Whatever the truth of this, she brought food and books to Bruce Lockhart until he was exchanged for a Soviet agent held by the British.

In 1934 their relationship was further mythologised by a Hollywood film. British Agent was directed by Michael Curtiz, of Casablanca fame, and starred Leslie Howard as Bruce Lockhart and Kay Francis as the enigmatic, passionate 'Elena Moura'.

Bruce Lockhart’s departure left Moura alone and penniless in Moscow. She found work with Maxim Gorky’s publishing house and soon became his secretary and lover. Through Gorky, Moura came to know both Lenin and Stalin, and she remained part of his entourage until his death in 1934.

Towards the end of this period she was spending increasing time in London, establishing herself as a fashionable hostess and a star of the Russian émigré community. And the press began to mention her as a friend or companion of H. G. Wells.

This relationship worried the British authorities. In its early days espionage was closely connected with literature. W. Somerset Maugham had been sent to Russia in 1917 with the ambitious mission of keeping Russia in the war and preventing the Bolsheviks coming to power.

And the Moscow Embassy had already warned that Moura was "a very dangerous woman". Worse, she had once presented Stalin with an accordion. Her file recorded: "She drinks like a fish - gin. She can drink an amazing quantity without it showing any apparent slow-up in her mental processes."

The ageing Wells must have offered in London what Gorky had offered in Moscow: security and an entrée to society. Moura’s own explanation was that the attraction sexual - Wells’s skin, she said, smelled of honey - though she refused to marry him or even remain faithful.

Was Moura ever a spy? By 1951 an MI5 officer was complaining of the vast resources employed in keeping her under surveillance when no evidence against her had ever been found. But the old suspicions were reawakened when her friend Guy Burgess defected to the Soviet Union.

Part of Moura’s mystique was that throughout her career it was equally possible to imagine her working for either sides The Allies or the Germans. The Whites or the Reds. The British or the Soviets.

The enigma had not been solved by the time of her death in 1974, but there is a remarkable postscript to her story.

A few years ago a batch of secret service files was released. They revealed that in 1951 Moura had told a British agent - a guest at one of her celebrated dinner parties - that Anthony Blunt was a Communist. But the report was ignored and MI5 did not rumble Blunt until 1964.

It seems there was substance to the Moura Budberg legend. One day soon we may discover whether there is similar substance to her sister’s great-grandson Nick Clegg...

Jonathan Calder blogs at Liberal England

Jonathan Calder has been a district councillor and contributed to speeches by Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. These days he prefers to poke gentle fun from the sidelines. He blogs at Liberal England
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times