The climate of treason. The true sin of the "Cambridge Five" was not betraying their country, but betraying their class. Richard Gott on a spy's life

Anthony Blunt: his lives

Miranda Carter <em>Macmillan, 590pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0333633504

My father, an architect, visited the Soviet Union in the early 1930s and found interesting new buildings and a world without unemployment. My uncle, a mandarin in the Indian civil service and secretary to the governor of the Punjab (the grandfather of my friend Tariq Ali), travelled there a few years later to inquire whether central planning on the Soviet model might prove suitable for India (he concluded that it would not). Hundreds of intelligent middle-class New Statesman readers (and, indeed, writers for the Spectator, including its art critic, Anthony Blunt) made the journey in W H Auden's "low, dishonest decade" to see for themselves what all the fuss was about.

My father's Russian phrase book, published in Moscow in 1931, described how travelling in the Soviet Union had first begun on a large scale in 1930. "Tourists had access to what is doubtless the most interesting country on earth, where at the present moment the greatest upheaval in the history of the world is taking place . . . As quoted in the Manchester Guardian, no age since the Renaissance has produced so many comprehensive reforms."

These early visitors went to Russia rather as a later generation visited Chile, Cuba or Nicaragua, to catch a glimpse of a new and different society. They also went to escape from the suffocating smugness and insularity of imperial Britain in the midst of slump and recession. Not all of them were "fellow travellers" by any means, but few noticed the price that was paid for rapid industrialisation: they were unaware of the fate of the kulaks and they knew nothing of the political purges. But many of them found the Soviet Union more interesting and hopeful than Britain, then policing (and bombing) its gigantic world empire, cosying up to Hitler and Mussolini, and (after 1936) viewing with ambivalence the conflict in Spain.

Anthony Blunt was just such a traveller, a vaguely leftist public school boy (Marlborough), moving from Bloomsbury-worship to dilettante Marxism, with a penchant for the then unknown subject of art history and for sex with men. He went to Moscow in 1935 when still a Cambridge student, travelling with his elder brother, Wilfred, mainly to look at architecture and art. Their group included Michael Young (now Lord Young of Dartington), Charles Fletcher-Cooke (later a Tory MP) and Michael Straight (a rich American who later became the editor of the New Republic).

Blunt was more interested in art than politics, yet he soon became a champion of left-wing artists and the concept of revolutionary art, a major talking point in the art world at the time. He looked forward to a revolution in Britain, largely because of its impact on art. He told his friend Louis MacNeice, during a visit to Spain in 1936 (just before the outbreak of the civil war), that a revolution would mean "new blood in the arts - in every parish a Diego Rivera. And easel-painting at last will admit it is dead and all the town-halls will bloom with murals and bas-reliefs in concrete." As indeed they did, rather later, and without the benefit of revolution.

Miranda Carter's revisiting of the saga of Anthony Blunt, the "Fourth Man" of the famous Cambridge Five who spied for the Soviet Union (the others being Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Kim Philby and John Cairncross), was well worth the effort. Hers is an enthralling work, the first from a writer of a generation wholly unconnected with the events described. It is written with dry humour and a sure grasp of a wide range of material - memoirs, interviews with survivors and tantalising glimpses into the Soviet archives. She describes the widely differing "lives" of Blunt - as a Soviet spy, as a member of MI5, as a gay man, as an art critic and historian, as the Surveyor of the King's Pictures, and as the creator, in effect, of the Courtauld Institute. But she also widens her net to include a discussion of the milieu in which he moved, the world of the upper-middle-class Oxbridge establishment that dominated British government and culture during the 80 years after the First World War until the arrival of Margaret Thatcher.

This decadent imperial elite, which presided over the end of empire, took a long time to die, and, now that the epoch has gone, it seems almost impossible to recall what it was like. Indeed, one of the delights of Carter's book is the way in which she registers quiet amazement at what used to take place in the upper echelons of society. With today's cabinet quota of openly gay men, it is hard to remember a time when the "camp" parties organised by homosexuals were both outrageous and illegal. The Cambridge Five have always been regarded as traitors - they handed over government files to the Soviet Union - but the real cause of the scandal they created, and the reason why they are remembered when others are forgotten, is that they were perceived as traitors not so much to their country as to their class. Like "going native" during the empire, this class treachery was their truly unforgivable sin.

The Soviet Union was promoting not just tourism in the 1930s; it was also interested, for the first time, in encouraging espionage. The Oxbridge student generation that emerged in Britain after the rise of Hitler in 1933 - and Carter charts the change in mood very exactly - was particularly susceptible to requests to enlist in the ranks of the world revolution, especially when the offer came from attractive, multilingual central European emigre intellectuals. Kim Philby, already a communist, was approached in 1934 by a beguiling Czech recruiter, Arnold Deutsch, who encouraged him to join more actively in the fight "against fascism". Deutsch told him: "You are bourgeois by education, appearance and origin. You could have a bourgeois career in front of you - and we need people who could penetrate into the bourgeois institutions. Penetrate them for us!"

Philby signed on the dotted line, to be followed by several others (even today, no one knows exactly how many). Maclean was recruited first, then Burgess, then Blunt. The Spanish civil war was the catalyst for Blunt, but his relationship with Burgess was to be the cause of his eventual downfall. While he grew out of his youthful Marxism like so many others, he could not escape from the Soviet embrace because of his close friendship with Burgess. He was quite prepared to betray everyone else, but his intimacy with Burgess remained sacrosanct throughout his life. They did not sleep together, but they shared apartments and jokes and lovers.

Much of Carter's book is taken up with Blunt's life as an art historian, and even if he had not acquired notoriety in other ways, he would still deserve a small footnote in the history of 20th-century Britain as the man who helped to bring European art history to London and establish it there. Carter has done a useful job in revealing how tenuous was the hold of the European emigres who set up the Warburg and the Courtauld, and how crucial was the work of Blunt in consolidating these embryonic institutions into permanent cultural bastions of great value.

Yet throughout the postwar years, as Blunt climbed up the greasy pole of the establishment, he was continually haunted by the indiscretions of his past, and often forcefully reminded of the dangers of the precipice on which he lived. Carter's book has the throbbing rhythm of a detective story as you are led to wonder what will happen on the following page. Blunt survived the revelations about Burgess and Maclean in the 1950s, and their flight to the Soviet Union, but he always knew that he was a marked man, under constant threat of betrayal. Quite apart from his old, unforgiving acquaintances in MI5, there was a figure standing forever poised behind the arras with a dagger.

Goronwy Rees was a former assistant editor of the Spectator in the 1930s, a leftist whom Burgess had attempted to recruit. Years later, in the 1970s, transformed into an embittered right-wing academic and knowing much more than he dared openly reveal, Rees told his secrets to Andrew Boyle, who was working on The Climate of Treason. With the publication of Boyle's book in 1979, Blunt was forced out into the open, to be destroyed mercilessly, first by Thatcher, then by the press.

Carter misses one aspect of Blunt's mindset that occurred to me only when I read in her pages of his family relationship to Wilfred Scawen Blunt, a passionate anti-imperialist and a famous denouncer of the British occupation of Egypt (a writer and poet curiously described here as "infamous"). In his book Atrocities of British Justice under British Rule in Egypt, published in 1907, Wilfred Blunt revealed the details of the affray at the Egyptian village of Denshawai the previous year. After the accidental death of a British officer during a scuffle between villagers and Lord Cromer's hunting party, the British took their revenge: four villagers were executed and four sentenced to life imprisonment; 14 others were publicly flogged. The disgraceful treatment of the villagers at Denshawai had an impact on the Egyptian nationalist movement comparable to that of the massacre at Amritsar in 1919 on the Indians.

Carter gives little significance to this item of family history, merely noting that Wilfred Blunt (who died in 1922) was "a relative", and elsewhere that he was "an uncle", and that his name was given to Anthony Blunt's elder brother. Yet if Blunt came from such an anti-imperialist and "unpatriotic" family, it would not be surprising if he were to wear his "treachery" as lightly as he did.

There is a further intriguing link between the Cambridge spies and the anti-imperialists of an earlier generation. Kim Philby was the son of Harry St John Philby, the famous Arabist, converted Muslim and adviser to the House of Saud. Both Blunt and Philby had inherited good family reasons to be hostile to the British empire. Blunt, in addition, was brought up in France, and only came really alive, so Carter tells us, when visiting Italy. As young Marxists, both Blunt and Philby would doubtless have regarded themselves as "rootless cosmopolitans", owing loyalty to no country, but instead to the international proletariat.

This is all history now, but it is interesting to find - as the British go to war again on the frontiers of their old empire - that these questions of national loyalty should today, in changed but not dissimilar circumstances, be placed once more at the top of the political agenda.

Richard Gott is working on a book about imperial rebellions

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The SAS story they want to suppress