In 1972 a humble naval lieutenant in a financial jam sold some humble naval secrets to the Russians. The judge at his trial spoke of a “monstrous betrayal” and sentenced him to 21 years.
That, amid the myriad issues of the Blunt affair, is a point of reference worth recalling. The sub-lieutenant traded a few blueprints for money. Anthony Blunt sold the names of colleagues, some of whom subsequently perished. How many lives did he put at risk? No one can tell. If conspiracy to murder is a more heinous crime than larceny, Blunt’s prison sentence should have stretched through decades. Instead, he roamed free and feted in the Royal Household. And that, truly, is a monstrous betrayal.
Past Prime Ministers and Attorney-Generals queue to profess their ignorance. What blame there is conveniently seems set to devolve on a deceased politician. One must accept what honourable men say. Lord Home did not know. Lord Butler did not know. Sir Harold Wilson did not know. But that in turn raises deadly issues. When newspapers say that Britain is a secretive and stifled society, they can almost hear their readers stifling a yawn. They would say that, wouldn’t they?
But here are yesterday’s men of probity wringing their hands and complaining that nobody told them anything. Our society, apparently, is so secretive that even the men elected to govern it cannot be trusted with unpleasant facts. That discovery has direct relevance to this Government’s new Official Information Bill. As Andrew Boyle, author of The Climate of Treason, points out, six months hence he would not have been able to publish his book – and Anthony Blunt would have been gliding untroubled round the royal picture gallery till his dying day. No wonder Mr David Steel is calling for the Bill’s withdrawal.
There is a further, deeper worry. It is all too easy, playing the politics of envy, to prate about “Establishment plots.” But this is an horrendous case. Perhaps (straining credulity to the uttermost) Anthony Blunt could not have been tried in public. Perhaps (still straining) covert immunity seemed the best policy. But need he have continued to lead an unsullied, honoured life at court – not reproved but regally blessed? The Palace was told 15 years ago. In case it was deaf, it was told again more recently. Yet only at the eleventh hour, and the fifty-ninth minute, in a fluster of Prime Ministerial statements, was knighthood suddenly stripped away.
Such conduct reflects appallingly on everyone involved. We despise witchhunts. But in this instance, where nobody knows anything, it is imperative that the fullest, most public investigation now takes place.