Official records uncovered by a University of Salford academic shed new light on private government discussions over unveiling the identity of the ‘Fourth Man’ in the Cambridge Spy Ring.

The records, uncovered by Dr Christopher J. Murphy, lecturer in intelligence studies, reveal the private discussions held between senior Civil Servants and Prime Ministers over how Sir Anthony Blunt, the wartime MI5 officer, noted art historian and Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, would be announced to the public as a Soviet spy.

They also show the discussions which took place around how much the Queen knew about the man who had been allowed personal access to The Palace.

Blunt, along with fellow Cambridge graduates Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, was part of the infamous Cambridge Spy Ring which passed information to the Soviet Union during the Second World War and was active until the early 1950s.

His wartime role was announced during a statement in the House of Commons by Margaret Thatcher in November 1979 – his treachery having been revealed by Andrew Boyle’s book Climate of Treason. He was later stripped of his knighthood, dying four years later aged 75.

But the papers, which Dr Murphy says have been released ‘without fanfare’, provide fresh insight into the discussions which had taken place for years before circumstances forced the government to act – particularly the dissatisfaction which James Callaghan felt around how it had been handled.

Blunt, who had been given immunity from prosecution in 1964 in return for a confession, was known to be seriously ill in the early 1970s and the authorities were concerned that should he die, the laws of libel would cease to apply and those who knew about his treachery would be more likely to reveal it.

Cabinet Secretary Sir John Hunt wrote to Harold Wilson in July 1974, saying ‘his illness was a reminder and a warning about the situation which we may face when he dies’, adding that ‘a good many people both in public life and in Fleet Street, already know a certain amount of the story, even if in garbled and inaccurate form’.

Hunt was in no doubt that Blunt’s story would be ‘likely to command a great deal of attention’, with such ‘intense interest’ compounded by the fact that Blunt’s treachery was ‘entangled’ with his ‘disreputable private life’ – a veiled reference to Blunt’s homosexuality.

Hunt brought James Callaghan up to speed on the case in June 1977, following an article in The Times which wrongly suggested that Donald Beves had been the Fourth Man.

Callaghan – who along with Wilson was already aware of case – was furious when Hunt showed a brief that had been prepared for his predecessor three years earlier.

He wrote a lengthy note along the paper’s margin, saying ‘now I have read these papers, I must put on record my disagreement with the kid glove treatment that Blunt has had’ adding that it looked like an example of the old boy network looking after its own and if Blunt had been an RAF Corporal at GCHQ he would not have been ‘so tenderly treated’.

Callaghan, who went on to discuss the affair with the Director General of MI5 and the Chief of SIS, was in correspondence with Hunt again when the news of Boyle’s book began to circulate in 1978.

He predicted that ‘if the book were published, a statement would clearly be necessary, and that it would probably fall to him, as Prime Minister, rather than to the Attorney General, to make it’ and believed that ‘the focus of public and Parliamentary interest would be on why Sir Harold Wilson, Mr Heath and he himself had not revealed the whole story at an earlier stage’.

He scribbled further thoughts and questions alongside a briefing paper Hunt had prepared for him, writing: “I think Mrs Thatcher shld. Be told if the Book is shortly to be published – if not, not! Do we know when it will appear? Ought we not to consider Blunt’s future? Why should he retain his Knighthood, as though he is a man of honour?”

Callaghan concluded by reiterating his unhappiness with the approach that had been taken: “I am very troubled that this hasn’t been dealt with earlier, altho’ I see the difficulty. Let us talk. It will be said (rightly) that it is only the book’s publication that is prompting action & disclosure by the Govt.”

The files also show that, within a week of Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister in May 1979, Hunt sent her a copy of the paperwork prepared earlier for Callaghan, writing: “I had been waiting until you had settled in to tell you the story about the Fourth Man.”

Although the records do not show lengthy responses from Thatcher, they do show the records of a meeting between Robert Armstrong – Hunt’s successor – and Blunt’s legal representative Michael Rubinstein in November 1979, after the Prime Minister had made her speech denouncing Blunt in the House of Commons.

This includes a record of The Cabinet Secretary giving advice about how Blunt should proceed, when being told of his intention to meet with specific news outlets rather than holding a full press conference.

Although Hunt’s December 1978 paper to Callaghan ‘about the Palace aspects’ of the case has been heavily redacted, some details have entered the public domain, with Hunt defending Blunt’s knighthood, but saying: “More difficult to defend is the fact that he continued to hold the post of Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures after he had confessed.”

The papers show a record of a meeting between Armstrong and Harold Wilson in November 1979 when the former PM wanted to refresh his memory of relevant documents he had previously seen. Armstrong recorded that a ‘rather desultory discussion’ had followed, which included ‘the fact that The Queen had not been told until 1973’.

However, he went on to write: “I thought it right to tell him that The Queen’s Private Secretary had been told in 1964 and that what passed between The Queen and her Private Secretary was absolutely confidential, as was that which passed between The Queen and her Prime Ministers.”

The records also show a letter from Dennis Canavan, Labour MP for West Stirlingshire, directly to the Queen, in which he wrote: “I and several other members of the House of Commons have tried in vain to obtain a simple unequivocal answer to a question which we have put to several Ministers and ex-Ministers, including the Prime Minister herself, namely whether you were informed in 1964 of Mr Anthony Blunt’s confession.

“I am sure that you appreciate the great public concern about the fact that a self-confessed traitor not only continued to be a senior member of the Royal household but actually received another Royal appointment in 1972.”

He received a curt response from the Queen’s Private Secretary, Sir Philip Moore, saying there was nothing which could be added to a statement made earlier in the House of Commons by the Attorney General.

Dr Murphy said: “Finally, we’re getting an insight into official thinking about the Blunt affair, almost 40 years after he was named.

“The revelation has long been associated with Margaret Thatcher, but her involvement was only the final act in a longer drama, a game of pass the treacherous parcel from PM to PM, with Thatcher resident in Number Ten when the music stopped. The information about Callaghan is the most revealing – he was clearly furious when told in detail about the case.

“As an intelligence academic, I regularly check the National Archives online catalogue to see what’s been made available, and my jaw hit the ground when I saw these ones. I think it’s really interesting that the material has been made available without any fanfare.

“You may have expected an announcement to accompany the release of this sort of material, but this hasn’t happened. That may point to the differing approach to document release taken by different government departments, but the cynic in me wonders whether it’s been handled in this way because it isn’t the sort of story the authorities want people reading about.”

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