Michael Mason writes about the debate in London University on whether Anthony Blunt should keep his emeritus chair

Why has the Blunt affair generated so much callous humbug? Two highly regarded spy novels of recent years – The Human Factor and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – are based on the idea of a ‘mole’ in the British Intelligence services. In neither book does any particular opprobrium attach to treachery. The emphasis is on personal ties rather than national ones (which are implied by both authors to be something of a fake). In Greene’s novel especially, the pains of being a spy, and above all the wretchedness of the separation from home and love which follows exposure, are memorably evoked. These books have been read by many people, and they are additionally famous in televised and filmed versions. Their reputation is certainly due in part to the sensible, convincing stand they take on treachery. But the British public has more humanity at its command for the phantoms of Greene’s and Le Carré’s imaginations than for the flesh-and-blood Anthony Blunt. In these days his name seems scarcely to be perceived as denoting a fellow human being. The letters BLUNT in the headlines have become a kind of mantra of hatred.

The intelligent literary exploration of political disloyalty goes back much further than these spy novels of the 1970s. The first important text is Julius Caesar. In a broader view, Western culture has accorded an extraordinary standing to certain political subversives. The two men we think of as the towering examples of selfless virtue, Christ and Socrates, were put to death for political crime. It seems to be sufficient that a subversive individual is only a little removed from us in time and space (to the committee-rooms of the American Congress in the 1950s, for example) for our perception of him to be susceptible of inversion. When the gap is supplemented by a difference of ideology, as in the case of contemporary Russian dissidents, we feel able to admire subversion in a highly explicit form.

In other words, our culture is capable of seeing that treachery is a complex and uncertain matter – except during the excitement of the hunt and kill. Anthony Blunt’s actions in the last war and afterwards probably constitute a particularly difficult instance of political disloyalty, calling for unusual delicacy of judgment. The facts would have to be absolutely definite first – especially in view of this country’s alliance with Russia against Germany. Then Blunt’s action should be assessed in the relative lights of patriotism, belief in social good, and duty to individuals. In all that has been publicly uttered about this man since early November 1979 there has seldom glimmered a recognition that the affair possesses even this broadly-sketched kind of complexity.

Society’s cruel and irrational response to the newly exposed ‘traitor’ does resemble a very familiar though baffling feature of our personal relations. Most of us show a surprising readiness in everyday life to attribute conscious malevolence to our fellows, although only a very little introspection would suggest the doubtfulness of this analysis of human motivation. Men like to think that they are acting for good reasons. If their actions are determined by impulses they would acknowledge to be bad, they generally conceal this fact from themselves, and explain their actions in terms they find morally acceptable. The consciously malevolent human personality is a piece of mythology, and his appropriately mythological embodiment is Satan (there has, in fact, been some mention of the ‘diabolical’ personality of Blunt).

The British are perhaps unusually prone to voluntary self-deception where the morality of people in public life is concerned. A moment of very pure humbug was reached in the Blunt affair when the Observer printed as proof of his depravity a story about Blunt disparaging a man behind his back after being complimentary to him at dinner. A proof of his common humanity, it might be thought.

In the general execration of Blunt there may even be some stifled incredulity as to his Satanic personality, but he has also been at the receiving end of a certain dissatisfaction with the double standard in our national life. It is a peculiarity of the whole affair that Blunt is seen to be closely affiliated with the very Establishment which, with our consent, tells us so imperfectly and condescendingly what is going on. On top of all this. Blunt is an art historian. There was a joke headline current in November: ‘Spy Discovered to be Art Historian.’ It is not frivolous to suggest that Blunt’s profession has been a further irritant to public opinion. Works of art, new and old, are often extremely expensive, and the objects of a respect which can seem insufficiently explained. Visual art, more than any other branch of cultural activity in this country, has associations with plutocracy and mystification. But there is a sad irony if Blunt is thought to be implicated in these aspects of the institution of art. The main theme of his work on painting springs from his dislike for social and intellectual exclusiveness in art. The other myth about Blunt which the art history can be shown to call in question is that he sought or was especially gratified by his association with the centres of official power in this country.

He was gratified, however, by the honours he received from academic institutions. Most of these were withdrawn in the early days of the affair, and his chair at London was probably the most substantial British academic honour he retained. Despite the performance of other academic bodies, it was to be hoped that the Convocation of the University of London, moving less precipitately, would not surrender to the general humbug. Here was an institution which might recognise the complexity of Blunt’s case, and the need for a careful assessment of facts and moral issues.

In the event, the debate was too short to give much sense of which considerations swayed the members of Convocation in their voting. Those who spoke for Blunt were predictably more temperate than those who wanted to take away his chair (from this camp came some familiar mythologising about the ‘coldblooded traitor’). It would be interesting to know how many of those who voted for Blunt accepted the opposition’s view that the man’s political past was relevant to his title to a chair. There was some spirited reference to the almost complete uncertainty about the facts of Blunt’s spying career, but only one speaker made the proposal that his actions could be morally defensible in their historical context. It may be that most people in the majority bloc took the weaker view that Blunt was a proven criminal, but that this was irrelevant to the matter of his chair, which was a strictly academic award.

Certainly there was a danger that Blunt’s work as an art historian (despite repeated lip-service to it by his opponents) would be seen in less than its proper proportions. Not only has Blunt been an exceptionally able, versatile and productive scholar, but art history has dominated his life to an extent that can be lost sight of in the excitement about his spying. The subject has evidently absorbed him since his schooldays, and at a time when art history had very little academic standing in this country he was working in the subject with the ‘pertinacity’ and ‘single-mindedness’ he admires in Poussin. This was complete professionalism in the absence, virtually, of a profession.

At this early period he was also the Spectator’s art critic, often appearing alongside Graham Greene on the cinema. In these pieces of journalism, which were sometimes candidly socialist, there is a coat-trailing, speculative, labile note which Blunt has never allowed himself to strike in his post-war writing. Against this background, the restraint of his later work, the fear of ‘dangerously strong feelings’ expressed in the book on William Blake (another man tried for sedition), and the self-control of his personal demeanour, start to seem much more like a protective anaesthesia or the numbness of scar-tissue than cold-bloodedness.

There were other acts of self-mortification. The Mannerist aesthetics expounded in Artistic Theory in Italy were not congenial to Blunt, though this is not acknowledged. Before the war he thought of the Surrealists as essentially Mannerist because they imitated a mental content – and their art was consequently too narrow, just as abstract art was too narrow because of its interest in formal properties alone. The attack on formalism (especially in relation to Poussin) has been kept up, but the obviously sincere and rather stirring remarks about art’s responsibility to the general concerns of mankind no longer accompany it.

In the socialist art criticism, Blunt was unhappy about the idea of artists working for the state, however, and his prose betrays this sometimes (‘It can be almost established that not all dictatorships are fatal to the arts,’ Spectator, 22 November 1935). All through his career he has been attracted by artists who were ignored or not approved by official opinion, but supported by a small group of sympathetic patrons or friends (and here lies the irony of the popular view of Blunt as an Establishment man): Mansart, Borromini, Poussin and Rouault (granting his links with the Fauves). As with the Victorian club which Blunt joined at Cambridge, the animating idea is apostolic. There can be sensed in Blunt’s writing, despite its impersonality, a deep admiration for spiritual fervour which converges in a very Marxist fashion with a determinist, source-tracing habit of mind. So the Work of Blake, Poussin and Borromini is shown to be involved with mysteries and at the same time is demystified by reference to Renaissance art, or Stoicism, or late Roman architecture.

At present it will seem to many people unthinkable that Anthony Blunt should be written about in this way: as a human being in the round, not impelled by unusually malevolent feelings. As history abundantly shows, this will quite soon seem to be the appropriate and interesting way to look at him. History also has a habit of damaging the reputations of the people who put traitors on trial. The University of London is to be congratulated on the good opinion it will have secured for itself.