Uncovering the ‘Cambridge Five’

The treachery of the ‘Cambridge Five’ was not merely the most damaging for the British intelligence community in terms of the information supplied to the Soviet Union and the harm inflicted on relationships with allied security services: it also caused the greatest spy scandal of the century in the eyes of the general public.

Throughout the long unravelling of the story, investigative journalists and freelance writers struggled with establishment reticence. Burgess and Maclean defected in 1951, and for several years afterwards, until their sensational resurfacing in Moscow in 1956, ‘the case of the missing diplomats’ was a staple of British newspaper reporting. From that time onwards Philby’s role was suspected by the authorities, but in 1955 he was publicly exonerated by Harold Macmillan in the House of Commons. This only added to official embarrassment when he too defected in 1963.

Blunt was questioned frequently by MI5 throughout the 1950s, and in 1964 he and Cairncross exchanged incomplete confessions for immunity from prosecution. For over a quarter of a century Blunt maintained a respected public profile as an art historian and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, and he was knighted in 1956. Only after the publication of Andrew Boyle’s The Climate of Treason and the advent of Margaret Thatcher’s administration in 1979 were the last two of the ‘Cambridge Five’ publicly exposed.

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