The national treasure who didn’t pass on clues about two Cambridge spies

On 28th November the Security Service MI5 released a few more of their files to the National Archives. I have prepared this joint blog post with Jeff Hulbert, my co-author on ‘Guy Burgess, the Spy Who Knew Everyone’. Here’s what we make of just one of the released files.

Nowadays he’d be called a ‘national treasure’, a broadcaster with a special gift for using his hands-on experience in diplomacy, politics and journalism to communicate with listeners. Sir Harold George Nicolson KCVO CMG (1886-1968) had earned respect opposing appeasement at a time when his views and those of others like Winston Churchill were censored by the BBC and cinema newsreels. He had a celebrity wife, the writer Vita Sackville-West, but like some national treasures of more recent times he also had a private sex life that broke the law of the land at the time, in his case the law on homosexuality.
Among his friends and probably his lovers was the Cambridge spy Guy Burgess. When Nicolson was a BBC Governor he went as far as recommending that Burgess would make ‘an ideal parliamentary correspondent’. The two men were so close throughout their lives up to and including their regular correspondence when Burgess ended up in Moscow that in our book ‘Guy Burgess, the spy who knew everyone’ we wondered why it was that MI5 showed so little interest in him. We pointed to gaps in the files where we thought Nicolson’s name would and should have appeared.
Now one file of documents on Nicolson has finally arrived in the National Archives, and if anything the release confirms our suspicions. From the moment in 1951 when the British establishment realised that within their midst had been two KGB spies, Burgess and Donald Maclean, MI5 pursued anybody who might have been in their ring. However, the files confirm that MI5 didn’t do much about Nicolson, other than intercept his correspondence with Burgess which may have been more of a by-product of opening Burgess’s post than his. At a time when people like Anthony Blunt were having their phones tapped, post opened and facing interrogation, Nicolson seems to have been left well alone.
Could it be yet another case of what Burgess himself called ‘class blinkers’, judging somebody solely by their family, their education and their intellect? Nicolson scored highly on all counts: the son of a diplomat, the 1st Baron Carnock, school at Wellington then Balliol College Oxford, a prolific biographer of literary greats and King George V.
What the files reveal is that nearly 25 years after the defection somebody in MI5 thought that one document in particular was worth a second look. In our book on Burgess we highlighted a 1951 file revealing that the writer John Lehmann had tried to pass on information about him to the authorities. He chose to do it ‘through Harold Nicolson, who found himself unable to assist owing to a heavy list of engagements’. We commented ‘there is no record of whether MI5 followed this up by asking Nicolson himself what he meant by this extraordinary statement’.
What we can tell from the newly released file is two things: firstly that indeed there was no follow up in 1951 and secondly that somebody in MI5 finally put pen to paper in 1974 – 6 years after Nicolson’s death. 1974 is also near the end of Peter Wright’s investigation into possible moles in MI5, the so-called Fluency process. Hand written annotations on the original 1951 file reveal that Nicolson’s curious inability to pass on information to the authorities involved details not just about Burgess but also about Donald Maclean. The extract in Nicolson’s file was taken from Lehmann’s 1951 MI5 interrogation. The Burgess element was when John Lehmann recounted his sister Rosamond’s story of how she had been told in the 1930s that Burgess was a communist agent. That had first come to light when in June 1951 the Daily Express had published a leaked letter by Lehmann repeating his sister’s story. The 1974 annotator adds ‘Nicolson had suggested that he might speak to Sir William Strang to introduce Rosamond Lehmann’s story to him but eventually found himself unable to help’. But John Lehmann also told Nicolson about Donald Maclean recounting ‘secondhand information…the story of how Maclean defending Alger Hiss in a brawl with Philip Toynbee’. The newly released file confirms that MI5 never seems to have got around to asking Nicolson why he had been too busy to pass on Lehmann’s story, even though by that time his friend Guy had already disappeared.
According to Nicolson’s unpublished diary John Lehmann went to see him about the story on 13 June. Nicolson wrote ‘I tell him to get her up to see me first…’, which suggests that Nicolson wanted to check out her version of the story before acting. Within days Lehmann’s letter had been leaked to the Daily Express and events had presumably overtaken Nicolson.
Apart from class blinkers, MI5 ’s failure to follow up with Nicolson may have parallels with the members of the Foreign Office committee of inquiry into the Burgess and Maclean affair who especially noted that it would be ‘distasteful’ for members of the Service to be expected to have to watch colleagues and, ‘in school parlance, to “blab” about them to the “Head”. A clue to Nicolson’s attitudes is revealed by an unpublished diary observation, written in 1940 while he was Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Information. He described MI5 as a ‘silly and hen-minded Gestapo’ who that holding left-wing views made people a security risk. He opined: ‘this is the sort of thing which I can smash.’
Nicolson’s file covers the years 1929 to 1963 and contains letters exchanged between him and Burgess, additional to those already released in Burgess’s MI5 file. Occasional references show that the two men were well aware that MI5 was probably reading their letters, but carried on regardless, sometimes using risqué expressions that must have shocked their uninvited audience. In one letter, for instance, Nicolson, then aged 75, confided to Burgess that although he was still fit and healthy, ‘I hope that I die clasping a naked body to by [sic] chest. That is the way to die, like Felix Faure.’
Some letters concern Burgess’s desire to return to Britain for a visit. He was curious about what information the British government had on him, more so in 1962 after arrest warrants for him and Maclean had been issued at Bow Street. Coming from someone as sophisticated and as ruthless as Burgess it is unlikely to have been just an innocent enquiry. Nicolson, was cautious however, saying he was unable to help: ‘I wish I could tell you something strong and reliable about what evidence the authorities have against you. It is no good my asking anyone – one might as well ask an oyster to give one a sex kiss.’
In 1949 Burgess apparently suffered a serious injury, but concrete details have always been elusive. Nicolson’s file now gives us something more concrete. The story is that Burgess and his FO colleague and friend, Fred Warner, had a drunken argument and Burgess was pushed down a flight of stairs. Earlier this year, while working with George Carey on the film Toffs, Queers and Traitors, Jeff asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office if it still had any Burgess papers that would prove that Burgess had received a bad enough injury to keep him off work. The FCO confirmed that nothing about it was on file. Letters in Nicolson’s file now show that in February 1949 he wrote to Burgess about the head and brow wounds that he had sustained, together with a painful broken elbow. In addition, Nicolson’s secretary, Elvira Niggemann, asked Burgess if he would like to borrow a special book rest, useful for ‘those who hurl themselves down stairs’ and are confined to bed.
There is also a letter that confirms that Burgess’s use of drugs was known to friends. In March 1944 – the day on which Burgess resigned from the BBC to accept a job at the FO, Nicolson advised Burgess: ‘Meanwhile, for God’s sake, stick either to stimulants or narcotics – & don’t mix the two. In any case keep up your optimism and don’t give way to dark misgivings.’
Nicolson’s file also reveals him willingly helping to make openings in influential circles for Burgess, including trying to get him into Pratt’s club, where many up-and-coming Tory politicians were members. He was unsuccessful, but happy to keep trying if Burgess wished.
In 1945, Burgess was worried about his ‘temp’ status in the FO. Nicolson’s file confirms that Burgess had been talking to people such as Nicolson and his future boss, Hector McNeil MP. Nicolson offered a word of advice: be patient and stop banging on about it: ‘received a very strong hint from the top storey that any future prospect would be prejudiced by any suggestions or gossip’.
If we were asked what strikes us most about Nicolson’s file it has to be that, after having established a clear and close connection between Burgess and Nicolson, including the intimate secrets and gossip that they shared in their letters, MI5 didn’t seem to think that Nicolson was a person of sufficient interest to receive closer attention. It is clear from the file – and Nicolson’s unpublished diaries – that he was never formally questioned or approached by MI5. According to this file the organisation never placed a telephone tap or a postal intercept on him or his addresses, never collected statements about Nicolson’s associations or connections, never followed up Nicolson’s involvements with other people in whom MI5 were interested. Was it cock-up, a lack of resources, or that Nicolson was untouchable because he was just too well connected? MI5’s files show that other politicians and illustrious figures were not immune from investigation. The question from our point of view has to be why Harold Nicolson was left alone.

One thought on “The national treasure who didn’t pass on clues about two Cambridge spies

  1. Very interesting. Am still stunned by the whole ‘wrong to blab to the head’ line taken in that inquiry report. Must have led to the gruesome deaths of many brave people..

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