Monday, January 15, 2024

GUEST POST Sex, spies and scandal: The John Vassall Affair

Historian Alex Grant explains why an often-overlooked spy scandal of the early 1960s matters – and  how it changed British journalism, and security vetting, for ever.

"He had 'minor public school' printed all over him," an old friend told me during my research into the life of the clerk turned spy, John Vassall. "Because he was not in the same social class as the ambassador and other senior diplomats, he hadn’t the nerve to go to them when he got himself in a spot of bother."

Who was John Vassall, what was this "spot of bother" and why is it important? With typical British understatement, the term a "spot of bother" was a euphemism for some of the worst possible predicaments - rape, entrapment and blackmail. And Vassall was entrapped by his delicate position in Britain's class structure, as well as by his sexuality.

Vassall, the son of a Church of England vicar, was born in 1924. After being forced to leave his minor public school - Monmouth - in 1941 (his impecunious parents could no longer afford its fees) he served briefly in the RAF and then found work as a junior clerical officer at the Admiralty, where he beavered away quietly until he was sensationally exposed as a Soviet spy, prosecuted and imprisoned in 1962. 

Only then was it discovered that Vassall had been photographed in compromising positions while working at the British embassy in Moscow in 1954. Over the next seven years he had been blackmailed into handing hundreds, if not thousands, of British defence secrets over to his Soviet handlers, both in Moscow and in London. 

Vassall’s arrest and trial, and a subsequent judicial enquiry by Lord Cyril Radcliffe, dominated the front pages of newspapers for several months. The press’s salacious reporting was full of homophobic innuendo and half-truths. 

As a gay man being prosecuted for spying, several years before decriminalisation, Vassall was given no quarter. Newspapers, and the judge at his trial, overlooked the ugly truth: that Vassall had not been seduced in Moscow, but had been drugged and gang-raped.

The scandal led to the resignation of a well-regarded government minister - Tam Galbraith, whose private office Vassall had worked at in 1957-9  - amid what was arguably Britain’s first modern tabloid witch-hunt. There were hysterical rumours that Vassall was not a lone operator, but part of a large, and secret, homosexual cabal in Westminster and Whitehall. Macmillan's government almost fell.  

Two reporters were sent to jail for refusing to reveal their sources, which caused lasting fury on Fleet Street, and helped to fan the flames of the Profumo scandal a few months later. A crackdown after Vassall’s conviction led to a tightening of woefully lax security procedure at the Admiralty - and the modern system of 'positive vetting' for certain civil service posts, which still persists today.

Yet the Vassall scandal is barely remembered now. The Profumo one, which followed fast on its coat-tails, seems to have erased memories of Vassall, even though it was just as a big a story at the time. And remarkably, apart from a homophobic account of Vassall’s espionage, published in 1964, no book has ever been written about it – until now.

Another reason why Vassall was treated so unsympathetically was that he was on the cusp of two social classes Curiously, he was both a snob and a victim of snobbery. Although he was presentable, well-spoken and a vicar’s son, he had never risen higher than clerical officer. His social pretensions irritated his colleagues just as much as his campness did. 

There is evidence that being cold-shouldered by more senior diplomats at the British embassy in Moscow may have driven him into the arms of Russian men. Naively, Vassall never suspected that most of them were covert KGB agents.

Although Vassall died in 1996, I managed to track down several people who knew him,  including two women who worked with him in an archive after his release from prison in the 1970s, when he used the alias John Phillips to avoid his past. More importantly, in the autumn of 2022, the National Archives released thousands of documents on MI5’s surveillance of Vassall, and their breathtakingly intrusive investigations of everyone he knew socially. 

MI5’s files confirm for the first time that Vassall had relationships with two Conservative MPs -  Fergus Montgomery and Sir Harmar Nicholls - before his arrest. By a neat coincidence I live in Oundle, in what used to be Nicholl’s Peterborough constituency, where Nicholls is still fondly remembered as a diligent MP, about whom no whisper of a connection to Vassall was ever heard).

While neither MP seems to have known anything about his spying, they managed to keep their names out of the papers and their careers continued until the 1980s and 1990s. Two other MPs – Tam Galbraith and Denzil Freeth – were not so lucky. Galbraith spent the last 18 years if his life on the backbenches, while Freeth was forced to leave parliament entirely in 1964, merely because of rumours he had once attended a party with Vassall. 

Once Vassall was released, he found that many of his old friends and lovers had been persecuted or dismissed from the civil service in Britain, America and Australia.

Then, just as now, Westminster and Whitehall were brutal places, where careers were either brutally cut short, or gilded, depending on luck, and what friends in high places you had. Despite Vassall’s constant name-dropping, he really stood no chance against a British state that wanted to make an example of him, and which ignored the role that its own homophobia had played in his downfall. 

Some aspects of the Vassall scandal – Minox cameras, undeveloped films in cardboard boxes sealed with Scotch tape, Vassall taking ministerial boxes up to Galbraith in Scotland on the night train from Euston – seem very old hat nowadays. But others are all too familiar. 

One would hope that Vassall would be treated more leniently by the courts today, as a victim of sexual violence rather than an ideological traitor. But would the press, and social media? report the story more sensitively than they did in the early 1960s? I am not so sure.   

Alex Grant’s book on the Vassall scandal - Sex, Spies and Scandal - can be ordered from Biteback Publishing. You can read his blog Alex Grant and follow him on Twitter.

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