The spy who rocked a world of privilege

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The Vassal spy scandal of 1962 exploded on a world where rank and breeding were all, where aristocratic ministers and government mandarins felt no need to justify themselves to anyone, and where the outrageously inappropriate lifestyle of a medium-grade civil servant could go unnoticed if he enjoyed the right patronage. By the time that John Vassall, an assistant private secretary to an Admiralty junior minister, had been exposed as a Soviet spy and sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment, the egalitarian worm had turned. The Vassall Autumn of 1962 turned into the Keeler Summer of 1963, and the old order crumbled.

John Vassall was accused at his trial of "selling his country for lust and greed". But his real downfall was a pernicious and now largely extinct English vice: that wistful Pooterish aspiration to being a gentleman, or at least being mistaken for one.

When the security services (section DI) compiled an inventory of Vassall's home in Dolphin Square in September 1962, they found a Praktina document- copying camera, a Minox, and exposed 35mm cassettes recording 176 classified Admiralty and Nato documents. These were hidden in the secret drawer of an ostensibly antique bureau bookcase. The contents of his wardrobe were equally revealing.

For this clerical grade civil servant earning pounds 750 a year owned 36 suits, almost all from Savile Row, three new cashmere overcoats, 30 pairs of hand-lasted shoes, and a Gatsbyesque profusion of made-to-measure gentleman's silk shirts, underwear and pyjamas. This compulsively neat man had a special stand for his collection of white Burberry mackintoshes.

These sartorial minutiae, not to mention records of Vassall's numerous exotic holidays, were guarded from the press by the security services as ferociously as the Top Secret data Vassall had "sent East" during his seven years of spying for the Soviet Union. Vassall's lifestyle was as sensitive an issue as his espionage. It pointed to an astonishing laxity on the part of the security services. And they were as terrified that the American "Friends" would confront them with their incompetence as that the Beaverbrook press would discover this important agent had for many years been spending perhaps 10 times his annual income on rent and clothes alone.

Lord Beaverbrook nurtured a profound loathing for the Foreign Office, all intelligence services and what he called "pansies" in government service. This element of the Vassall story, had his Daily Express reporters Chapman Pincher or Percy Hoskins been able to dig it up, would have joyously reinforced his belief that the Establishment was riddled with Sybaritic pinko queers subsidised by honest taxpayers, of which he himself was one of the most substantial.

Neither did the Express sleuths learn that Vassall's arrest had been long delayed. He had initially been suspect number one because of an earlier three-year Moscow posting, and his access to the office of Lord Carrington, then First Lord of the Admiralty. But Vassall was almost at once downgraded to suspect number four because his superiors spoke unanimously of his impeccable character, and even "piety".

One of these, the Hon Thomas Galbraith, the Admiralty junior minister, later forced to resign, gave him what amounted to a condescending officer- class reference praising an unusually biddable NCO for his loyalty. Vassall acted rather like Galbraith's batman, packing a suitcase for his superior when some emergency called him away. As heir to the barony of Strathclyde, Galbraith conducted himself with an aristocratic insouciance. There was never a homosexual relationship, though Fleet Street longed to establish one.

However, Galbraith's strong support for his junior, his disdain for the press, and the Establishment assumption that his rank entitled him to behave as he damn well pleased could not be sustained in the egalitarian atmosphere of the time. One of the most important consequences of the Vassall affair turned out to be the hostility it engendered between government and press. By the time of the Profumo affair, and the so-called Cambridge spy scandal, war had broken out.

If Vassall could himself have boasted some Oxbridge connections he might still at that time, given the solidarity of the Old Boy network, have escaped as scot-free as Anthony Blunt. But Vassall was no Marlburian with a Trinity College Cambridge fellowship and a kinship to royalty. He was something else; a convincing impostor who wanted desperately to belong.

He was even inordinately proud that his father had in retirement taken up an ex officio post as curate at St James, Piccadilly, simply because it was then considered the "gentleman's church". In the late 1950s its congregation certainly included an eminent board member of the Times newspaper. He lived "across the road" in a suite of palatial Albany rooms. Here I was summoned to meet the Rev Vassall, and be given a folder containing over a hundred letters of condolence from parishioners and others that had arrived since his son's arrest. The reverend gentleman knew nothing either of his son's espionage activities or, as it transpired, of his sexual preferences. He held to the simple and misguided paternal conviction that his John had always been a good boy. And here were character witnesses to prove it.

He clearly never met his son's friends. One of my first informants liked to be known as "Queen Babs". He received me in a drawing-room containing a Victorian portable lavatory, refurbished with red plush.

"Vera used to love sitting on my throne," Basil confided. Thus I learnt that the impeccable civil servant, always ready to stay late at the office, was known familiarly as Vera, the Admiralty Queen.

Queen Babs knew no more about spying than he had read in James Bond. Like many more friends, he assumed that Vassall was the beneficiary of a trust fund from his revered mother - when interrogated by William Skardon in later years Vassall said that the threat of his mother being shown photos of himself at a homosexual orgy in Moscow had convinced him to spy for the Russians, rather than report their threat to his head of mission, Sir William Hayter.

After the trial, held largely in camera, the opposition, led by George Brown, succeeded in persuading a reluctant Harold Macmillan to set up the Radcliffe tribunal of inquiry. It turned out to be more censorious of the press than of the security services. Two reporters, Brendan Mulholland of the Daily Mail and Reg Foster of the Sketch, were jailed for refusing to name sources. The old order did not let go without a prolonged stuggle.

The Vassall case proved the central link in a chain of events culminating in the Profumo scandal and Macmillan's resignation. Harold Wilson's victory scarcely changed the press war over security. George Brown, by then Foreign Secretary, would in 1967 make a public speech claiming that reporters working on the Philby revelations, including myself, were Marxist agents.

This was not true, but the fact that we were not gentlemen either emphatically was. It took some years to elapse before this gentlemen-v-players intelligence game ended, entirely because of Margaret Thatcher. First she exposed Blunt. Then, as one much-quoted lordly Tory put it, she had replaced degenerate Etonians with some brains by briefless barristers and Essex estate agents with none. Much else was lost besides. The "gents" may have had their arrogant aloofness knocked out of them, but distrust of the Old Boy network was matched in equal measure by homophobia. After Vassall, and the glittering Guy Burgess, many government careers were closed to homosexuals and the world became a greyer place.

Ironically, John Vassall, the spy who wanted so much to be a gent out of PG Wodehouse, contributed more than most to the demise of the species.

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