Boyd Tonkin: Half a century after Profumo's fall, a different kind of deference still stifles us

 

Richard Davenport-Hines's mesmerising new book about the context, course and consequences of the 1963 Profumo affair offers the most bizzarrely skewed set of picture-captions that I have ever come across in a serious work of history.

A neutral shot of newspaper staff, who may well be subbing race results, abuses them as "Sub-editors toiling in a newsroom in 1953 to rake up scandals, publicise slurs and pillory the vulnerable". The younger chaps visible might still be with us. Should they complain? If so, remonstrate with Mr Rupert Murdoch - not only the ultimate publisher of Davenport-Hines via News Corp's HarperCollins firm, but the chief beneficiary, both unmentioned and unmentionable, of the entire sorry saga.

Get a discount on this book at the Independent online bookshop

History, especially history written with such partisan scorn, bite and fury, enlightens the present as it elucidates the past. And, in the wake of the Leveson report and its dilution of the evidence for Murdoch's wholesale corruption of British state institutions into a local breakdown of media ethics, it's impossible to read about the convulsive "modernisation crisis" of 1963 without heeding its legacy for today. Brilliantly researched, irresistibly readable, fiercely polemical, An English Affair (Harper Press, £20) ought to sit on the desk of everyone who voices a view on the entanglement of politics, media and celebrity.

Davenport-Hines's investigation into "sex, class and power in the age of Profumo" has extraordinary density and vigour. With a richly drawn cast-list of arrivistes, mountebanks and throwbacks, it waits until page 245 until it retells (while busting many myths) the headline events of the scandal that saw minister of war John Profumo resign after he lied to the Commons about his short affair with Christine Keeler in 1961. Yet Davenport-Hines writes not as a detached chronicler but an impassioned elegist for a kind of English governance - ironic, dignifed, discreet - embodied by his hero, and the chief political victim of the case: PM Harold Macmillan. Its principal human casualty was Stephen Ward, the society osteopath and "gifted, ingratiating outsider" who hosted Keeler and Profumo. Arraigned on phoney charges in an orgy of official spite, he killed himself as his Soviet-style trial ended.

For this book, the gates of hell opened in summer 1963. Through them surged a demon pack of scoffers, snoopers and cynics who "inaugurated the raucous period when authority figures were denied respect even when they deserved it". Yet the Profumo earthquake toppled an old Establishment only for another to take over. The new bosses enforced their own omertà, exacted deference, stifled dissent, suborned the state itself. The name of this system? Call it Murdoch.

The feverish emotional temperature of his book, with its band of besieged officers and gentlemen harried by the drooling rat-pack of depraved tabloid hacks, spivvy businessmen and leftist puritan creeps, may in part stem from cross-infection by the salacious and censorious prose of the papers it mines so well. More deeply, ambivalence overheats the style. Moving and eloquent in his exposure of the snobbery and bigotry of the dying elite, Davenport-Hines still harbours a lingering nostalgia for its twilight grace. Hence, perhaps, the volcanic rage of a narrative that seems to draw fuel from a molten inner core.

I devoured An English Affair at a hungry glutton's speed. So will many others. Those of us who believe the powerful need more scrutiny and accountability, not less, will bridle at its tolerance of cosy patrician insider-dealing and its disdain for sleuthing guttersnipes. Given my role, the author might echo the oft-misquoted words of Mandy Rice-Davies (the other, tougher "party girl") at Ward's trial: "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?" In any case, I will say that no book about the British past this year will cast a fiercer light on the British present.

Shortlisted in London, winner in Hong Kong?

This year's Man Asian literary award in Hong Kong will stage a partial re-run of the 2012 Man Booker prize. Shortlisted for the $30,000 award - decided on 14 March - are two Booker finalists, The Garden of Evening Mists by Malaysian Tan Twan Eng and Necropolis by India's Jeet Thayil. Other contenders for the increasingly influential pan-Asian honour come from Turkey (Orhan Pamuk's Silent House), Japan (Hiromi Kawakami's The Briefcase) and Pakistan (Musharaff Ali Farooki's Between Clay and Dust).

Clear case of a terrified publisher

The preposterous notion that Britain suffers from too much rather than too little freedom of speech has hit the rock of reality again in the shape of Lawrence Wright's book about the Church of Scientology, Going Clear. Knopf in New York will next week issue the investigator's exploration of L Ron Hubbard's cult. Yet the firm's Random House UK stablemate, Transworld, has refused to publish Wright. The reason, of course, is that the British branch fears action by the litigious sect. London courts welcome libel tourism from global bullies with deep pockets thanks to the archaic and oppressive English law of defamation. With libel law stacked in favour of wealthy litigants (and often beyond the reach of genuine claimants), fear of its operation can chill free expression as much as any actual writ. But we do still have the right to order the US edition of the exposé online.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent