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
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal