Bringing the House Down, by David Profumo

The scandalous fall of an officer class
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The Independent Culture

"To me, he didn't look bright enough to be in the government." Mandy Rice-Davies had a point. The surprise about Jack Profumo's life is not that he threw away a glittering career by lying to the House of Commons about his relations with Christine Keeler, but that a man who was dim even by the standards of Harrow and Brasenose had such a career in the first place. Money explains much of it. The Profumo fortune, derived from insurance, was so large that the family could keep servants and country houses even when their contemporaries had to sell the silver and beg for jobs with Cazenove.

Money brought contacts and helped get Jack into Parliament aged 25 in 1940. The war explains the rest. Being posh, brave and lucky made him a Brigadier at 30 (he outranked every postwar politician except Enoch Powell). In the 1950s he held a succession of government offices associated with military, foreign and colonial affairs. In 1960 he entered the Cabinet as the last ever Secretary of State for War. The fact that the Queen Mother regarded him as an "ideal Minister" says it all. With men like that in charge, you can see why the British were desperate enough to vote for Harold Wilson.

After he resigned in 1963, Profumo sought to protect the innocence of his seven-year-old son; though he does not seem to have thought much about the plight of the 21-year-old Keeler, handed over to the tender mercies of Fleet Street while the Profumo family holed up in Randolph Churchill's country house. He also went to work at Toynbee Hall where he did good works for the poor and persuaded some of the rich to give their money. However, Profumo never talked to a journalist or published a line. The curious result is that we now know more about the private lives of Macmillan and Gaitskell than about the man at the centre of the last century's most famous sex scandal.

Profumo's son, David, has now written his account of the affair. He draws on family papers and interviews with his father. His book is amusingly written and some members of the family (particularly David's mother, Valerie Hobson, and his handicapped half-brother, Simon) are described in moving terms.

Yet David Profumo is oddly uninterested in anything that does not concern his own section of the English upper class. He mentions, in passing, that his father had an affair with, and possibly a child by, Janine Tixier-Vignancour (whose husband he believes to have been "in the Resistance") during the war. Janine was married to Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour - a member of the Vichy government, imprisoned by the Free French, defending partisans of French Algeria, on trial for their life, as the Profumos were absorbed in their little drama.

Does Profumo tell us anything we do not know? It is not clear he got more information out of his father than did those Tory grandees who woke him at 2am in 1963 to demand "straight answers" about his relations with Keeler. David Profumo sometimes suggests that his father was still trying to evade the truth. However, there is also a sense in which Jack Profumo just seemed incapable of comprehending what had happened to him, or what he himself had done.

Richard Vinen's 'The Unfree French' is published by Allen Lane