Harper Press £20

IoS book review: An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo, By Richard Davenport-Hines

Sex, lies, and the making of a scandal

When John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War, announced his withdrawal from politics on 5 June 1963, the country teetered. The Macmillan government fell only a few months later. Anyone around at the time will remember it. What we didn't know then was that the real immorality of the "Profumo affair" was the institutional lying, the police corruption, and the media manipulation.

Profumo, a lifelong womaniser, had an affair with a good-time working-class girl named Christine Keeler, whom he met at Lord Astor's house at Cliveden. She was fairly free with her sexual favours and accepted gifts, but never worked as a call girl or prostitute. Another of her boyfriends was Yevgeny Ivanov, a Russian naval attaché monitored by MI5. The newspapers paid her handsomely to say that she was separately bedding both men at the same time, which enabled the media to scream "pillow talk" and run scare-mongering stories about national security risks. Profumo denied his affair with Keeler in parliament, was exposed, and resigned.

Complicated espionage-related politics were at work. Stephen Ward, "a licentious Walter Mitty", was the fall guy. A well-connected osteopath, he enjoyed frolicking with Keeler and her friends, and introduced her to Profumo. He was not, Richard Davenport-Hines proves, a pimp. The charges against him were carefully trumped up by the police and ruthlessly distorted by the media. He was cleared in court of almost all "immoral earnings" charges, but took an overdose before the end of his trial and died three days later.

Davenport-Hines has no sympathy with Lord Denning, the Master of the Rolls whose inquiry took place in 1964. He "inflicted lasting harm on his country", Davenport-Hines asserts, describing Denning's extraordinary belief that when there are enough rumours, there must be some truth to them. "In despoiling Ward's memory Denning set the tone for succeeding generations," the author writes.

This highly readable book shocked me several times. Davenport-Hines, a sparkling and compelling writer, is excellent at detailing the background politics and sexual attitudes of the era. The newspaper magnates Cecil King and Hugh Cudlipp come out of this story badly. So does Chief Inspector Samuel Herbert, with his "rickety evidence" obtained by every possible rule-breaking ruse. There is a huge cast of characters, each meticulously researched. Few behaved well.

Although the author resists drawing parallels, it is hard to read his book without reflecting that we are still agonising over press freedom and the extent to which private lives are relevant to public office – partly because, in Davenport-Hines's view, the Profumo affair was "the death blow of an England that was deferential and discreet".

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