Bad for John and even worse for Britain: the Profumo Affair half a century on

It is seen by some as the scandal that invigorated democracy and ended deference, but the more I read about Profumo, the more it strikes me as a catastrophe

Share

Fifty years ago today, Britain’s establishment was engulfed by the most sensational sex scandal in our history. John Profumo – war veteran, Tory star of Sardinian heritage, and husband to a celebrated actress – lied to Parliament, setting in motion a series of events that led ultimately to the spectacular resignation of Harold Macmillan.

It is one of the great stories. Staying at Cliveden, the seat of the Astor family (into which Samantha Cameron’s mother married), Profumo saw 19-year-old Christine Keeler frolicking in a swimming pool. His wife once said to him, “surely there must be some way of concealing your penis”, but with Keeler within reach and his wife elsewhere, Profumo vigorously ignored her advice.

The trouble arose not just because Profumo lied about it, but because Keeler was rumoured to be a call-girl who may also have slept with another of the weekend guests of the Astors, Yevgeny Ivanov, assistant naval attaché at the Russian Embassy. It’s possible nothing much transpired between them; but this being the height of the Cold War, the merest hint of national security being compromised on account of a horny Tory’s peccadilloes was intolerable to public sentiment.

The central character in the plot was an osteopath and social gadfly called Stephen Ward, who once lived with Keeler. When he was tried and found guilty under the 1956 Sexual Offences Act, he committed suicide by overdosing on barbiturates.

A consensus has emerged around the Profumo Affair. It’s seen through that same sepia-tinged lens that considers the period between Suez and Sgt Pepper to be Britain’s post-war heyday. It marked, on this reasoning, the end of deference, pricked the collective ego of our establishment, and invigorated our democracy. Well, that seems a bit rich to me. In fact, the more I read about this scandal, the more it strikes me as a catastrophe.

For one thing, Ward’s suicide, too often glossed over in breathless accounts of the saga, is unspeakably sad. Then consider the fact that, at a time of international unrest and post-war misery in much of England, our government was on hold for months, distracted by the sexual mores of men of great privilege. That it landed us with Alec Douglas-Home, possibly the most mediocre Prime Minister in history, who was inserted by an aristocratic cabal, is reason alone to regret the whole sorry business.

It may also mark the moment when our politicians went from being innocent until proven guilty to guilty until proven innocent.

If there is a link between, say, this affair, the expenses scandal, and the fact that Chris Huhne is currently – and ludicrously – in jail, it’s not just that in all three cases public servants lied to the public. It’s a thread of cynicism linking them which Profumo, who died in 2006, did so much to create. Perhaps in each case that cynicism was justified. But the poisonous mistrust we feel towards our political class today flows from the same cast of mind, and is extremely unhealthy.

Above all, the episode wronged Profumo himself. Like Huhne, he was a first-class minister brought down by ambition and deceit. He subsequently spent decades working for the poor of east London, an act of atonement without equal in our recent history.

To the British public, only paedophiles are harder to rehabilitate than politicians. Profumo will therefore be a prisoner of that lusty afternoon in Cliveden for ever. I only hope Chris Huhne is luckier.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Visitor Centre - Business Manager

£50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: For the first time in its 1,000 year his...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Commercial Property Surveyor

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading firms of Cha...

Recruitment Genius: Female Companions / Personal Assistants - Perm and Bank

£9 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: We are currently recruiting for a care ...

Recruitment Genius: Groundworker

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Ground-worker required for an e...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Lammily with acne on her forehead  

Lammily the 'Normal Barbie' is a great start, but no gendered toy is without problems

Victoria Richards
The Uber app allows passengers to hail a taxi with a smartphone  

This is why I deleted Uber from my phone, and you should too

Timothy Kennett
US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines