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.