The life of John Profumo, the former Conservative cabinet minister who gave his name to one of the 20th-century's most notorious scandals, is widely seen as a tale of redemption. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said so last week when Profumo's death was announced, shining a light of Christian forgiveness on the story of the politician, his mistress and a Russian spy. There are other versions of the story, some much more salacious: Profumo's fall exposed a world of upper-class shenanigans which sounds like an aristocratic version of a Carry On film. Rumours circulated about S&M parties and orgies featuring the "man in the mask", supposedly a high-ranking member of the establishment who served guests naked at dinner parties and ate from a dog bowl.
Such scenes might have been devised as a left-wing critique of aristocratic decadence, a tamer version of Pasolini's movie Salo, but their novelty in 1963 lay in breaking the taboo on public discussions of sex. That aspect has entered into legend, with reports of queues forming when the official report was released in the winter of that year. The report was chiefly concerned with the security implications of the scandal, which arose from the fact that Profumo's lover, Christine Keeler, had also slept with a Russian naval attaché - an embarrassing connection for the Secretary of State for War.
It wasn't this circumstance that did for Profumo, however, but the fact that he lied to the House of Commons, breaking a quite different code of honour. Yet he also did the decent thing, expressing his deep remorse to fellow MPs and taking himself off, if not in sackcloth and ashes, to devote the rest of his life to the poor in the East End. Some might regard this punishment as excessive; others would argue that charitable work is the proper course of action for all citizens, not something to be undertaken as a penance. But reactions to Profumo's death demonstrate the continuing power of narratives of sin, repentance and redemption, regardless of what the man himself felt.
Actually, it seems to me that almost everything that's been said about the Profumo affair, including Blair's fatuous tribute, misses the point by a mile. The charge against men like Profumo is not that they have sex with prostitutes - in any case, it has never been clear to me whether Keeler was literally a "call girl" - but that they cannot bring themselves to be honest about sex, espousing an explicitly Christian morality in public which they flout in private. It's a form of hypocrisy, obviously, but I think it's worse than that, splitting off sex from human nature in a way that's essentiality puritan.
Quite the worst aspect of the Profumo scandal, it seems to me, is the gross exploitation of working-class girls such as Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies by older, powerful men. Keeler was just 19 when she met Profumo, a troubled teenager; she grew up in a caravan, gave birth at the age of 17 to a child which died a few days later, and worked at a club in Soho before being taken up by a controlling father figure, the society osteopath Stephen Ward. It was Ward who took Keeler to Cliveden, Lord Astor's estate in Berkshire, where she met Profumo, with disastrous consequences.
Ward committed suicide on the final day of his trial for living off immoral earnings. Keeler was pilloried in the press and sentenced to nine months in prison for perjury after an unrelated trial, never really recovering from her notoriety. And Profumo? Well, besides last week's warm tributes, he was appointed CBE in 1975. The establishment looks after its own.