Dingy Quadrilaterals

Ian Gilmour

  • Bringing the House Down: A Family Memoir by David Profumo
    Murray, 291 pp, £20.00, September 2006, ISBN 0 7195 6608 8

‘It’s all because of our fucking surname,’ exclaimed the exasperated Valerie Hobson, the wife of Jack Profumo, when ‘the Profumo scandal’ was resurrected many years after the event. And perhaps she was right, though that cannot be the reason for their son, David Profumo, once more resurrecting it. Presumably he needed to get it out of his system. Whatever his reasons, he tries to discover in this well-crafted memoir, which is effectively a joint biography of his parents and himself – a difficult undertaking – why such an essentially trivial matter should for so long have presented an almost hypnotic attraction to so many people and to the media. The Profumo affair was ‘a potent mix’, he believes, partly ‘because it had so many tasty ingredients: sex, lies, drugs, espionage, violence, race, hypocrisy and a complicated class element’ which involved ‘the Doctor, the Lord, the Spy’ and Profumo himself. The leader of the opposition, Harold Wilson, dubbed them ‘this dingy quadrilateral’, though, as will soon appear, a much dingier quadrilateral was composed of four very different people.

The origins of the Profumo family were Sardinian. Jack Profumo’s great-grandfather, who had, the author tells us, ‘a swarthy aquiline appearance, which has passed strongly through the male line’, was Cavour’s principal private secretary. Jack’s grandfather, who stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1892 as a Liberal, founded the Provident Life Association, which created the family’s wealth. And Jack’s father, a barrister, also stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1910, but as a Conservative.

The start of Jack Profumo’s own political career was very different. At the age of 23 he was adopted as the prospective Tory candidate for the Conservative seat of Kettering. At the beginning of the war he joined the army, and when the current MP for Kettering died did not want to fight the by-election, rightly thinking that he should remain in the army. His party disagreed, and he was summoned to see Neville Chamberlain in Downing Street. He agreed to stand on condition that he could fight the election in uniform and could return to his regiment even if he won. The prime minister readily agreed.

As there was a wartime electoral truce between the main parties, he won the seat without difficulty in March 1940, having implausibly assured his electorate that the eyes of the world were on Kettering. In his first division in the House of Commons he was easily the youngest of only 33 Conservative MPs who voted against the government at the end of the Norway debate, thus helping to bring down Neville Chamberlain and install Winston Churchill in Downing Street. That showed considerable courage in a political novice of 25. The Conservative chief whip told him that he was ‘an utterly contemptible little shit’ and would be ashamed of what he had done for the rest of his life. In fact it was Profumo’s first battle honour and something he could always be proud of.

He showed similar skill and courage in the army. He became a lieutenant-colonel at the age of 28 and a brigadier two years later. He was mentioned in dispatches and won a military OBE. He was, though, not entirely cut off from politics. He kept in touch with his constituents by letters published in the local papers and managed to make the occasional visit to Parliament. Opening a debate in November 1944 he made a widely praised speech on how demobilisation should be carried out when the war was over. Inevitably Profumo lost Kettering in the Labour landslide of 1945, but his career continued to prosper. He became the party’s first broadcasting liaison officer and was adopted for the new and almost certainly safe Conservative seat of Stratford-upon-Avon. As had also been the case during the war, ‘a number of photogenic women were seen on his arm.’ Also at this time he first met the beautiful actress Valerie Hobson. ‘There was instant, electric sexual attraction,’ she wrote later. ‘He’s totally free sexually, and in love with sex.’ They spent Easter 1949 together in Paris, but at that point they were nowhere near marriage. He did not want to be tied down, and she was married to somebody else.

Valerie Hobson was a woman of formidably strong character and considerable intelligence. When she still had the unfetching name of Babette, she had decided aged only six on a theatrical career and arranged her own first audition, impressing the well-known impresario C.B. Cochran. Having got into RADA at the age of ten, she made her own way as an actress. She played a leading role in the West End aged 15, and before long went to Hollywood. Back in England she fell ‘instantly’ in love with the 33-year-old film producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, marrying him three years later. They had two sons; the older one had Down’s syndrome and the other is a judge. She never criticised Havelock-Allan, but David, evidently rightly, thinks he was ‘a selfish husband and a peculiar, indifferent father’ with ‘the aerodynamic appearance of a buzzard’. Although the marriage was not a success, the Havelock-Allans did not divorce for some years. Meanwhile Valerie had become a star of stage and screen. In one film she played opposite Ralph Richardson, whom she much liked, and Laurence Olivier, whom she did not, finding him selfish, offhand and cold. He was however preferable to Leslie Howard, who with his girlfriend for a time shared a house with the Havelock-Allans. Valerie’s best-known films were Great Expectations and Kind Hearts and Coronets. Having impressed the composer Richard Rodgers (Rodgers and Hammerstein) in New York, she was invited to star in The King and I and did so at Drury Lane.

Profumo did not immediately gain office when Churchill won the 1951 election, but a year later he became parliamentary undersecretary at the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation. While he was still at that ministry and Valerie was still at Drury Lane, they became engaged and were married on New Year’s Eve 1954. Jack inexcusably insisted that she give up her role in The King and I and her acting career. She resisted, but became pregnant, which settled the argument. She left the stage, for good as it turned out, in April.

The career of her husband, however, remained on course. Three other junior ministerial jobs followed, until in 1960 Jack Profumo became secretary of state for war, a post which was much less important than it sounds. Earlier that year a separate minister and Ministry of Defence had been created to which the secretaries of state for the three services, who were not in the Cabinet, were subordinate. It was probably as far as Profumo would have ever got. Though ambitious, he was not a political heavyweight. Yet he was an energetic and capable minister at the War Office, and all was going well until in July 1961 he and Valerie spent a weekend at Cliveden, the headquarters, of course, in the 1930s of the so-called ‘Cliveden Set’, of which the author quaintly writes, ‘Cliveden was widely discussed in 1938, as rumours spread that regular house guests such as the foreign secretary and the editor of the Times were supporters of appeasement.’ In fact nobody had to rely on ‘rumours’ for that intelligence; they had only to read the Times. The owner of Cliveden, Bill Astor, a former Conservative MP whom Profumo had earlier thought ‘not a very nice man’, was ‘the Lord’ in Wilson’s ‘dingy quadrilateral’. He certainly lacked the abilities and attractiveness of his three younger brothers. At the Cliveden swimming-pool Jack met, not for the first time, Astor’s osteopath, Stephen Ward, ‘the Doctor’ of the quadrilateral, and the exceptionally pretty Christine Keeler. Profumo, as he later put it, ‘was extremely taken by Christine, whom I thought was Ward’s girlfriend, but he did not seem to be particularly possessive about her’. That same weekend Jack also met Captain Ivanov of the Russian Embassy, ‘the Spy’ of the quadrilateral.

This honest and compelling book has two minor faults. David Profumo makes, usually in brackets, a number of slick comments, particularly about his parents, which jar. He would have done better to let his facts and his quotations speak for themselves. The second blemish is slightly more serious. The author tells us that ‘political history per se has never been one of my favourite subjects.’ In general, of course, there is nothing wrong in that. It may even be admirable. But when writing a book in which political events are inevitably one of the most important features it has its disadvantages. For instance, he writes of ‘Little Clem’ Attlee. Attlee was small in stature but in nothing else. He was leader of the Labour Party for twenty years, deputy prime minister to Churchill during the war and from 1945 to 1951 was one of the best of our postwar prime ministers. Again the book says that in March or April 1940 ‘nobody dared hold an election.’ It was of course not a question of not ‘daring’. No one even considered a general election, which would at that time have been madness and virtually impossible. Nevertheless in its important facts the book is accurate. And except for its introductory few pages, which are overblown, Bringing the House Down is notably well written, vivid and easy to read – not surprisingly, since its author already has two well-regarded novels to his credit, one of which with its autobiographical overtones I have read and enjoyed.

Immediately after his Cliveden weekend Jack Profumo began visiting the girl who had made such an impression on him. Their assignations were usually at Ward’s flat in Wimpole Mews, but once he took her to the family house where they made love in front of the television set. Whether or not Profumo was ‘sharing Christine Keeler’s favours’ with the Russian spy – the author’s guess is that lvanov did not quite make it – the Profumo-Keeler-Ivanov triangle could be made to seem close enough to lend, however implausibly, the vital element of ‘security risk’ to the scandal when it broke.

Only a month after that fatal weekend Profumo was summoned to see Sir Norman Brook, the secretary of the cabinet. Brook informed him that MI5 was watching Stephen Ward’s flat and that Ward was not a desirable person. Profumo took the hint but made the disastrous mistake of cancelling his next assignation with Keeler in a letter beginning ‘Darling’ and continuing in terms which precluded any possibility of people thinking that their previous meetings had been spent discussing politics and osteopathy. That may have been the end of the affair, though Profumo’s son thinks it went on sporadically until the end of the year. Whether or not it did, Profumo was enmeshed in a web that proved lethal.

George Wigg, the Labour MP for Dudley, who had been a colonel in the Education Corps and consequently thought himself a military expert, was critical of the equipment of the British soldiers who had been sent to Kuwait, which had recently become independent. Though Wigg for once had a point, Profumo trounced him in a Commons debate. In consequence Wigg, who was every bit as nasty as he looked, swore to get him. Profumo was not a Cabinet minister, but he was relieved not to be purged in the Night of the Long Knives of July 1962 when Harold Macmillan dismissed a third of his Cabinet. Jack ascribed his survival to Valerie’s beauty, but unfortunately she could provide no protection against the education colonel.

That autumn Christine Keeler was consorting not with politicians but with armed, dangerous and rivalrous drug-dealers. One of them tried to get into Ward’s house and in his attempt ineffectively used a pistol. He was arrested and charged, and the interest of the press was aroused. As the author puts it, ‘Miss K, fired up by these events, now embarked on a round of storytelling that was to persist for decades.’ A Sunday paper paid her £1000 for her story, which included the ‘Darling’ letter. The paper did not publish it, but rumours abounded.

This was the beginning of ‘the Profumo scandal’, one of the sleaziest episodes of postwar politics, though there had been some recent competition. Five years earlier Harold Wilson, then the shadow chancellor, after an alleged leak of sensitive information had impugned the probity of both Peter Thorneycroft, the chancellor of the exchequer, and Oliver Poole, the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, ‘with his vast City interests’. Poole naturally insisted that his name be cleared, and the resulting Bank Rate Tribunal found that there was ‘no justification’ for Wilson’s smears. Wilson did not apologise.

That was followed three years later by another tribunal, set up to inquire into the crude allegations of the gutter press after a spy, John Vassal, had been discovered in the Admiralty. Vassal, a homosexual who had worked in the private office of a junior minister, Tam Galbraith, had been blackmailed by the Russians into giving them information. Galbraith, who offered his resignation, which the prime minister accepted to his subsequent regret, and Lord Carrington, the first lord of the Admiralty, had both been smeared. The Radcliffe Tribunal found that they had been the victims of press hysteria and malice, and they were exonerated. Fleet Street, not Westminster or Whitehall, were the culprits. Two journalists were jailed for refusing to reveal their (non-existent) sources. The public sided with the government. Macmillan had won that battle but at the expense of alienating the press. In the next ‘security’ scare Wilson and the Labour Party joined the popular press in the mire of innuendo and McCarthyism.

Because of the rumour mill, Profumo had been questioned in February by the attorney general and had denied everything. In the same month he had given his version of events to Martin Redmayne, the chief whip, in the presence of Tim Bligh, the prime minister’s private secretary, and had asked if he should resign. Probably every other Conservative whip since the war would have said, ‘Yes, and come back into the government when all this has blown over’ – as happened with Galbraith. With his usual lack of judgment, Redmayne said ‘no’.

Late at night on 22-23 March, George Wigg, Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle used parliamentary privilege to repeat rumours that the war secretary had had an affair with Christine Keeler, a girl who had at the same time been involved with Captain Ivanov, an attaché at the Soviet Embassy, and that he had interfered with the course of justice by spiriting her out of the country to prevent her appearing as a witness in a criminal trial. Shortly after he and his wife had taken sleeping pills, Profumo was woken to be questioned at the Commons by four ministerial colleagues: Bill Deedes, an old friend from days at Harrow, Iain Macleod, another friend, the attorney general and the chief whip. The still groggy minister denied all the allegations – even when Macleod asked him, ‘Did you go to bed with her, Jack?’ – and agreed to make a personal statement in which he claimed that there had been ‘no impropriety whatever’ with Miss Keeler. When Rab Butler learned later that morning of what was proposed, he wisely urged delay but to no avail. The prime minister insisted that the statement be made.

The denial of any impropriety held for a few weeks. But it was not sustainable, and Profumo soon resigned from the government, the House of Commons and the Privy Council. He was of course inexcusably wrong to have told a lie in his personal statement. But of all the lies that have been told in Parliament both before and since, Jack Profumo’s denial of any ‘impropriety’ with Miss Keeler was surely one of the most trifling. Indeed the whole Profumo imbroglio was utterly trivial, and had Hugh Gaitskell still been alive, it would probably never have emerged. George Brown, Labour’s deputy leader, thought the party ‘ought to keep out of this’. But, as he had shown over the Bank Rate Tribunal, Harold Wilson did not possess that sort of sensitivity or scruple. Even though the Profumo case had little more substance than the Vassal scandal, it briefly came close to bringing down the government.

Why did Profumo tell the lie and continue to tell it? His son speculates that Valerie had given him a final warning to stop philandering; Bill Deedes thinks the same. But even if that is true, it does not explain his lies. In view of his letter to Keeler and the sort of people who surrounded her, as well as the behaviour of the Labour opposition in recent years, he should surely have known that the story was almost bound to become public and that there was irrefutable evidence to substantiate it.

Wilson and the Labour Party claimed not to be concerned with morals – they realised that there might be public sympathy for Profumo – but solely with Britain’s security. Because Ivanov had been involved with Keeler at the same time as Profumo, it followed, Labour said, that Profumo had been a security risk. How any sane person could think that Profumo would have given away secrets to Keeler when in bed with her, that she would have known the right questions to ask, and would have been able to remember them and retail the answers to Ivanov, I could not understand. But then of course Wilson and Labour did not believe anything of the sort. They were afflicted with dishonesty not with stupidity. In the parliamentary debate after Profumo’s confession Wilson accused the prime minister of gambling with the nation’s security, alleging that there had been a ‘degree of security risk that no prime minister could tolerate for a moment after the facts were conveyed to him’. Not content with that, the leader of the opposition stated no fewer than four times that we should never know if there had been an actual security risk, a peculiarly absurd and disreputable smear. Wilson’s speech, however dishonest, was undeniably effective. The prime minister’s reply was the opposite: it was honest but ineffective, strengthening the conviction of many that it was time for a change.

Yet the case soon blew over. The frequently made claim that the scandal was responsible for the Conservative defeat in the following year’s general election is baseless. Away from Fleet Street and Westminster, most people, as I found in my constituency, adopted a fairly understanding attitude, seeing the affair in its correct (very small) proportions, and opinion soon swung some way back to the government. In August the Gallup poll showed the government’s approval rating higher than it had been since the previous November.

Apart from sympathising with Jack Profumo and despising Wilson, Wigg, Crossman and Castle – the really dingy quadrilateral – I did little at the time. I never knew Profumo at all well – as I was only elected in November 1962, we barely overlapped in the House of Commons – but I wrote him a note of sympathy and got back from him a very nice letter with Rt Hon. and MP scrupulously crossed off the letter heading; and some years afterwards we were members of the same dining club and met from time to time. He was always friendly and retiring. My connection with the case was largely fortuitous, but it does have some minor historical importance, and is, I hope, worth retelling, particularly as the author has missed it.

In 1963 I no longer edited the Spectator, but I still owned it, and looking through the proofs of the coming issue one morning I read a brilliant article by Anthony West, who lived in America but was temporarily in London. After depicting Senator McCarthy’s activities in America and exposing the potentialities and nonsense in the concept of security risk, West demonstrated that it was ‘this game’ that Harold Wilson, George Wigg (‘that industrious garbage collector’), Dick Crossman and Tom Driberg were now playing. West added that both American parties had refused to follow Senator McCarthy and that the US, ‘in its occasional collapses to political squalor, had never exhibited anything so despicable as the spectacle of Mr Harold Wilson leading his entire following away from serious matters to shuffle and jostle round the dirty linen of Miss Christine Keeler’s various beds in the hope of finding some easy way to power’.

The article was entitled ‘Thoughts of a Stranger Passing Through’, which seemed too innocuous to me, so I suggested substituting ‘McCarthy in Westminster’. At least initially, my intervention proved unfortunate. The ‘industrious garbage collector’ immediately issued a writ, his solicitor Arnold Goodman maintaining that it would be difficult to conceive a graver libel against a Member of Parliament. Naturally we defended the action. Nearly two years later, when the exchange of documents took place the plaintiffs disclosed two documents, sent only a week after Profumo’s personal statement, which destroyed their case. This was done not through an unexpected onrush of honesty but quite certainly by mistake. For had Goodman and Wigg known those documents would be disclosed, they would never have brought the case.

The first document was not sensational. It was a boring memorandum from Wigg to Wilson giving a detailed account of Wigg’s assiduous sniffing around. Labour sent that document to 10 Downing Street. The second document, also a memorandum from Wigg, was the same as the first except for its introductory paragraph, which read: ‘In my opinion, Profumo was never at any time a security risk. The intelligence services were aware of his meetings with Ivanov and with [sic] his subsequent meetings with Christine Keeler. It is equally true to say that the intelligence services were aware of lvanov’s friendship with Ward and his general activities.’ Needless to say, that document was not given to Harold Macmillan. Had it been, the Labour Party would have had to abandon their campaign. Instead they carried on with their hypocritical claim that their only concern was the country’s security, and with their calumny that Profumo had been a security risk.

A few years later George Wigg got his comeuppance. He was had up for kerb crawling at Marble Arch. I don’t think I can have been the only one who did not even try to suppress his Schadenfreude. Jack Profumo redeemed himself by doing forty years hard and successful work at Toynbee Hall in the East End. It was probably Valerie who suffered more. She was reduced to doing little else than domestic work. They brought up their son well; there was only one omission for which he finds it difficult to forgive them. They told him nothing about the scandal, so that he learned of it first from ‘a shit-weasel of a boy’ at Eton, which must have been traumatic.

Anyone who is depressed by the present-day dishonesty of politicians and the low esteem in which politics is currently held will be cheered by reading this book. It shows that forty years ago things were almost as bad, the chief difference being that in 1963 the worst of the dishonesty came not from the government but from the opposition.