For those too young – or too old – to remember, Mandy Rice-Davies had a walk-on part in the Great Profumo Scandal of 1963. Now she has published a racily ghosted autobiography. It says nothing of much interest about anything or anybody that matters, and paints the predictable sympathetic picture of a fun-loving girl more sinned against than sinning.
That is all there is to say about this book. But there is still rather more to say about the Profumo Scandal. Whenever somebody tries to tap it yet again as a source of memoir money, the creaking clichés roll out about Sleeping Dogs, Old Wounds, Decent Burials and Those Who Have Paid The Price. Their underlying sentiment is right enough: several people suffered grievously by those events, and justice as well as common compassion demands that they should not be made to suffer again. But justice also demands that others should not be exposed to unnecessary suffering in the future, if that can be avoided by learning some lessons from the past.
The salient facts were simple enough. John Profumo, then Minister for War, had a brief affair with Christine Keeler, a chum of Rice-Davies’s. Unbeknown to him, she had also been to bed (or so she later said) with one Eugene Ivanov, then a Soviet naval attaché in London. Profumo had met Keeler through Dr Stephen Ward, with whom the girls had lived, off and on. Rumours began to circulate; the press got hold of the story; Profumo at first denied it, but later admitted it. Suddenly, the police began to investigate Ward; he was prosecuted, tried before Mr Justice Marshall and a jury; convicted; and committed suicide. Passus et sepultus est. Finally, Lord Denning inquired into it all as a one-man Tribunal, and duly reported. And that, bar the strident shouting, moralising and general excitement, was that. When Harold Macmillan, the prime minister of the day, later resigned, the Profumo Scandal was thought to have been one of the causes.
Dramatic and unpredictable though it seemed at the time, with all of us waiting from day to day for the next startling turn of events, what is clear in retrospect is that everyone concerned did precisely what one should have expected them to do, and did it as well – or as badly – as their particular gifts, character and situation both allowed and required.
Take, first, John Profumo. That he should have had a passing affair with the likes of Keeler was in the consistent tradition of many active politicians of all parties and origins then – as it has always been and doubtless still is, and only the ingrained hypocrisy of Anglo-Saxon public affairs pretends not to know. For him to start by denying the fact was no more than the code of a gentleman then required: the honour of a lady might not be impugned, however dubious her claim to that status. To sue newspapers, as he did, for printing the truth was ill-judged and worse, but it followed necessarily from the original lie. To admit that lie in public and in Parliament, to resign seat and office and accept the rage and obloquy that followed, was an honourable way to escape from the self-woven web of deception, and to release others who had become entangled in it. Since then, Profumo has made full amends through charitable works, now rightly rewarded by formal recognition.
Lord Denning, too, did no more and no less than anyone who knew him would expect. His inquiry was thorough, expert and reasonably complete, and his report has much literary merit. Whenever such a task is undertaken by a single individual, it is bound to reflect his personal views, tastes and prejudices. He evidently took to the wretched Keeler: the passage, ‘Let no one judge her too harshly. She was not yet 21,’ passed briefly into the canon of affectionate legal anecdote. He did not take at all to Ward – by then defencelessly dead – and judged him with all the harshness he withheld from Keeler. The last word on that episode was written, just three years later, by a Royal Commission chaired by Denning’s judicial colleague Lord Justice Salmon: ‘We recommend that no Government in the future should ever in any circumstances whatever set up a Tribunal of the type adopted in the Profumo case to investigate any matter causing nationwide public concern.’
Sir Archie Marshall was a Nonconformist Cornishman, professionally reared in Birmingham. To him, Ward was anathema, tránsgressing and challenging all his own sacred, and rigid, values. Given that premise, his conduct of Ward’s trial was as fair as he could make it, and would have left little room for formal criticism on any appeal.
The girls – Keeler and Rice-Davies – behaved no worse, and no better, than good-time girls of their kind have always behaved, and always will. They had fun; they enjoyed themselves and others; they took what they readily could, and gave what little they had to give; they were often kind and only sometimes vindictive. And they bore not the slightest resemblance to starched puritan matrons at one end of the feminine sexual spectrum, or grasping professional prostitutes at the other.
Finally, Stephen Ward – quite the most complex and interesting character in the entire galère. Doctor, osteopath, artist, socialite; charming, gifted, generous, civilised and amusing; he also had the defects of most of his virtues. Though well-born, he had inherited no money; he worked hard and earned well, but was improvident and often in debt; his chronic name-dropping annoyed his grand friends, but not enough to drop him so long as he amused them; he tried to make himself out to be influential, when he was nothing of the kind; and the sexual side of his nature was almost psychopathically – and for him, in the outcome, fatally – free of the restraints imposed by lesser men’s sense of guilt. At the end, he took the brunt of the concerted public shock and anger at the disclosure of the whole affair; his friends in high places all deserted him in order to keep their noses clean, and not one of them appeared in the witness box to speak for him at his trial. Whereupon, with high courage, he went there himself, gave a candid account of his life-style and sexual creed – fully realising the effect this was bound to have on the judge and, in those days, probably most of the jury too – and went away to take his own life before the verdict.
Institutions, as well as individuals, played out their allotted roles. That of the press was fully in character. It poked and pried, it harried and harassed, it was sly and snide, and it portentously claimed to serve, throughout, only the public interest and never its own. It pursued the truth without mercy, and by all the means at its disposal, fair and foul; and it totted up some healthy profits on the way.
As for the law, once it was set into ponderous motion it did what was expected of it. Because Ward had occasionally asked Keeler to introduce him to a pretty girl he fancied, or to get her current boyfriend temporarily out of the way, he was charged – incredibly – with the criminal offences of inciting Keeler to procure the girl concerned to have sexual intercourse with a third person – namely himself! Refusing to have any truck with such nonsense, the jury rightly acquitted. But because the girls’ richer boyfriends often gave them presents, and because while they were living in Ward’s flat they sometimes contributed a few pounds to the rent or the odd household bill when he was short of cash, he was also charged with living on the earnings of their ‘prostitution’ – and on those two counts, the jury convicted. It may be debatable whether such things ought to be criminal offences; if so, how they should be defined; and what should be the burden of proof. But that was how the law stood then, and on this occasion at least it was the prosecution, and not the law, that made an ass of itself.
Times and mores have moved on since then. When Lords Jellicoe and Lambton, in the next decade, were similarly embarrassed by the public disclosure of some philanderings of their own, they, too, thought it right to resign their political offices. But by then that was enough: the public pursuit to death of a sacrificial victim was no longer a necessary catharsis for the body politic.
Today, perhaps, such events would pass with little comment, and no resignations. We have come to accept that everyone is morally flawed, and no less so those who rise to the upper layers of our society. We now recognise that, in secular life, there are no saints. We may still hope that politicians will not lie, businessmen will not steal, newspaper editors will print nothing but the truth, judges will have no prejudices, and all of them will be unexceptionably faithful to their wives. But at least we no longer find it necessary to exhibit hysteria, real or simulated shock, or a stance of high censoriousness, when our hopes are disappointed. There is decidedly less hypocrisy, and a good deal more tolerance.
Some will say that this is a good thing; others will point to it as an index of the corruption which ‘permissiveness’ has wrought in our social fabric. Whichever of them is right, past history indicates that the pendulum will one day swing back, if it has not already started. Some future Quintin Hogg may yet be heard again, memorably, to explode on the radio: ‘Don’t be so damn silly: of course it’s a moral issue!’ And the hue and cry for a scapegoat may one day be heard again in the land. Against that event, there is one more thing to be said about the Profumo Scandal.
At the end of the affair, catharsis was still incomplete in one important respect. The truth had been ascertained. The law had run its majestic course. But it left more than a nasty taste in the mouth: an uneasy sense that something, somewhere, had gone very wrong indeed, though what it was remained at first curiously elusive.
It was Ludovic Kennedy, in The Trial of Stephen Ward (Gollancz, 1964), who first put his finger on it. With blinding insight, he reminded us that, in a country that values its liberties, the function of the police is to investigate known crimes, and to discover the perpetrator and bring him to justice: but that it is emphatically not their function to investigate known citizens, in order to discover whether they have perpetrated any crimes. (At some time, most of us have committed some offence out of the thousands on the statute book – which is why totalitarian regimes can so often find petty crimes to pin on their political dissidents.)
Yet that is precisely what was done to Ward. When the police inquiry first began, it was known that all sorts of people had been to bed with each other. But there was no evidence that anyone had committed any criminal offence. The Security Service had closed its file. Yet Ward was investigated, interrogated and harassed with an arsenal of resources that would have done credit to an inquiry into a whole chain of murders. Over weeks on end, the police interviewed between 125 and 140 potential witnesses. Keeler alone was interrogated 24 times. At the end of all that, ridiculus mus emerged in the form of a shabby indictment, and only eight witnesses were called to support it. Given that indictment, there was little to criticise in the legal process that followed. But the mammoth inquiry which led to it was no part of routine police activity. It did not start because a known crime had been committed. It started because someone specifically decided that a known citizen should be investigated on behalf of the Crown.
What little we know, to this day, about how that decision came to be made is set out in Lord Denning’s Report, where it is fairly summarised in two cryptic sentences: ‘On 27th March, 1963, the Home Secretary asked the Commissioner [of the Metropolitan Police] whether there was a police interest in Ward. On 1st April, 1963, the Commissioner decided that Stephen Ward’s activities should be investigated.’ Given the secretiveness of our system of government, that is all we are ever likely to know. And the implications are chilling.
Looking back on it now, that was the real scandal of Profumo. And nothing has been done since to make sure that it cannot happen again.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.