An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo 
by Richard Davenport-Hines.
Harper, 400 pp., £20, January 2013, 978 0 00 743584 5
Show More
Show More

In 1963, the year of his disgrace, the sleek, balding, faintly exotic Jack Profumo was secretary of state for war. It sounds like an important job – what could matter more than war for the functioning of the state? Undoubtedly this helped to give impetus to the Profumo affair. Help! The war secretary is cavorting with call-girls and Russian spies! But Profumo’s job title was somewhat misleading. The war secretary was really a junior minister responsible for the army, ranking only fourth in the defence hierarchy. He was not in the cabinet. In the early 1960s Profumo had two basic roles to fulfil. The first was as a point man between the British military establishment and the new government in Washington, a town presided over by another John/Jack the lad. Profumo’s go-getting reputation and unstuffy demeanour made him attractive to the men around JFK, who liked that he didn’t seem like a typical Brit, never mind a typical Tory. He was extremely sociable, and well suited to the work hard, play hard culture of Camelot. Set against the rest of Macmillan’s ageing government, Profumo was viewed by some in Washington as the coming man. It probably suited Macmillan’s government to let them believe this.

Profumo’s other role was to prepare the British army for the end of National Service. Conscription had been in place since 1939, and after the war it had been formalised as a continuing peacetime commitment. The Conservative government wanted to create a professional army, better suited to the specialist demands of the postwar age. Profumo was charged with keeping everyone onside during the transition. This was a man-management exercise, not a military one. By all accounts he was very good at it. The final national servicemen were demobilised in May 1963, just a few days before Profumo confessed to the House of Commons that he had lied about the nature of his relationship with Christine Keeler. After Profumo’s resignation, there were two further, short-lived secretaries of state for war (Joseph Godber and James Ramsden). Within a year Harold Wilson’s incoming Labour government had abolished the post altogether, amalgamating its duties into the Ministry of Defence. Profumo killed off his job at the same time that he was destroying his own career.

What Profumo always had going for him as war secretary was his own war record. During the Second World War he demonstrated conspicuous personal bravery, both on and off the battlefield. He was elected to the Commons in a by-election in March 1940 aged just 25, making him the baby of the House. His first vote came in May, when he joined 33 other Tory MPs, including Macmillan, in siding with Labour in a vote censuring the Chamberlain government for its failure to supply British troops in Norway. As Richard Davenport-Hines records, the minister of health spat on Profumo’s shoe after he passed through the lobbies. The Tory chief whip told him that he was ‘an utterly contemptible little shit’. Even for a headstrong young man it was a remarkably courageous thing to do. Macmillan never forgot it. Profumo then proceeded to enjoy a notably good war, serving first as an air intelligence liaison officer during the Battle of Britain, before seeing action in the battle of Tunis, the invasion of Sicily and the conquest of Italy. In 1945 he became the youngest brigadier in the British army, dislodging Enoch Powell from that position.

Macmillan liked to be surrounded by men who had seen real action, just as he never got used to the company of appeasers. He was one of only two modern British prime minsters (the other was Attlee) who had suffered serious injury on the field of battle. He was wounded five times while fighting on the Western Front; in 1916, while on reconnaissance, he was nearly killed by a bullet to his pelvis. He survived by rolling into a shell-hole in no-man’s-land where, so the story goes, he kept his spirits up by scanning a copy of Aeschylus he had secreted in his battledress. His injuries left a permanent mark, mentally and physically. His later appearance as a prematurely aged man, with a shuffling gait and rather gingerly gestures, might have made him seem like a bit of an old woman to a younger generation. But to his contemporaries in the Tory Party these were badges of honour: the unmistakable evidence that he had once been a warrior. When Gaitskell became Labour leader, Macmillan told a dining club of Tory MPs that ‘the trouble with [him] is that he has never seen troops under fire.’ Macmillan’s hold over his own party rested on the fact that he had long ago taken a bullet for the team.

A war secretary who was really part socialite, part bureaucrat; a modernising prime minister whose authority derived from his experiences in the trenches; a country that was trying to move on from the last war while living in a world that was everywhere marked by it. These are the themes of Davenport-Hines’s evocative and engaging book, which describes an age caught between opposing forces that its political elite appeared powerless to reconcile or to control. Britain in the early 1960s was a divided country, torn by conflicting impulses, towards the past and the future, tradition and experimentation, dignity and fun. But Davenport-Hines doesn’t see these oppositions as having created social divisions between the classes, or between the coming men and the old buffers. Instead, they were evident in everyone, from prime ministers to good-time girls, from property developers to law lords, bringing out the absolute worst in all of them.

The primary site for all this was, of course, sex. It was a time when the people trying to be grown-up about sex ended up behaving like children, and the people who tried to stop them only made things worse. Again, Macmillan stood at the apex of the absurdity. The prime minister’s marriage was known to be a sham, his wife the long-term lover of Bob Boothby, a fellow Tory MP. When divorce had been mooted back in the 1930s, Macmillan threatened suicide, saying he would be unable to face the children. ‘This is real – not stuff,’ he wrote in a letter to Nancy Astor, who was trying to act as go-between. Also real not stuff was the knowledge that divorce might spell the end of his political ambitions. By the time Macmillan became prime minister divorce was no longer a barrier to high office. His cabinets contained plenty of divorcés, most of whom presented themselves as practical men of business. But that didn’t mean that the Tory establishment was willing to treat divorce as a personal matter. It maintained the fiction that the collapse of any marriage was a moral failure, in which it must be possible to apportion blame. The law remained unreformed; the grounds for divorce were always a matter of guilt and innocence, which meant proof of infidelity was needed. When Eden made Oliver Poole chairman of the Conservative Party in 1955, Macmillan complained that ‘like most Conservative leaders nowadays he is a divorcé.’ Then when he became prime minister in 1957 he replaced Poole with Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham), who was another one.

Hailsham had come home from the war to find his wife sleeping with an aide-de-camp to De Gaulle. Her guilt was unambiguous; so was her husband’s innocence. Hailsham’s experience of divorce did nothing to dissuade him from the idea that the marital bed was sacrosanct. All sexual conduct, he insisted at the time of the Wolfenden Report on homosexuality, should be governed by strict moral imperatives. Adultery and fornication were bad enough, but at least they involved ‘the use of the complementary physical organs of male and female’. Homosexuality did not, which made it especially pernicious (‘nearly all the homosexuals I have known have been emotionally unbalanced and profoundly unhappy’). But almost as dangerous – for men and women – was seeking pleasure from something other than intercourse (oral sex or mutual masturbation were, Hailsham believed, ‘fraught with grave dangers, emotional, or even physical, to one or both of the participants’). Yet this was a man who wanted to portray himself as one of the hustling, no-nonsense modernisers bringing the Tory Party into the late 20th century. On that basis he hoped to succeed Macmillan as prime minister. Davenport-Hines, who has a great eye for detail, notes that in an age when it would have been unthinkable for cabinet ministers to appear in shirtsleeves, Hailsham was one of those who liked to signal that he was getting down to business by tightly fastening his suit jacket with the middle button: the perfect symbol for a repressive progressive.

Profumo was nothing like this. He was louche, flirtatious and permanently up for it. His wife, Valerie Hobson, complained of his habit of treating all pretty girls as ‘fair game’: ‘You will stretch any manners, at any time, to do this – not quietly and discreetly, but laughing and showing off and behaving like an adolescent.’ She also disliked his style of tailoring (‘surely there must be some way of concealing your penis’). Yet there was something forced about all this carnality: Profumo was still a man playing a part, and abiding by the rules of the game, which demanded that men claim and then discard women, treat sex as a hobby, never let it get in the way of the serious stuff and keep the marriage for public show (JFK was the role model). It was all rather businesslike. Profumo was one of the robotic playboys of the age, to set alongside the buttoned-up modernisers. In this, he and Christine Keeler were well suited. ‘She is a very, very pretty girl,’ Sybille Bedford wrote about her after the scandal broke. ‘All the curves and lines are as good as they can be, the head has charm and grace, and there is a faint oriental touch about the face: the pure smoothness, the hint of high cheekbone, the slant of eyes, oh yes, no doubt that she could be devastatingly sexually attractive.’ But, Bedford went on, ‘for all the sleekness, the sexiness, there is a lack of life, as if the sex were prefabricated sex, deep-freeze sex, displayed like the dish of fruit in a colour photograph.’ It is striking how much Profumo and Keeler resemble each other (if you leave aside the hair). He too has the slightly slanting eyes, the prominent cheekbones, the downturned mouth. They are one of those couples that you could pick out from a random assortment of photos, on the basis that people prefer people who look like they do. But each was quickly disappointed in the other, and they brought on themselves nothing but misery.

Davenport-Hines disapproves of all this hypocrisy, the double standards of the womanisers as of the moralisers. But he disapproves even more of the people who disapproved of it at the time. There were plenty around who wanted to exploit any evidence of bad behaviour in high places for their own purposes. Newspapers probed the private lives of politicians in the hope of finding the scandal that could wreck them. Opposition politicians floated rumours and conspiracy theories in the hope that the newspapers might bite. Davenport-Hines finds all this contemptible: men (and the occasional woman, such as Barbara Castle) bent on power and using prurience and censoriousness as a way to get it. It is all too easy to take the moral high ground when politicians are making a mockery of their own public standards; much harder to contain the corrosive effects of doing so. Witch hunts don’t make people behave better; on the whole, they make them behave worse. Davenport-Hines is resistant to any attempt to turn the Profumo affair into a morality tale in which some fundamental truths about British public life were revealed. He mocks the most celebrated moment of the whole saga, when Mandy Rice-Davies responded to being told that Bill Astor had denied having had sex with her with the line: ‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he?’ Ever since, worldly commentators have taken this to be a glimmer of straight-talk amid the welter of lies. In a recent article in the Times, Daniel Finkelstein held it up as a watershed in modern political analysis, the moment when someone finally pointed out that public figures are as self-interested as the rest of us. The only trouble is that all the evidence suggests Astor was telling the truth, and Rice-Davies was lying. Maybe he would, but in the end he didn’t, did he? Davenport-Hines writes: ‘One of the cruellest details of the Profumo affair is that this slick evasion has become Bill Astor’s popular epitaph. It is still recycled by the lazy, unscrupulous and prim.’

Neither does Davenport-Hines have much time for the other redemptive story that is often told about the affair: the penance done by Profumo himself. After his resignation, he withdrew from public life and devoted himself to charity. He went to offer his services to Toynbee Hall in the East End of London. He started off by washing dishes and ended up running the organisation, a selfless administrator and tireless fundraiser. His obituary in the Daily Telegraph in 2006 announced: ‘No one in public life ever did more to atone for his sins; no one behaved with more silent dignity as his name was repeatedly dragged through the mud; and few ended their lives as loved and revered by those who knew him.’ Davenport-Hines accepts that Profumo deserved to be rehabilitated, as indeed he was: his return to favour was championed by the Queen Mother, who hosted dinners in his honour towards the end of his life. But the story he chooses to tell about Profumo’s later years is that on one of these occasions, seated between his hostess and a 17-year-old Guinness heiress, ‘the old satyr whispered to the latter during the first course: “Ever been fucked by a seventy-year-old? No? You should try it.”’ Profumo may have been chastened by his experiences, but he was never reformed. Davenport-Hines reports this without approval or disapproval. There are no morals here.

There is sympathy, though, and the two people Davenport-Hines feels most sorry for are Astor, and the other man on whom the scandal came to centre, Stephen Ward. In the case of Astor, this is understandable. It was at Astor’s house, Cliveden, in the summer of 1961, that Profumo met Keeler, who was there with Ward, who was in cahoots with the Russian naval attaché Ivanov. Ward was an osteopath with a long list of celebrity clients, a libertine and a man on the fringes of the intelligence world. He had sporadic contact with MI5 as well as with the Russians. Astor loaned Ward the use of a cottage on his estate, where the back doctor hosted informal little gatherings that ran alongside the grander affairs at the main house. He was also available to provide impromptu treatment for anyone suffering aches and pains (he gave a neck massage to Valerie Profumo, who declared him ‘creepy’). On the weekend the Profumos were guests of Astor’s, other visitors included the president of Pakistan, Lord Mountbatten and Osbert Lancaster. Did Ward throw Keeler Profumo’s way? Did Ivanov know? Was it a honey-trap? Whatever the answers to these questions, it is unlikely Astor had much idea of what was going on. He was something of an innocent, trying to emulate his mother Nancy (who had never had much time for him) in solving the world’s problems by bringing together unlikely people and hoping that sparks would fly and barriers be broken down. He wanted to facilitate useful social encounters. When the scandal broke in 1963, he was accused of being a brothel-keeper, a voyeur and a traitor. People who had never forgiven the ‘Cliveden set’ for their role in appeasement a generation earlier used the opportunity to renew hostilities. Beaverbrook, who had a long-standing grudge against Astor, set his newspapers to destroy him. Astor, conscious of his standing as a gentleman, thought it best not to dignify his accusers with a response. He died in 1966, his reputation in tatters. Yet all he had been was the host who was holding the parcel when the music stopped.

Ward is a different matter. He was not an innocent, but he almost certainly was a fantasist. He believed he was playing an important role in the Cold War, using his network of contacts to open up vital channels of communication. At one point he hoped he might be instrumental in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis. He liked to offer his services to governments and spymasters as well as crocked celebrities. He was, Davenport-Hines insists, a kindly man. Most people – excepting Mrs Profumo – clearly liked him. Davenport-Hines focuses on his miserable treatment at the hands of the authorities in 1963, when he became the scapegoat for a scandal that had long since spun out of his orbit. While on trial in July charged with a wide range of sexual offences, including living off the earnings of prostitutes, all of them trumped up, he told a friend: ‘Every motive I have is twisted. All I have left between me and destruction is a handful of firm friends … God alone knows what will happen. I know that one day the truth will eventually come out. And the truth is very simple: I loved people – of all types – and I don’t think there are many people the worse for having known me.’

This was not true. There were plenty. It was Ward’s behaviour that caused the scandal to explode, and eventually led to the downfall of many of his friends. Keeler was the one who set things in motion. Profumo had broken off their relationship after a few encounters in the summer of 1961 and 18 months later she was still aggrieved about it. By the end of 1962 she was short of money, smoking a lot of cannabis and sounding off on the London party circuit about her mistreatment at the hands of various men, including Profumo, Ivanov and a gangster called Johnny Edgecombe, who had fired a gun at Ward’s flat while she was visiting Rice-Davies there. Word of these adventures reached an unscrupulous Labour MP called George Wigg, who started floating them at Westminster. They also reached the press, which began to compete to buy up Keeler. Eventually the Sunday Pictorial (a forerunner of the Sunday Mirror) secured a garbled version of her story for £1000. The article was lurid (tales of high jinks at Cliveden), sensationalist (Keeler said that Ward had told her to ask Profumo when the Americans were going to supply West Germany with nuclear weapons) and full of inaccuracies. Ward got his lawyers to tell the paper that he, Astor, Profumo and others would sue if it ran. The paper capitulated and withdrew the story. Other newspapers hinted at what they knew, but did not dare name names. In Parliament, Wigg demanded that the government confront the rumours about a government minister, ‘a Miss Christine Keeler and Miss Davies’. He implied there was an obvious security risk. On 22 March Profumo made his statement to the Commons denying any impropriety in his relationship with Keeler.

Christine Keeler, dressed for work at Murray’s Club in Beak Street, Soho, 1960.

Christine Keeler, dressed for work at Murray’s Club in Beak Street, Soho, 1960.

At this point, Ward might have been expected to try to keep a lid on things. Instead, he took over Keeler’s role, going around London complaining about his own mistreatment and talking up his involvement with MI5 (he hinted that the press were about to blow an important operation he had been running). He made the catastrophic error of telephoning Wigg to set him right about mistakes in the version of events he had been peddling. He then came to the Commons tea room to volunteer more information. This simply persuaded Wigg that the story had legs, and he went straight to Harold Wilson. Davenport-Hines calls Ward an inveterate show-off. But really he was a blabbermouth. Once the story became a story about him he couldn’t bear to stop talking about his role in it. The government, alarmed at having this man wandering about Westminster looking for people to confide in, decided he had to be silenced. The home secretary, Henry Brooke, called in the Metropolitan Police and effectively told them to get Ward.

In conventional accounts of the Profumo affair the government’s fatal error occurred the night before Profumo made his denial to the Commons, when he was summoned from his bed by panicked ministers demanding that he set the record straight. One of them, Iain Macleod, put it bluntly. ‘Look, Jack,’ he said, ‘the basic question is: did you fuck her?’ Profumo said no, and his interrogators said they believed him. But that wasn’t really the question. The meeting had been called because the government was spooked by Labour suggestions that Profumo had committed some sort of security breach. Profumo was adamant that this was nonsense. The question of his sexual relationship with Keeler seemed to him a secondary matter. The form of words he used in the Commons the next morning – ‘there was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintanceship with Miss Keeler’ – was designed to convey in unequivocal terms that Labour’s scaremongering about the Russian connection was unfounded. Profumo allowed himself a little lie in order to convey what he thought was the larger truth. Many politicians get away with doing this. Some don’t.

However, the real errors of judgment that fuelled the Profumo affair took place before and after that night. The first mistake was Macmillan’s. The previous autumn his government had faced another spy scandal, when a clerk in the Naval Intelligence Division called John Vassall was discovered to have been passing documents to the Russians. Vassall had previously been attached to the British Embassy in Moscow, where he was trapped in a sting operation that produced photographs of him naked with other men. He later worked in the private office of a senior Tory MP, Tam Galbraith, who was Civil Lord of the Admiralty. The press and the opposition did everything they could to talk up the connection, and on the basis of a couple of handwritten notes it was suggested Galbraith was Vassall’s Whitehall protector and probably his lover. The story broke during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Macmillan had more important things to worry about. Distracted and impatient, he demanded Galbraith’s resignation. Afterwards he felt he had been bullied into sacrificing an innocent man. He was determined not to make the same mistake again. So when the rumours started up about Profumo, he let it be known that it was time to hold firm. His ministers, in believing Profumo’s denials, were doing what their master wanted. Macmillan was standing up to the tittle-tattles in the press and on the opposition benches, which is all well and good, so long as what they say doesn’t happen to be true. The experience of having disbelieved an honest man persuaded the government to put its faith in a liar.

The other mistake was Brooke’s. Once Profumo made his statement, the party rallied round, though the newspapers kept probing. The government needed to find some way to close the story down. By going after Ward, Brooke ensured that the opposite would happen. A decade later, when the Labour government delayed sending troops into Northern Ireland as the violence was getting out of hand, Merlyn Rees, the secretary of state, was asked by a journalist why they waited so long. ‘My dear boy,’ he replied (doing his best Macmillan), ‘the army is a very blunt instrument.’ So too is the Metropolitan Police. In its pursuit of Ward the Met trampled all over the story, threatening witnesses, tapping phones and leaving behind a trail of grievances. Ward, his justified fear of persecution making him more not less indiscreet, was recorded saying things that clearly indicated Profumo had lied. Ward then wrote to Brooke complaining about his treatment at the hands of the police and the Home Office. When that didn’t work, he wrote to his own MP and to Harold Wilson. ‘It is quite clear,’ he told Wilson, ‘that they must wish the facts to be known, and I shall see that they are.’ Too many people were now inside the loop; in fact, there no longer was a loop. Profumo, on holiday in Venice, saw that the game was up.

But the police continued to bully, harass, suborn and threaten anyone who stood in their way, even after Profumo resigned. Keeler was instructed to perjure herself at Ward’s trial, and was then put on trial herself for perjury. Character witnesses Ward wished to call in his defence were told that incriminating material would be planted on them if they agreed to speak. None did. The trial itself was a circus, and deeply embarrassing for the government. Why did Brooke unleash all this thuggery? The conspiracy theory says that he and others had decided the only way to hush up what threatened to become a national security scandal was to turn it into a sex scandal: they wanted the facts about Profumo’s little lie to come out, so as to throw the public off the scent of the much bigger lies, which stretched from Washington to Moscow. Nailing Ward as a pimp, and Profumo as an adulterer, was much better than allowing MI5’s dirty linen to be washed in public. The cock-up theory says that Brooke was fed up with all the nastiness swirling around the government and wanted to make an example of someone. He simply didn’t think about the consequences. When things go wrong in politics it’s usually cock-up, not conspiracy.

Davenport-Hines cannot contain his disgust at the police treatment of Ward and his friends. The cases arising out of the Profumo affair that came to court in 1963 were, as he says, ‘show trials’, with all that implies: trumped-up charges, forced confessions, fabricated evidence. But if the police were the worst offenders, others weren’t far behind. The press, once the lid was lifted, went after the story with everything at their disposal: editorial writers took the high ground, castigating Astor, Ward and Profumo for their depravity; feature writers recounted in as much detail as they could muster just what this depravity consisted in; reporters routinely broke the law to provide any shred of evidence that might back them up. Anyone who thinks the recent antics of the press are uniquely shocking should read this book. Ward’s cottage on the Astor estate was broken into. His friends were bribed to spill the beans, and the ones who wouldn’t talk were harassed. Profumo was pursued remorselessly, along with his wife and eight-year-old son. The police didn’t just turn a blind eye to all this; they connived in it. Ward eventually holed up in a friend’s apartment in London, where on the last day of his trial he took an overdose of barbiturates. A photo reproduced in this book shows the dying Ward being carried out of the flat on a stretcher, with no one there to protect him; the photographers who were waiting outside then tried to force their way in. Once Ward was dead, but not yet cold, the News of the World delivered its verdict. Not only was Ward ‘a demon’, ‘a devil’, ‘depraved’, ‘disgusting’, ‘a diabolical, malevolent mischief-maker’ who lived in ‘a cesspit’, he was also a coward. ‘The last and biggest crime of all of Ward’s in the eyes of decent men was that at the pinch – he just couldn’t take it.’

The press, though, were being given a lead by the lawyers. Mervyn Griffith-Jones, in his closing address for the prosecution at Ward’s trial (a role he had also performed at the ‘Lady Chatterley’ trial three years earlier), told the jurors that ‘the evil goes very deep.’ Ward, they were repeatedly reminded, was a man who kept a two-way mirror in his flat, to facilitate his voyeuristic impulses. This was not true: the mirror belonged to Keeler’s friend Peter Rachman, the slum landlord. But at the trial it became the symbol of ‘the very depths of lechery and depravity’ to which Ward was willing to sink. Griffith-Jones instructed the jury that it was their patriotic duty to convict such a man. The judge, Sir Archie Marshall, did nothing in his summing up to dissuade them. It was after hearing this that Ward took his overdose. He lived for three more days. Marshall refused to halt the trial, and hurried the jury into reaching their verdicts while Ward was still alive. He was acquitted of pimping but found guilty on a range of other charges. He died before he could be sentenced, something Marshall clearly regretted.

The excoriation of Ward’s character, sexual tastes and mode of living continued in the report Lord Denning wrote later in the year about the whole Profumo affair, at the behest of the government. Ward was described as a seducer, a procurer, a drug fiend and a voyeur. Denning continued to repeat the false stories about the two-way mirror, and never budged from his view that Ward had received a fair trial. Denning also focused his attention on Profumo’s lie. He argued that the mistake made by Profumo’s government colleagues was to have asked themselves whether he might be telling the truth (yes), instead of asking whether reasonable people would suppose him to be telling the truth on the basis of what they had already heard (no). Denning was effectively endorsing the idea that in matters such as this, there is no smoke without fire. As Davenport-Hines writes, ‘Denning’s upholding of the primacy of cheap suspicions inaugurated a period when newspapers could publicise moronic gossip, hound and humiliate their victims by innuendo and accusation, treat paid informers as heroes, solemnify hoaxes and turn ill-fame into a lucrative commodity.’ The behaviour Lord Justice Leveson considers so shocking is the same behaviour Lord Justice Denning saw fit to sanction.

Davenport-Hines finds the Profumo affair an irredeemable tale of two fundamental human failings: sanctimony and cruelty. This is a censorious book about the follies of censoriousness. At times, the pervasive sense of disgust can be overwhelming. Davenport-Hines writes of 1963 as a year when ‘the soapy scum flowed after the sluices of self-righteous scurrility were opened.’ Yet he has a point: this is a study of what can happen when politics and morality bring out the worst in each other, and it is pretty revolting. What the book lacks is not so much a sense of proportion as a sense of perspective. Davenport-Hines treats it as a very English affair: hypocrisy, after all, is the English vice. But these events didn’t happen in national isolation. Davenport-Hines ignores the American dimension. He doesn’t discuss the dismay in Washington when Kennedy’s men discovered the scandal was about to break. How had Macmillan allowed things to reach this point? Robert McNamara, the secretary of defence, was especially appalled, knowing what he did about the access Profumo had been granted. Davenport-Hines doesn’t acknowledge either that the Americans were at it themselves. A home-grown sex and spies scandal was running in Washington at the same time as the Profumo affair. The part of Ward was played by Bobby Baker, a political aide who arranged sex parties for high-ranking Democrats and foreign diplomats. This scandal too was fuelled by a scurrilous tabloid press and an unscrupulous political opposition. No one stinted on the sanctimony, though Bobby Kennedy did a better job than Brooke of keeping it under wraps by reining in the FBI. By October the scandal was swirling around Baker’s former boss, Lyndon Johnson, who was under Senate investigation for his involvement in Baker’s business affairs. ‘Hill Probe May Take Profumo-like Twist’ was one headline that ran in the Washington Post. What killed the story was the assassination of JFK, which gave everyone bigger fish to fry.

Two days before Macmillan resigned on 18 October 1963, another ageing political leader stepped down. Konrad Adenauer, the 87-year-old West German chancellor, finally called it a day, his authority having been undermined over the previous year by the effects of the Spiegel affair. It wasn’t a sex scandal, but it did have links to Profumo. Adenauer’s defence minister, Franz Josef Strauss, had authorised a police raid on the offices of Der Spiegel and the arrest of its editors, charging them with security breaches for publishing a highly critical article about his management of the West German military. One accusation levelled against Strauss by the magazine was that he was plotting to secure an independent nuclear deterrent for West Germany (whether this was true was the topic about which Ward was said to have primed Keeler to probe Profumo). The Spiegel story was a more serious business than the Profumo affair, involving fundamental questions about press freedom and West Germany’s political identity. But it was still a scandal, with all that implies. Process took priority over substance: what nailed Strauss was not any big lie about the bomb but a little lie about a phone call. He had been less than forthright in Parliament about whether he had rung up the West German attaché in Madrid the day before the arrests to tip him off. That’s why he had to go. The press had a field day, and so did Adenauer’s political opponents. Power-starved politicians and embittered journalists used the scandal to advance their own careers. The outs got in; the ins were temporarily put out. Davenport-Hines complains of the Profumo affair that its result was for ‘one network of egotists, with an intricate history of mutual obligations, murky pacts and tacit promises [to be] replaced by an opposing alliance, no more qualified or efficient, held together by similar bargains, ambition and vanity’. There is nothing distinctively English about this. It’s how democracy works.

In June 1963, shortly after Profumo quit, David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli prime minister, also resigned, ground down by the consequences of the Lavon affair, Israel’s own spy scandal. This one too was serious: no sex, plenty of violence. Ben-Gurion was accused of covering up his involvement in a botched undercover terrorist operation in Egypt a decade earlier. But again the political damage was done by press and opposition speculation about who had said what to whom. Rumour did the work of fact. Journalists took sides; so did judges. A frustrated younger generation of politicians used the scandal to leverage an old man out of power. It’s no coincidence that scandal was so common across the democratic world in the early 1960s. Back in 1947, at the outset of the Cold War, George Kennan had outlined the policy known as ‘containment’. He argued that the democracies would have to learn patience to outlast the Soviet threat. They needed to dig in for the long run. How long was that? Kennan thought that ten to fifteen years should do it: if the West could keep its act together, the Soviet Union would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. By 1963 the 15 years were up. The Soviet Union had not fallen apart. The democracies were out of patience.

In An English Affair, Davenport-Hines says of the shadow that the war still cast over the country Macmillan became prime minister of in 1957: ‘Twelve years is not a long time, except to children.’ But democracies are essentially childish: 12 years is a long time for them too. It wasn’t just the shadow of the war but the frustrations of the democratic peace that had made people restless by 1963. In many countries, the political class that produced the postwar settlement was still hanging on; old political soldiers were refusing to die. Governments that had been around too long were growing careless, and their publics were looking for something new. These are the circumstances in which scandal becomes a vehicle of democratic change. The result is usually disappointing: change is never commensurate with the scale of the outrage a scandal provokes. But it is effective: scandals are a good way of telling entrenched political elites when their time is up. The Profumo affair is simply an egregious example of a familiar tale. Democracies (especially parliamentary democracies) run on cycles of tolerance and intolerance for indiscretion at the top. New governments get away with a lot, but they are also more alert to what they can get away with. Then, when they become old, they become less alert and they get away with less. New Labour found this out. So too will the coalition, if it lasts that long. Economic incompetence might destroy the present government before then. But if it doesn’t, don’t expect the scandals to bite for another five years at least. Anyone hoping that Leveson might bring down Cameron was being wishful. It is too soon. The ability of a scandal to destroy a government usually has very little to do with the merits of the case. It depends on timing. It is asking too much to expect democracies to acquire a sense of proportion about these things.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 35 No. 7 · 11 April 2013

David Runciman’s account of the Profumo scandal includes a passage about George Kennan which is wrong in two respects (LRB, 21 February). First, Kennan did not think ‘the West’, his central concern, was about ‘democracy’, a system fine for, say, Norway but not for Portugal, where his friend Salazar’s authoritarianism was quite appropriate. Democracy in the US? Kennan was not convinced. Second, the primary point of ‘containment’ was to block an expansionist Soviet Union such that, like a thwarted cancer cell, it would suffer the institutional consequences in ten or 15 years. What would destroy the Soviets was stopping their compulsion to expand. Already in mid-1948, a year after he outlined the policy, Kennan had broken with it and begun to argue for real dealings with Moscow. Runciman is right, though, in seeing 1963 as pivotal. It is the moment when the Cold War as a US project comes to an end; after the Sino-Soviet conflict and the Cuba Missile Crisis, it wasn’t viable. The name of the game from then on was great-power management; even Reagan, once he was finished with his Cold War pastiche, realised this.

Anders Stephanson
New York

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences