An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo, by Richard Davenport-Hines, HarperPress, 416 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0007435845
“Quiet calm deliberation disentangles ever knot” were the words Harold Macmillan pinned on the door of the Cabinet room in 10 Downing Street shortly after he became British prime minister on January 10th, 1957. That evening, the paper for Macmillan’s constituency in Sussex, the Brighton Evening Argus, led with two stories of concern to local people, the progress of the new south terminal building for Gatwick and the fate of local football team Brighton and Hove Albion. It merely noted Macmillan’s accession to the premiership on an inside page with the laconic headline “Local Man becomes Prime Minister”.
Thus did the last of the great Edwardian actor managers of British politics arrive at the top of the greasy pole. Rather uncannily, Macmillan was also the last old Etonian to hold the position until the arrival of David Cameron and other members of the Bullingdon club all too recently. It would be fair to say that they would have had little in common. The “one nation” philosophy coined by Disraeli and promulgated actively by Macmillan has now been arrogated by Ed Miliband, the current leader of the British Labour Party. Moreover, this reviewer recalls a memorable Private Eye cover where the recently deceased Baroness Thatcher was posed sitting at the feet of an elderly Macmillan who, by then, had belatedly taken the title of Earl of Stockton. Stockton, which was a northeastern and largely working class area, had been Macmillan’s constituency in the 1930s when he was (as he always remained) an avowed Keynesian. The bubble caption attributed to Macmillan on the Private Eye cover read along the following lines: “It looks like that ghastly Thatcher person.”
The exhortation to his fellow cabinet members to engage in quite calm deliberation in untangling policy knots could be seen in hindsight as a kind of ironic bookending of the start and end of his premiership. The Gordian knot that had been unravelling at the beginning of his time in 10 Downing Street was, of course, his predecessor Eden’s monumental mishandling of the Suez crisis. While that crisis was unfolding, Macmillan, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, was an ardent supporter of intervention, that is, the invasion of the Suez Canal by Israeli, French and British troops. Crucially, the invasion was not supported by Eisenhower’s America, which saw it as a late colonial venture. Realising this and given his long-held belief in the importance of good Anglo-American relationships, Macmillan very quickly became a proponent of withdrawal. In doing so, he enabled his long-time opponent, Harold Wilson, to quip about his involvement: “first in and first out”.
The knot that unravelled in 1963 and effectively doomed Macmillan’s tenure as prime minister was, of course, the Profumo Affair. It was in Macmillan’s words one of those “Events dear boy, events” which can destroy political careers. One is reminded of Albert Reynolds’s comment about the Harry Whelehan/Brendan Smith affair: “It is the little things that trip you up.”
An English Affair, which is published to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Profumo case, is historian and biographer Richard Davenport-Hines’s rollicking, forensic and acerbic account of sex, class and power in what, significantly, he calls the age of Profumo and not that of Macmillan. Profumo has given his name to a period of business, sexual and political sleaze and cold war espionage or pseudo-espionage at the time when “you never had it so good”, according to Macmillan, and Philip Larkin wrote:
So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Davenport-Hines structures his analysis in a very clever and accessible way and employs a theatrical metaphor to organise his three-part narrative. Thus there is an overture, a cast list and the drama itself.
The overture, as might be expected, sets out the purpose and context of the book. It begins with an anecdote of the author’s own childhood in 1963 when, at age nine, his class was asked by their elderly spinster teacher to identify a noun beginning with a vowel. Davenport-Hines proudly responded with the word “orgy” which he had seen in a borrowed copy of the Daily Express. Needless to say, his teacher was not amused, called him a “foul boy” and sent him to the headmaster to be caned. The “orgy” in question was that associated with the escapades of Jack Profumo, Lord (Bill) Astor, Stephen Ward, Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davies, Peter Rachman and a gaggle of louche property developers. As Davenport-Hines puts it, his book “is a study of milieux: the worlds of Harold Macmillan, Jack Profumo, Lord Astor, Stephen Ward … The spheres of politics, medicine, law, journalism, smart society, new money and, espionage – each a discrete segment of British society – all converged in the Profumo Affair of 1963 and detonated in a shattering blast. This is a London book, which depicts the capital’s good-time girls, property dealers and Fleet Street hacks, and the ways they pointed the rest of the nation.”
The cast list is extensive and Davenport-Hines engages in separate chapters with the Prime Minister, the War Minister, the Lord, the Doctor, the Good-Time Girls, the Landlords, the Hacks and the Spies.
His opening chapter on the career of Macmillan itself is relatively short on biographical detail but focuses on his character and domestic history before going on to give a very vivid description of the Britain of which he became prime minister in 1957. Davenport-Hines duly notes Macmillan’s First World War record, when he was an officer in the Grenadier Guards and was wounded, sometimes very seriously, on no less than five occasions. He also identifies the canker at Macmillan’s soul – his wife, Dorothy’s, literally lifelong and very public infidelity, when she cuckolded him with his fellow Tory MP Robert Boothby. A sad consequence of that affair was the Macmillan’s fourth child, Sarah, whose father was probably Boothby, later killed herself. The fact of Dorothy’s affair and its unfolding and partial resolution in the 1930s may have played a part in Macmillan’s uncharacteristic and somewhat hesitant handling of the Profumo affair.
While Davenport-Hines discusses Macmillan’s authorship of two Keynesian pamphlets in the 1930s, Industry and the State and The Middle Way, his resignation of the Tory whip over the consequences of Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia and his period as “Viceroy of the Mediterranean (with Cabinet rank)” during the Second World War, he fails to mention what was, perhaps, his greatest achievement in domestic politics before becoming prime minister, his overseeing, as Minister for Housing, of the building of 300,000 houses a year in the early 1950s. The extent of that achievement can be gauged by the fact that less than half that number is currently being constructed in the United Kingdom in the midst of a housing crisis.
Davenport-Hines is good on Macmillan’s character. He suggests that “his temperament – nervous, subtle and theatrical – was decisive to the colour, texture and shape of the modernisation crisis in British politics and society of 1957-64”. He cites a ministerial colleague who believed Macmillan “embraced change, although he cherished surface continuities”. Hardly surprising in the case of the one nation, High Church Anglican which Macmillan undoubtedly and devoutly was. One of his most famous speeches was literally about change: what has become known to history as the “Wind of Change” speech about decolonisation was delivered to a less than impressed Verwoerd-led South African apartheid parliament in 1960.
In his description of the Britain of 1957, Davenport-Hines perceptively sets the context for the efflorescence of the Profumo scandal. He writes: “England was a country where the gravy served at main meals made everything taste alike. Dominated by the memory of two world wars, it was more drilled and regimented than at any time in its history, and more strictly regulated.” In this gloomy and grey environment, “[m]illions of people were longing to make money, spend money, enjoy the conspicuous spending of money, and never apologise for money: but both officials and politicians, whether of the left or right, wanted to restrict money-making, idealised discomfort as character-building and frugality as manly, scowled at other people’s expenditure, thought that the ostentatious enjoyment of wealth was shameful.” It was in this sombre and dissatisfied environment that the characters in the drama of Profumo made their way onto the stage.
Foremost among them was John (“Jack”) Profumo, who critically held the portfolio of secretary for war. Despite the title, the position was subordinate to that of minister for defence. Nevertheless, it was obviously close enough to military secrets to become the fulcrum of the espionage dimension to the affair in a country where the betrayals of Burgess and Maclean were still very fresh (Philby and Blunt were exposed later).
Profumo, who was of Italian extraction (in fact he held two Italian baronies), grew up in a not dissimilar gilded cage to Macmillan, Harrow, Oxford and the Royal Air Force, where he distinguished himself in the Second World War. At Harrow, according to Davenport-Hines, he was instilled with “a smooth-mannered duplicity” which may have served him well in his lifelong pursuit of women and infidelity towards his wife, the film actress Valerie Hobson. However, it came unstuck when he lied to the House of Commons about his short-lived affair with Christine Keeler in 1961.
Profumo was appointed by Macmillan first as minister of state at the Foreign Office and, then, as secretary for war. In the latter post, his chief objective in the early 1960s was to oversee the abolition of national service. Although moderately successful in both his ministerial appointments, he was distrusted and disliked by the Tory old guard, who thought of him as an Eyetie and “jumped-up opportunist” and nicknamed him “the head waiter”.
Lord (Bill) Astor, owner of Cliveden and, thereby by definition, head of the “Cliveden set” which was to be the setting for the Profumo scandal, was also of foreign heritage. His immensely wealthy American grandfather had come to England, bought Cliveden and tried, with varying degrees of success and some rebuffs, to insinuate himself into English society. He was finally ennobled as a result of huge political and charitable donations during the First World War. When his grandson, Bill, who had also served in the Second World War, came into the title, he had already been a Tory MP of pronounced liberal views who, with a very small number of others, had opposed Eden’s Suez folly. He was married three times; none of the unions could be said to have been fortunate. But he liked company and tried to recreate at Cliveden, although on a much more extended basis, the soirées that his mother, the formidable Nancy Astor (the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, Countess Markiewicz being the first to be elected) used to hold. Arguably, it was this broadening of the social base which created the conditions which led directly to the Profumo affair and brought about Astor’s downfall. The specific cause was his provision of a cottage house on the Cliveden estate – on a rent-free basis – to various friends and contacts, the last of whom was Stephen Ward, a central, and the most tragic figure, in the Profumo drama. Davenport-Hines sums Bill Astor up as “one-third playboy, one-third idealist and one-third magnate”.
Stephen Ward, the maverick who “also wanted to be part of the in-crowd, especially the high and mighty”, according to Keeler, was at the heart of the Profumo affair and was the only one for whom it proved lethal, albeit by his own hand. Davenport-Hines is sympathetic, if on occasion also critical, in his treatment of Ward, just as he is of Astor and Keeler, reserving his fire for the Establishment. While the sympathy and hostility may sometimes be excessive, it is hard not to agree with the overall assessment.
Ward was a successful osteopath with many high profile and wealthy clients, from the Churchills to the Astors. He was engaging, chatty and indiscreet and loathed being alone. He acquired a reputation as an inveterate chaser of women, not all, or even many, of whom he necessarily slept with. Davenport-Hines noted that “young women with well-educated parents seldom attracted him. Instead he preferred ‘girl-spotting’ in Oxford Street or coffee bars, and picking up slim-hipped, improvident gamine types, whom he called ‘alley cats’”. Christine Keeler and, her sometime friend Mandy Rice-Davies – of “He would, wouldn’t he fame” ‑ were just such types. Ward liked taking such women to his studio flat, not necessarily to sleep with them but simply to have them and their accoutrements around the place. And so Christine Keeler lived with him in what Davenport-Hines describes as “a companionate way without sexual activity between them”. In a stirring phrase, Davenport-Hines suggests that “their alliance should have been fleeting; but by mischances and indiscretions, their fates became fettered together like those of Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde”. It was the intermingling of Ward’s high society friends with his gamine girls at his Cliveden cottage that was to give rise to him being charged with procurement and living off immoral earnings.
In an extensive chapter on “Good-Time Girls”, Davenport-Hines writes of the depressing social experience of women and their restricted sexuality in late 1950s and early 1960s Britain. To make his points he uses the iconic David Lean film Brief Encounter as a kind of template to illustrate the circumscribed sexuality, particularly of women, at that time. Section 23 of the Sexual Offences Act of 1956, which was invoked after the arrest of Ward in 1963, created the criminal offence of the procuring of a girl under twenty-one, although the age of consent was sixteen. This provision, Davenport-Hines notes, “meant that if someone introduced a male to a woman who was over the age of consent, but under the age of twenty-one, and the pair subsequently had a sexual romp, then the introducer had committed a criminal offence”. As Davenport-Hines laconically observes, “As this law remained in force until 1994/1995, many readers of this book will have committed the crime of procuration.”
In his vivid description of Christine Keeler’s upbringing and adolescence, Davenport-Hines poses the question as to where Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies should be placed in the environment just described. His answer is somewhere in the “hinterland” between English film stars/starlets and models, “whose ‘sex appeal’ brought fame and a fugitive prosperity, and those young women from the industrial provinces who felt they had nothing to offer but sexual relief for the men who found them in the London streets”.
Keeler, who was born in 1942, was raised in converted railway carriages which did not have either running water or electricity until the mid-1950s. She was, on occasion, malnourished and kept a knife under her pillow after a sexual overture from her stepfather. She faced similar advances from the fathers of children she used to babysit. At the age of seventeen, after what Davenport-Hines describes as “gruesome attempts to induce an abortion”, Keeler gave premature birth to a son who died six days later. She left the railway carriages soon after to take up life as a “model” in one of the London revue clubs. Her role there was to stand naked and immovable behind a row of dancers. The prohibition on naked or near naked women moving was to accord with the censorship rules of the time as policed by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. The name of the official from that office whose job it was to monitor strip shows was, it seems, Sir George Titman.
It was at the revue club that Keeler met Stephen Ward and went to live in his flat, although not as his mistress. While there Ward took her to parties and she had a number of affairs and casual sex but, as Davenport-Hines poignantly puts it, she “was set on a course to be enticed and abandoned”. Even more poignantly, and in a dispiriting description which captures her difficult life and its effects on her personality, Davenport-Hines cites a contemporary who said that “[f]or all the sleekness, the sexiness, there is a lack of life, as if the sex were pre-fabricated sex, deep-freeze sex, displayed like the dish of fruit in a colour photograph.” There was “a blank absence of spirit, a fundamental impenetrability of the kind one associates only with the hardest kind of poverty”.
Mandy Rice-Davies, the ambitious, lower middle class provincial teenager from Birmingham, who receives a less sympathetic treatment than Keeler from Davenport-Hines, also got a job at the revue bar where she and Keeler initially became friends and set themselves up in a flat. There they became “models”, starved all day while waiting for men from the revue bar to call and ask them to dinner. One such was the notorious rack-renting Perec or Peter Rachman who was proud that his name had prompted a new entry in the Oxford English dictionary. Rachman at different times established Keeler and Rice-Davies in his flat as his mistresses. Rice-Davies was to be more prosperous in later life than Keeler, who remarked of her: “Mandy Rice-Davies was a true tart. There was always shock on her face whenever she thought she might have to do more than lie on her back to make a living.”
The landlords and property developers Davenport-Hines identifies as being connected, to a greater or lesser extent, to the Profumo affair are in the language of the era “a rum lot”, including such figures as Charles Clore, Jack Cotton, Charles Forte, Walter Flack and Peter Rachman. Many were Jewish and some had relations with either Keeler or Rice-Davies. According to Davenport-Hines and a contemporary observer of their machinations, they “hid their insecurities in schemes that were big enough to justify them doing whatever they wanted. The London property man was an ‘insecure animal whose main drive is vanity and whose main passion is a worship of prestige’ … His headlong quests for creating wealth, implementing deals, mergers, takeovers, is really a quest for approbation, not for money and possessions per se, not for power per se, but for approbation from people mostly as insecure as himself.’” When Jack Cotton’s daughter married in 1957, he rented a special train to carry guests from the ceremony in Birmingham to the reception in London. Newspaper headlines about the “Mink and Champagne Express” stood above tales of his ostentatious hospitality.
The most reprehensible was the slum landlord Peter Rachman, although, even here, in keeping with his sympathy for those regarded as the villains of the piece by the Establishment, Davenport-Hines does put the Polish Jew Rachman’s outrageously grasping and brutal ways in the context of his horrific wartime experiences at the hands of his German and, subsequently, Soviet captors. These experiences, it is likely, prompted in him a voracious desire never to want again and to go to any lengths to establish his interests, including threats to and physical abuse of tenants in his slum flats and bedsits. His treatment of the seventeen-year-old Keeler was tantamount to sexual abuse.
Of all the dramatis personae in the Profumo affair, Davenport-Hines reserves his greatest contempt for the popular and tabloid press, or the hacks as he labels them. From the outset he states unequivocally that the Profumo Affair was made in Fleet Street rather than in Wimpole Mews, where one of its more melodramatic episodes occurred, or Cliveden.
The Profumo Affair aroused a Fleet Street frenzy of ferocity. It managed to glorify what was shabby, and had an enduring influence on investigative journalism … print journalism by the late 1950s aimed to titillate more than ever – while keeping its patina of prudish rectitude.
Davenport-Hines’s main target is the Mirror Group and its priapic and hypocritical directors, Cecil King and Hugh Cudlipp. Davenport-Hines suggests, in what is perhaps the only hyperbole in his analysis, that these men and their various publications used the Profumo Affair to destroy Macmillan’s government and usher in Labour’s very narrow victory (with a majority of just four seats) in 1964.
Of course, espionage, whether real or imagined, and a putative threat to national security was the stick that the tabloids and various unsavoury Labour politicians, including especially the “tired and emotional” George Brown and the bumptious George Wigg, used to beat Macmillan’s government and, what Davenport-Hines sees as the unfortunate characters, perhaps Profumo himself excluded, at the heart of the affair.
Moreover, there was a context, the already mentioned Burgess and Maclean’s flight to Moscow and the conviction, in an outburst of homophobia, of the low level clerical/technical operative John Vassall for passing naval secrets to the Soviets. The Vassall case had provoked the institution of the Radcliffe Commission to look into security matters and led to the effective sacking of an entirely innocent junior minister in Macmillan’s government. Macmillan himself was incensed by all the scaremongering and scapegoating that was going on: “The time has come for men of propriety and decency not to tolerate the what I can only call the spirit of Titus Oates and Senator McCarthy.” His outrage and his embarrassment at the canning of an innocent junior minister, together with his domestically induced difficulties about sexual matters, may have led him to be more credulous about Profumo’s denial in the House of Commons in 1963 about his earlier shortlived affair in 1961 with Keeler.
In “Acting Up”, Davenport-Hines describes the meeting of Profumo and Keeler at Ward’s cottage on the Cliveden estate on the weekend of July 8th and 9th, 1961. It was there that the drama “in which the protagonists converged from various directions” began to be played out. That drama involved Keeler’s relatively brief affair with Profumo, who it is worth remembering was secretary for war, and her ongoing ‑ although, according to Davenport-Hines and notwithstanding Keeler’s own claims (she was more than capable of being “economical with the truth”) unconsummated ‑ relationship with Soviet assistant naval attaché Yevgeny (Eugene) Ivanov. It was during their brief affair that Profumo sent her the infamous letter with the “Darling” salutation and the valedictory “Love J”. Ivanov and Ward too were involved in a peculiar dance à trois also embracing MI5 predicated on Ward’s desire to get to the Soviet Union and his fantastical notion that he might have a role to play in what was, not after all, the higher echelons of espionage. The consequences of this connection between Profumo, Keeler, Ivanov and Ward were to prove fateful for Profumo’s political career and, after a short hiatus, for Macmillan’s government, and literally lethal for Stephen Ward.
However, the results of the Cliveden meeting did not begin to mature until eighteen months later when Keeler was negotiating with the Mirror group over her “sexual reminiscences” about Profumo. The clear interest of the newspaper was the interaction between sexual activities involving Keeler and Profumo and her supposed role as a conduit for the relay of British military secrets from Profumo to Ivanov which, although insubstantial, she played up (or the Mirror group prompted her to play up), portraying herself as a latter day Mata Hari. The Mirror group did not get its story following pressure from MI5 and a threat to sue by Ward, Astor, Profumo and others. Although Keeler received a recruitment fee of £200, she never got the balance of £800 as the story had been spiked. She remained aggrieved and resentful about this. Throughout the scandal, Keeler remained open to various approaches by the tabloid press and, given her facility for mendacity, at least according to Davenport-Hines, she was prepared to be coached by them to say what they wanted her to say – a combination of tales of real or imagined liaisons, her role as a go-between between Profumo and Ivanov and, crucially and most damagingly, when Ward came to be tried under the Sexual Offences Act, of him being “a procurer of young women for gentlemen in high places and that he was sexually perverted, that he had a country house at Cliveden to which some of these women were taken to meet important men – the cottage was on the estate of Lord Astor; that he had introduced her to Mr John Profumo and that she had an association with him; that Mr Profumo had written a number of letters to her on War Office headed notepaper.” The outcome of all of this was a series of interviews with Profumo by the attorney and solicitor general in which he stated that he would sue for libel any newspaper that suggested Keeler had been his mistress. Notwithstanding Profumo’s effective denial, rumours persisted that he had “compromised himself with a girl who was also involved with a negro in a case about attempted murder” and that there was a connection – in the person of Ivanov – to the Soviet embassy. These rumours eventually reached Macmillan, who had other more strategic issues on his mind, and ended up with Profumo having an interview with the Tory chief whip, where he again denied any liaison with Keeler. There the matter might have rested if not for Ward’s inveterate need to gossip, which precipitated his and the others’ downfall. Not only did he chatter about Profumo and Keeler “at ever dinner party he went to”, but Keeler and another woman friend of hers who played a relatively minor role in the unfolding of the scandal, Paula Hamilton-Marshall, “freely chattered about the situation to people they knew”.
Other political developments were in the air at that time, not least the election of Harold Wilson as leader of the Labour Party following the unexpected death of Hugh Gaitskell – a victory which had been masterminded by that rumbustuous parliamentary enforcer, George Wigg, ongoing compiler of a dossier on Profumo. Shortly afterwards, Wigg began to advise Wilson about exploiting the contents of his dossier although, with the exception of George Brown, other senior Labour figures initially advised against this. But that did not last long as the trial of West Indian Johnny Edgecombe for the shooting incident at Keeler’s flat unfolded. Keeler was spirited away to Spain and never took the witness stand. The likely motivation was the sale value of her story – a value that might evaporate in court where it could be freely reported.
The momentum now quickened with the publication by the Daily Express of Lord Beaverbrook (a lifelong enemy of Astor) of a headline suggesting Profumo was about to resign juxtaposed with a photograph of Keeler in a skimpy bathing costume with the dramatic heading: “VANISHED – Old Bailey Witness”. The Express later disingenuously argued before Lord Denning’s investigation of the affair that the appearance of the two stories together was coincidental. Denning accepted their argument.
As this was going on the Labour Party re-entered the fray, encouraged by leaked innuendo from the Mirror Group. Leading the charge in the House of Commons inevitably was Wigg, who challenged the home secretary, Henry Brooke, to deny rumours implicating a government minister with “Miss Keeler, Miss Davies and a shooting by a West Indian”. Thus, as Davenport-Hines elegantly puts it: “The Profumo Affair burst through the sound barrier of gossip” and that evening the press laid siege to Profumo’s home. Profumo himself took a sleeping pill “to obliterate the din of the journalists besieging his house and banging on his door” but was summoned back to the House of Commons in the early hours of the morning by the Tory high command. Groggy from his sleeping pill, he denied a sexual involvement with Keeler when responding to chairman of the Conservative Party Ian Macleod’s blunt question: “Did you fuck her?” The high command should have been chary of his response but proceeded to draft a statement of denial of the affair and any threat to national security, which Profumo duly delivered to the House the next morning.
Once more, the matter might have rested there but for the fact that, as Davenport-Hines notes, “the mischief-making did not abate”. Foolishly, in response to the House of Commons debate and enforcer Wigg’s subsequent appearance on BBC’s flagship Panorama programme where he played up the putative security aspect of the affair and denigrated Ivanov, Ward rang Wigg to set the record straight about Ivanov’s relatively modest lifestyle and his relationship with him. Wigg seized his opportunity and informed Wilson of developments, in particular the security angle. This led ultimately to a conference at the home office, where a decision was taken by Brooke, something of puritan, to pursue Ward over his “sexual influence”. This pursuit, involving sinister, dishonest and probably criminal police behaviour, was to lead to “police dredging of sludgy depths that might (and did) lead to sensational arrests, a flamboyant trial and months of torrid publicity”, which the public lapped up as it was reported in the tabloids. The police pursuit was led by two officers, Samuel Herbert and John Burrows, who were prepared to stop at nothing, including manipulation of evidence and unseemly pressure on most of the protagonists, including Keeler, who admitted her liaison with Profumo to them, to secure the charging of Ward. In the midst of all of these developments, Keeler found herself beaten and abused by her friend Paula Marshall-Hamilton’s brother. Herbert and Burrows found in this incident an opportunity to wrongly incriminate, with Keeler’s connivance, an innocent third party, John Gordon. Keeler, who testified at Gordon’s trial, was subsequently found guilty of perjury and served a very difficult and painful nine months in jail (Mandy Rice-Davies also spent some time in the cells, where she was subjected to invasive body investigations and, in response to Herbert and Burrows’s insistent pressure, told them what they wanted to hear about Ward).
Under all this pressure, the febrile Ward caved in and, notwithstanding an earlier statement of his, now explicitly said that Profumo had lied to the House of Commons about Keeler and the security implications of their relationship. Following a brief escape to Venice, where he told his wife the truth, he returned to London and announced his resignation from parliament on the very same day that John (Lucky) Gordon appeared in Court, wrongly charged with causing actual bodily harm to Keeler. In what is probably the most poignant part of his book, Davenport-Hines quotes Profumo’s son, David, on these revelations. Sucking “orangeade up a straw, his mother told him: ‘Daddy’s decided to stop being a politician. He told a lie to the House of Commons, so now we’re going to have a little holiday in the country – all together. Now doesn’t that sound fun?’”
After that it was downhill for the various protagonists. Keeler was a witness for the prosecution at Gordon’s trial, with the outcome that has been seen. Ward was arrested in carpet slippers outside the house of a friend and charged with living wholly or partly on the earnings of prostitution which, Davenport-Hines argues, was patently untrue. On the next day, The News of the World published its “Confessions of Christine”, for which it paid her the enormous sum at the time of £24,000. Ward was refused bail and spent three weeks isolated in Brixton prison and was ultimately tried in a higher court than was appropriate.
There was, of course, the inevitable parliamentary debate. Wilson accused Macmillan of “indolent nonchalance”, reckless bluff and gambling with national security. Macmillan’s response was apologetic and weak and in fact twenty seven Tories abstained on the vote. It was the beginning of the painful end for the prime minister and, ultimately, in 1964, of the Tory party as the party of government. That end was hastened by the Mirror group, which directed a “devastating bombardment … not at Macmillan individually but at the governing class of which he was a luminary.”
Macmillan installed Denning to adjudicate on the whole affair. His flawed, pompous and at the same time sensationalist report, including chapters with lurid headlines such as “Christine Tells Her Story”, “The Slashing and Shooting”, “He’s a Liar” and “Mr Profumo’s Disarming Answer”, sold 100, 000 copies on publication.
Ward was tried on three counts of living on the earnings of prostitution from Keeler, Rice-Davies and others and two of procuring. The prosecution was led by Mervyn Griffith-Jones, who three years earlier had been the prosecuting counsel in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial where he asked jury members if this was a book you would “wish your wife or your servants to read?” In the weeks before the trial, Ward’s high society friends, one by one, deserted him. Davenport-Hines cites well known commentator and human rights activist Ludovic Kennedy on the trial, suggesting that the charges were political and untenable. During the trial, the Old Bailey was besieged by mobs of prurient and vindictive press and perhaps envious members of the public. When the trial was drawing to a conclusion, the presiding judge gave a summing up completely hostile to Ward and directed the jury that Keeler and Rice-Davies were within the legal definition of prostitution. Davenport-Hines’s thesis throughout is rather that they were “good-time girls” ‑ sexually liberated but not prostitutes.
Ward succumbed to the pressure. As Davenport-Hines puts it: “For fifteen years he had struggled against the shackles of convention, and now revenge was being taken by conventional people.” Just before the judge was due to complete his summing up, Ward took thirty-five grains of barbiturate and died three days later. (The trial jury found him guilty on some, but not all, the charges while he lay in a coma).
The final chapter, “Safety Curtain” is diminuendo. Davenport-Hines pours scorn on Denning’s report on the affair. He is adamant that Christine Keeler was never a prostitute and rejects a Daily Telegraph charge, promulgated as recently as 2010, that Keeler was “procured for Lord Astor’s ‘Cliveden Set’ by Stephen Ward, an osteopath with a sideline in high-class prostitution”. He also chronicles Macmillan’s physical decline, predicated on a false belief that he had prostate cancer, and his promotion of Lord Home, after renouncing his title Sir Alec Douglas-Home, to be his successor. Douglas-Home was to narrowly lose the 1964 general election to Labour, not least because of public suspicion of the establishment following the Profumo Affair.
The Profumo episode certainly marked the end (for a while at least) of government by old Etonians and ushered in “the swinging sixties” although Davenport-Hines argues that the incoming Labour government was, in its own way, just as much of an establishment as its predecessor. Looking at all the prurience, innuendo and vicious gossip that the affair stirred up it is hard not to agree with HG Wells that “moral indignation is jealousy with a halo”.
Karl Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon that “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” The fiftieth anniversary of the Profumo Affair coincides with the twentieth of the DeSanchez/Mellor affair, which helped undermine the foundations of another, more recent Conservative government, that of John Major. The Tories do seem to be prone to scandals of a sexual nature. Now it has emerged that Andrew Lloyd Webber is close to finishing a musical about the events of 1963. In the light of Marx’s observation, this would seem to bring the tragedy of that year to the level of the absurd.
Liam Hennessy is a former teacher. senior civil servant and currently works as a social policy and mental health researcher.