Commentary Magazine

John Bull and John Profumo

With Mr. Macmillan still in office and the case of Dr. Ward still sub judice, the Profumo crisis has yet to run its course. But whatever the eventual outcome, one thing at least is already certain: the affair has made a notable contribution to the Public Happiness. A grizzled old Fleet Street veteran, notorious for his taedium vitae, was overheard boasting that he felt twenty years younger; the wife of a Cambridge don assured me, on the Sunday just after the bomb went off, that she had spent the happiest week-end of her life. These were perhaps extreme reactions, but everywhere one has noticed a new alertness, a new zest, a new sparkle. Normally sluggish dinner parties glow with animation; everyone is suddenly full of jokes and gossip and keyhole revelations. As yet the swirl of rumor (and slander) shows no signs of dying down, and there is still widespread speculation, as the papers say, about a longish roll call of famous names.

This hum and buzz of implication is hardly to be wondered at. After all, the proven facts are extraordinary enough in themselves. At one point it emerged that two of Christine Keeler’s lovers were serving long jail sentences for assaulting her, a third was in hiding after having ruined his parliamentary career, a fourth held by police on charges of living on immoral earnings, and a fifth recalled to an unknown fate in the Soviet Union. Would the line stretch out to the crack of doom? The settings, too, were irresistible: the cabaret clubs, the old-world cottage, the mews flat with its two-way mirror. Above all there was Cliveden, stateliest of stately homes. It would have taken a recklessly melodramatic novelist to link such an Establishment stronghold with the sleazy, near-gangster world of some of Christine Keeler’s friends. Now, ironically enough, as much fuss, if not more, is being made about Cliveden as in the days of Appeasement twenty-five years ago, when it was a source of real scandal, full of important guests who tended to have a warm regard for dear Herr von Ribbentrop.

Not that the idea of high life in high places will seem much of a novelty to students of either human nature or English history. More than one commentator has recalled Pope’s lines about

Cliveden’s proud alcove,
The bower of wanton Shrewsbury and

Nor is there anything startlingly new about the demi-monde now being held under the magnifying glass. Great men have often raised their favorites from obscure beginnings; what gives the present case its bizarre quality is the overlapping of whole worlds which are normally kept far apart. Of the incongruous quartet of leading players, only Dr. Ward strikes one as being an intriguing personality in his own right; the others are interesting in terms of conduct rather than character. Profumo has the reputation of being an amiable weakling, quite undistinguished as a Minister, though with a certain pale glamor which comes from having married an actress. Christine Keeler is nice to look at, and (here she differs from her professional colleague, Marilyn Rice-Davies) there are few flaws to be seen in her façade charm; but the most sentimentally inclined could hardly claim that her liaison with Profumo was one of the great love affairs of the century. Ivanov makes a wooden impression: even the name seems a bit obvious. But Stephen Ward, skipping through the case like a troll, remains something of a conundrum. The son of a canon of Rochester Cathedral (the “Cloister-ham” of Dickens’s Edwin Drood); the fashionable osteopath (trained in Missouri); the man who has produced more portraits of the Royal family than anyone living, and makes the quaint claim that he is “an artist of near-Royal Academician standard”; the Pygmalion of the coffee bars—even if he had never become embroiled with Profumo, his would have been a curious career, and his temperament, to say nothing of his politics, is decidedly puzzling.

Fleet Street has been turning out some of its juiciest over-writing for a long, long time. There was the account of Aloysius “Lucky” Gordon’s trial for assaulting Christine Keeler. “In the dock stood Gordon, whom men have called lucky . . .” and much more in the same vein. Even in responsible papers the writing has been vivid, possibly more vivid than was always intended; the Sunday Times ended an appeal for calm and a sense of proportion by reminding its readers that “the life of England does not flow through the loins of one red-headed girl.” The same paper, along with one or two others, has tried to cut Miss Keeler down to size by referring to her sharply as “Keeler,” but without much popular success; most biographers of Charles II or Nelson have yet to be persuaded that they ought to talk about “Gwyn” and “Hamilton.” Meantime, the cheap Fleet Street papers (there are none cheaper) are frantically signing up the stars of the case for their memoirs, and no doubt some of the bit-players as well. There are plenty of minnows swimming around the big fish, one or two of them rather sinister, but my own favorite is quite blameless: the admirable Briscoe, the Profumos’ butler, who held off a siege force of reporters and photographers by telling them that “Sir and Madam” hadn’t left a forwarding address, and that Sir’s parting words had been nothing more dramatic than “Cheerio, Briscoe.” What a part it would have been for Eric Blore, when The Christine Keeler Story is filmed (as one British company threatens to do).



It is no use pretending that the first effect of the Profumo affair wasn’t to rouse up the Mr. Valiant-for-Dirt in almost all of us. How could it have been otherwise? After the terrible winter, a tonic was badly needed, and here was a scandal in which the most outrageous rumors were constantly turning out to be true. One day a story would circulate which sounded as though it had been concocted by someone with nothing better to do from the more lurid pages of Magnus Hirschfeld and Krafft-Ebbing, and the next day it would be verified in cold print. There really had been a banquet waited on by a near-naked celebrity wearing a hangman’s mask, and so on and so forth. Under the initial impact people were dazed and slightly delirious, but even before they sobered up and tried to see the affair in perspective, there were two serious issues which plainly called for immediate attention: security, and the circumstances surrounding Profumo’s original false statement to the House of Commons. Both these matters are at present being investigated by a judge, Lord Denning (not without some protest from the Left—nobody doubts Danning’s personal integrity, but he is very much an Establishment figure, whose brother, by chance, has been head of Naval Intelligence). I have yet to meet anyone who expects a genuine breach of security to be revealed. On the other hand, one doesn’t have to be unduly timid or over-cautious to feel that there may be some disadvantages in a situation which enables a Russian agent to climb into bed just after the Secretary of State for War has climbed out. When it comes to security, Caesar’s girl-friend must be above suspicion. But beyond deploring the risks involved, there isn’t much that can be said. A secret service is a secret service: British Intelligence may be completely ramshackle, or it may have a series of triumphs to its credit, but in either case the public is bound to be kept in the dark.



It is more reasonable to ask for some light to be thrown on the hapless Profumo’s attempt to cover up, and on the gullibility or otherwise of those who originally questioned him. Of course there was a good deal of skepticism about his statement to the House from the very beginning, and the press kept the story alive by hints and innuendoes. But a vague cynical belief during March that there was probably something in it was not necessarily a preparation for the thunderclap of early June. It was not the lie which shocked people so much as the confession. In a democracy it is as childish to assume that politicians habitually lie as that they habitually tell the truth; the fact that a Minister can be challenged in debate normally sets at least some limit to the extent to which he can deceive the public about his policies. In this case it was Profumo himself who brought the issue of honor to the forefront by making his denial in the form of a non-debatable personal statement which muzzled the Opposition. When the confession did come, the Labor party leaders, quite rightly from their point of view, at once stressed that their concern was with security, not with private morals. (Throughout the crisis, incidentally, Harold Wilson has shown himself a masterly tactician.) The moral aspect of the affair could be allowed to speak for itself: at the very least, Macmillan stood convicted of extremely poor judgment in having given Profumo one of the key posts in his government which he had then been allowed to hang on to for several years. In addition, millions of people were bound to be left with a hazy impression that after twelve years in power the Tories were turning into a bunch of playboys.

At first, therefore, the cries were less of denunciation than of dismay, while advanced opinion in the press was quick to warn against the dangers of a witch-hunt. Then, with a great clanking of character armor, the self-righteous took up their positions. Their cue came from an editorial in the Times entitled “It Is a Moral Issue.” The Times used to be known as the Thunderer, but those italics somehow suggested a petulant squeak. There was no shortage of rumbling rhetoric in the article itself, however: the nation had been brought “psychologically and spiritually to a low ebb”:

The Conservatives came to power a few months before the present reign opened. . . They gibed at austerity, and in all truth the British people deserved some easement after their historic and heroic exertions, although history is never a nicely balanced business of rewards and penalties . . .


one of the paradoxes of modern war is that defeat is more likely to restore a nation’s fibre than victory. There is no hiding place from the tidal wave of overthrow and disaster. All too dangerously comfortable is the slow, insidious, almost imperceptible but inexorable ebb tide . . .

And a good deal more about affluence and fleshpots, and blood, sweat, and tears. The Times has an inexhaustible supply of neo-Elizabethan prose at its command, but it clinched its case with a quotation from the Washington Post about the emergence of “a picture of widespread decadence beneath the glitter of a large segment of stiff-lipped society.”

For some readers this kind of editorializing was enough to make a stiff lip glitter, but for others it struck a responsive chord. Letters came pouring in, full of heartfelt thanks, headmasterly admonitions, and calls for Leadership. “Ordinary members of the public,” most of them writing from what sounded like smart country-house addresses, offered their congratulations. “Many similar letters have been received,” said the Times at the end of one batch, though it mercifully refrained from printing any more of them. At the same time, Conservative speakers began to heap reproaches on their fallen colleague and proclaim their sense of a national crisis. This phase came to a head with an extraordinary blustering performance on television by Lord Hails-ham, who contrived to link Mr. Profumo’s shortcomings with the Bishop of Woolwich’s admiration for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and, while excoriating liars generally, made a seriously misleading statement about the significance of the three-line parliamentary whip in the Profumo debate. (He claimed that it was simply a summons to attend, with no bearing on how M.P.s actually chose to vote.) The reaction was sharp and immediate. The Guardian shuddered at the idea of England being ruled by “a new band of bigoted Cromwellian ‘Saints’ ”; the Economist jibed at the Times‘s high-flown style; the Spectator reminded its readers that the real national vice was “hum-buggery.” Lord Hailsham was violently attacked over the “three-line-whip” affair, while a Labor M.P. said in the House that “when self-indulgence has reduced a man to the shape of Lord Hailsham, sexual continence involves no more than a sense of the ridiculous.” At least a dozen editorials must have invoked Pecksniff.



All this needed to be said, for there can be no doubt that England is full, if not of Cromwellian saints, at least of people itching to interfere with other people’s private lives. Mandy Rice-Davies may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but to any libertarian she must be less alarming than the crowd of women who waited outside court to hiss and glare at her like so many tricoteuses. But while I share the apprehension of writers in the Guardian and elsewhere about the dangers of a clean-up, I’m not sure that they haven’t been exaggerating. Even in the Times itself there have been a fair number of letters complaining about the paper’s sanctimonious tones. It is arguable, indeed, that the upsurge of righteous indignation has been less than might have been expected, and certainly less than it would have been ten or twenty years ago. The public here takes much more for granted than it did a generation back, and standards are considerably less rigid. But this is admittedly guesswork, and one important qualification must be made: the Profumo case has been very much a London affair, a West End affair in fact (as a glance at R. W. Chapin, Jr.’s splendid little map in Time, issue of June 28, will show). And as the political correspondent of the Spectator has pointed out:

London seldom realizes how deep and wide is the gulf which separates metropolitan culture from that of most of the rest of the country, particularly the North. What is hailed with a merry guffaw in the bar of White’s, or in El Vino’s in Fleet Street, is greeted with outrage and shock in the New Club in Edinburgh or the Working Men’s Club in Wirral. Leaving aside the question of which standard is better, this is a political fact of life . . .

A fact of life, one might add, which has certainly been grasped by that sturdy northerner, Harold Wilson, who has recently been at pains to stress the influence of both chapel and Boy Scout troop during his formative years. Yet my impression (gleaned mainly, it’s true, from television and the papers) is that in the provinces, too, the day is past when a politician could campaign on a simple moral platform. This may be regrettable, but it doesn’t argue complete decadence. Contrary to some reports, England is not yet being run by a committee composed of Messalina, Count Sacher-Masoch, and Fatty Arbuckle. Most people still have jobs to go to and rent to pay. Nor is London a latter-day Babylon. Indeed, since the wrong half of the Wolfenden Report was made law, prostitution has become more furtive than ever. The ladies who alarmed Dostoevski in the Haymarket, and accosted Edmund Wilson as he wandered down Half-Moon Street without a Baedeker, have disappeared; in their place are clip-joints selling blackcurrant cordial, and postcards in tobacconists’ windows advertising Erection and Demolition Work, French Polishing, Advice on Stocks and Bonds, Advanced Spanish Lessons, and similar services. As for popular enjoyment of the Profumo spectacle, the comedians whom I saw performing “The Trial of Pristine Peeler” are the legitimate heirs of the Victorian music hall stars who sang:

Charles Dilke
Spilt the milk,
Bringing it home from Chelsea

when the Dilke divorce case cast its shadow across imperial politics eighty years ago.

Abroad, the myth of Anglo-Saxon dourness dies hard, and in the continental press the events of the past few weeks have been regarded as decidedly un-English. Profumo’s Italian ancestry has been emphasized, while French journalists have spread the rumor that Christine Keeler is really a German. (She is in fact a true-born daughter of the Thames Valley; one German paper has suggested that the confusion probably arose because “like Germany, she lay between England and Russia.”) Perhaps the French are reluctant to admit that we have managed, through our own unaided efforts, to produce a stink comparable with the postwar affairs of Wilma Montesi in Italy, Rosemarie Nitribitt in Germany, and the ballets roses in Paris; to do so would be to admit that we have at last come of age and are fit to join the Common Market. At any rate, since calls for a clean-up are frequently accompanied by xenophobia, it is probably a good thing that the foreigners in the case have tended to be marginal figures, such as Mandy Rice-Davies’s original protector, Peretz Rachman, or “Polish Peter,” a notorious club-owner and slum landlord in the shadier parts of Notting Hill who died a few months ago. The exception are Christine’s two West Indian friends, and there has undoubtedly been a nasty streak of color prejudice in some of the reactions to the case that can be overheard in pub and launderette.



English high society has never been particularly exclusive, with the result that it is full of plutocrats who feel free to disport themselves with self-confident aristocratic abandon. London is a city where money is worshipped as shamelessly as anywhere, but can the activities of a handful of people signify much about even their own class, let alone a whole country? The hysteria generated by the Profumo case can only be fully understood if two factors in the immediate background are taken into account. One is that the past year has been rich beyond the dreams of avarice in scandals (several of them involving politicians), culminating in the Vassal case and the Duchess of Argyll’s sensational divorce. The second is the cult of “satire,” associated particularly with the BBC’s immensely popular television program That Was the Week That Was and with the magazine Private Eye, which is supposed to have achieved a circulation of something like 80,000, even though the leading newsagents refuse to handle it. Private Eye is a spiteful, scurrilous, and (therefore, I’m afraid) occasionally quite funny scandal sheet, but most of its humor is simply obnoxious, at the level of C.P. Snow-has-only-got-one-eye-ha-ha. Apart from one or two performers, That Was the Week is miserable stuff, with a social conscience which, among other things, has prompted it to some mild anti-Semitism. In both cases, most of the contributors are mediocrities who have taken a hint from the altogether deserved success of Beyond the Fringe and the columnist Michael Frayn, and found themselves on to a good thing—but that is a subject for another day. In the meantime, the Profumo affair has been a gift to the satire trade. While the libel laws hemmed in the rest of the press after the denial in the Commons last March, Private Eye went ahead with its lampoons: a parody of Gibbon, for example, solemnly castigating the morals of “the consul Sextus Profanus.”

Amid the wastes of pseudo-satire, the genuine article can also be seen in London this summer: the Arts Council has mounted a major exhibition of the work of George Grosz. Most visitors to the show must have been tempted to draw a few parallels between past and present, but mercifully any sustained comparison between Macmillan’s easy-going Britain and the Weimar Republic would be quite meaningless. The true pictorial equivalent of the Profumo affair is not a harsh George Grosz night-piece, but, as someone has suggested, a work of pop art: a picture juxtaposing, say, a page of Hansard, a sexy poster, a miniature Union Jack, a two-way mirror, and a three-line whip. Perhaps the most striking thing about the whole business is its general shoddiness, its tinny quality. I don’t think one is being merely romantic in feeling that it reflects a society which has lost its style. Compare and contrast Christine Keeler’s confessions in the News of the World with the memoirs of her great Regency predecessor, Harriette Wilson. The News of the World articles were admittedly more diverting than such ghost-written jobs usually are—for five minutes at a time. Harriette Wilson’s memoirs, on the other hand, are still kept fresh by her self-assured wit and piquant style. Her panache makes her much more readable than many a standard 19th-century novelist. But who could ever re-read Christine Keeler?



Mr. Profumo’s downfall is not a suitable occasion for plunging into metaphysical gloom about the decline of the West, and sooner or later everyone will simply grow sick of talking about it. Still, the fact that so many people have been trying to treat it as a crisis of national morale is of some significance in itself. The air is heavy with what the early Victorians called the Condition-of-England question, and since the collapse of the Common Market talks, it is plain that, for the time being, any major transformations will have to be effected from within. This increases the danger of lapsing into pettiness and self-absorption, of just sitting and picking our sores. Something like the Profumo scandal might have broken at any time in the past, but it does seem peculiarly appropriate that it should have come near what looks like the end of a long period of Conservative rule, during a phase of political frustration and uncertainty. The Labor party has been rubbing in Britain’s loss of international prestige on account of the affair, but Conservatives, too, have been depressed by the thought that the perfunctory call which Kennedy paid on Macmillan during his recent European visit was so much less important than the call he did not pay on de Gaulle. However, these are temporary fluctuations of fortune; if we are no longer a first-class power, it is equally illusory to suppose that we can will ourselves into becoming a third-class one. Like it or not, we have a large population, major industrial resources, and a central role in international trade. In any case, Labor is unlikely to make Britain’s standing in the world a key electoral issue. Far more probably it will lay the stress on the need for efficiency—in education, housing, transport, economic planning—while assailing (with an oblique glance at the Profumo case) the incompetent public-schoolboy amateurism of the Tory leaders.



At present Labor seems to have the election in the bag, even if Harold Wilson, for all his skill, is not as yet a leader who inspires universal enthusiasm. But though the public opinion polls show Macmillan recovering a little of his lost popularity, from the Conservative point of view the latest by-election results have been disastrous. Macmillan survived the first moves to dethrone him because few of his critics wanted it to look as though the Prime Minister had been brought down by a call girl. Now, with the pressure to remove him still very strong, he is putting up a fight, and the fact that he is a blander and more agreeable figure than de Gaulle or Adenauer should not disguise the truth that he can be an obstinate and ruthless campaigner. It is quite possible that he will stay in office, and not utterly unthinkable that he could win another election: stranger things have happened. Still, politicians have to deal with probabilities, and most Conservatives are convinced that Macmillan’s leadership would be a severe handicap at the polls. A new leader would have a year in which to establish himself with the public; Labor might make some mistakes; the economic situation could improve a good deal. Tories who reason like this are being optimistic, but if they are right, everything hinges on Macmillan being replaced, and only a crisis on the scale of the Profumo affair could have weakened his position enough to make that possible. There is still a chance that the Conservatives will look back on Christine Keeler as a blessing in disguise.



About the Author

John Gross is the editor most recently of The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. His “Mr. Virginia Woolf” appeared in the December 2006 COMMENTARY.

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