A racy read on the Profumo Affair

An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo - review.

Ted Heath and John Profumo in 1970
Ted Heath and John Profumo in 1970. Photograph: Getty Images

An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo
Richard Davenport-Hines
HarperPress, 416pp, £20

This year will be the 50th anniversary of the death of the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, of Charles de Gaulle’s veto of Britain’s first application to join the European Economic Community (as the European Union was then called), of the resignation of Harold Macmillan and his replacement by the 14th Earl of Home, and of the assassination of President John F Kennedy. It is also the 50th-anniversary year of the Profumo affair, the least significant, though not the least written-about, of the big events of that tumultuous year.

Yet in the summer of 1963 the political classes were working themselves into a lather over the extramarital doings of the then war minister, John Profumo, who had enjoyed a brief dalliance with Christine Keeler, described in the parlance of the time as a “good-time girl”; Richard Davenport-Hines claims convincingly that she was not, as Lord Denning in his report on the affair suggested, a prostitute. In a vain attempt to protect his family, Profumo made a personal statement to the Commons denying “impropriety”. When this was discovered to be untrue, he resigned. It is, of course, a firm convention of the constitution that ministers must not deceive parliament, except, naturally, on major matters of public policy.

It was claimed on little evidence that Keeler had been simultaneously enjoying the favours of the Soviet naval attaché Captain Yevgeni Ivanov, and that Profumo was therefore a security risk. It was implausible to imagine that a good-time girl’s repertoire of foreplay would include inquiries concerning the precise location of US nuclear missiles in West Germany. But, as Macmillan complained in his diaries, the new Labour leader, Harold Wilson, hoped, “under pretence of security, to rake up a ‘sex’ scandal and to involve ministers and members of the ‘upper classes’ in a tremendous row which will injure the ‘establishment’ ”. It was not the Labour Party’s finest hour.

Many books have already been written on the affair. The best of them is Bringing the House Down, a sensitive and thoughtful biography of Profumo by his son, David, a talented novelist. It is not entirely clear what purpose is served by further exhumation. Davenport-Hines claims that the affair exposes hidden truths about British society – its class rigidities and prurient attitudes towards sex. It is true that the popular view of homosexuality, for instance, was un - informed. In 1963 the Sunday Mirror was even able to provide for readers a helpful, two-page guide on “How to Spot a Homo”. The main signs, apparently, were “shifty glances” and “dropped eyes”, but the clincher was “a fondness for the theatre”.

Still, these are well-worn themes and it seems that the main purpose of An English Affair is to rerun all the old stories: how Profumo stumbled upon a near-naked Christine Keeler in the swimming pool at Cliveden; the rumours of a cabinet minister cavorting at dinner parties naked except for a mask; and orgies supposedly involving eight high court judges. “Eight,” Mac - millan commented, “seems a bit much.”

The public showed more phlegm than the politicians or the press and refused to get too excited. And there is no evidence from opinion polls that the affair cost the Conservatives any long-term support. There were, admittedly, important political consequences, but the conventional view that the affair hastened Macmillan’s retirement has been shown to be false by D R Thorpe in his masterly biography Supermac. Indeed, as Thorpe shows, the affair delayed Macmillan’s departure. He had intended to go in the summer of 1963 but refused to be driven out by the gutter press. He therefore clung on until October, when illness gave him the excuse he needed.

Had Macmillan gone in the summer, he probably would have been succeeded not by the Earl of Home, but by his chancellor, Reginald Maudling, who would undoubtedly have proved a more formidable opponent to Wilson than Home could ever be; and, without the shenanigans accompanying the “customary processes of consultation” over the succession, the Conservatives might well have won the 1964 election. In that case, Labour would have had to modernise itself 30 years before Blair. These consequences are far more important than the cultural implications that Davenport- Hines analyses in somewhat lubricious detail.

As for Profumo, he deserves to be remembered not for what he did in 1963, but for what he had done in 1940. As a newly elected MP, aged just 25, he was courageous enough, in his first parliamentary vote, to side with the Tory rebels in the “Norway” debate, a rebellion that led to the downfall of Neville Chamberlain and his replacement by Winston Churchill. Profumo had been serving in an army unit in Essex and had to travel up to London to vote. As he entered the division lobby against the government, a Conservative minister of health, Walter Elliot, spat on his shoe.

After the vote, Profumo was summoned by the Conservative chief whip, Captain David Margesson, and treated to an expletive-rich denunciation. “And I can tell you this, you contemptible little shit,” Margesson raged. “On every morning that you wake up for the rest of your life, you will be ashamed of what you did last night.” But his vote helped make possible Britain’s victory in the Second World War. That is his true place in history; it should not be obliterated by any subsequent peccadilloes.

Davenport-Hines is an accomplished writer with a good eye for human weaknesses. Although An English Affair has little long-term importance, it is a racy read that should sell well. Indeed, if it were not liable to give rise to misunderstanding, one might say that it is just the sort of book to read in bed.