A government that had been in power for too long was showing, so critics said, signs of tiredness. There were mutterings about the prime minister. Then a terrible scandal broke. “It is a moral issue,” thundered the Times, arguing that 12 years of government by the same party had left the nation at a spiritually low ebb. Gordon Brown and MPs’ expenses in 2009? No. Harold Macmillan and the Profumo affair in 1963.
John Profumo was the Conservative secretary of state for war. In 1961, at a weekend party at Cliveden, Lord Astor’s country house in Buckinghamshire, he had begun a short affair with Christine Keeler, a high-class call girl. He ended it after just four weeks, having been warned by the cabinet secretary that she was simultaneously sharing her favours with a Captain Ivanov, the Soviet naval attaché to London.
The story broke in the spring of 1963. Summoned by the Tory whips late at night, Profumo, under sedation, prepared a personal statement for the House of Commons. Unwisely, but understandably, he tried to protect his family by denying impropriety.
But Profumo had reckoned without the new leader of the opposition, Harold Wilson, who had succeeded Hugh Gaitskell in February 1963. Gaitskell would almost certainly have kept out of it, partly because he was himself vulnerable to the moralists, being in the throes of an affair with the society hostess Ann Fleming. But Wilson, pharisaically denying any concern with private morality, insisted that national security was at stake, though it was unlikely Keeler’s pillow talk consisted of questions about the precise location of Nato missile sites in West Germany. Profumo, however, was found to have deceived the Commons, and duly resigned.
Macaulay famously said that there was no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality. Profumo’s resignation opened the floodgates of national self-righteousnessness. The result seemed farcical even at the time. Macmillan set up an inquiry under Lord Denning, another fully paid-up member of the Pharisee tendency, to look at the security implications. There were none, but this did not stop Denning from licking his lips at the moral failings of ministers and others.
Some of the evidence was, he insisted, so “disgusting” that he had had to send the “lady typists” out of the room while it was being delivered. According to the somewhat unreliable statements of various call girls, naked Conservative ministers were in the habit of holding orgies, serviced by a masked man wearing nothing but an apron. A minister had apparently been discovered with a prostitute under the bushes in Richmond Park. Worst of all, seven high court judges appeared to have been involved in orgies. “Seven,” Macmillan responded. “I can’t believe it. One or two – perhaps even three, but surely not seven.”
Paradoxically, the Profumo affair delayed rather than hastened Macmillan’s resignation. He had privately decided to leave in the summer of 1963, but now felt that he could not appear to be driven out by scandal. Had he retired as planned, his successor would probably have been the chancellor, Reginald Maudling, who would have proved a more formidable opponent for Wilson in the October 1964 general election than Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
Making the affair public served Wilson’s purpose by undermining the Tories. It had no other long-term significance. Indeed, it is not of the slightest importance to any but the prurient. The expenses scandal is quite different. It casts a shadow over the whole political system, revealing a widespread culture of abuse by politicians from all parties. The Profumo affair exposed private matters that ought to have remained private. The expenses scandal exposes matters that ought never to have been private in the first place. The culture it has revealed, which Nick Clegg described as one based on “unwritten conventions, unspoken rules and nods and winks”, symbolises a parliament that has become insulated from the public. Unlike Profumo, this scandal will have long-term consequences because it fuels the demand, already strong, for reforms to transform a top-down system into something more accountable and transparent.
Profumo himself behaved rather more honourably than the current bunch, resigning not only his office, but also his seat in the Commons. He played no further part in public affairs, devoting the rest of his life to good works at Toynbee Hall, for which he was to receive a CBE and personal recognition from the Queen. He refused other awards, including an honorary fellowship from his Oxford college, because he did not want to reignite old memories. If only one could expect the recalcitrants of today, such as Douglas Hogg and Elliot Morley, to behave as well. The unlikelihood of it is just one measure of the abyss that separates 1963 from today.
The Profumo affair was a minor indiscretion by an unimportant cabinet minister that somehow came to be transformed into a narrative of national moral decline. Voters then could express their resentment by switching to Labour or the Liberals. No such luxury is available today, as the expenses crisis affects the whole political class. No party is free from taint. That is what makes it the most serious constitutional crisis of modern times. To cure it, we need not a new Lord Denning, but the opening up of a political system that has remained sealed off from the people for far too long.
So, how should the public channel its anger constructively? Lord Tebbit has suggested opting out of the party system by abstaining, or voting for a minor grouping, though not the British National Party. But that is the very opposite of what is needed. Instead of opting out, the public should opt in. They should join the party that best represents their convictions and seek to reform it. A first step would be to press for a vote of no confidence in MPs who have abused the system, in effect deselecting them. Then voters should insist that they, rather than small and often unrepresentative cliques, choose their candidates, through primary elections.
Before the 2008 London mayoral election, David Cameron instituted an open primary in which all voters, and not just Conservative Party members, could decide between the various Conservative candidates. There is no reason why this innovation should not be copied for elections to the House of Commons. Then voters would be able to satisfy themselves of the integrity of candidates before endorsing them.
But reform of the parties will not be enough, for our political parties are dying on their feet as mass organisations. The reason for this was well summed up by Gordon Brown as long ago as 1992. “In the past,” he said, “people interested in change have joined the Labour Party, largely to elect agents of change. Today, they want to be agents of change themselves.” The expenses scandal has highlighted the need for far-reaching reform of the relationship between government and the people. Trust in politicians will not be regained for a long time, if ever. The people will now want to take political decisions for themselves, rather than leaving them to their MP.
One reason why Labour’s constitutional reforms have not rejuvenated our politics is that they have redistributed power not between government and the people, but between elites, between politicians in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, and between politicians and judges. The members of the officer class have been dividing up the spoils between themselves. The next stage of reform must be to redistribute downwards, not sideways. That will involve much more direct democracy to supplement, though not replace, our representative system.
So far the referendum has been used in Britain only for constitutional issues, and only when governments feel inclined to use it. However, the Local Government Act 2000 allowed, for the first time, 5 per cent of registered electors in any local authority area to secure a referendum on directly elected mayors. If mayors, why not other matters? Why should not voters be able to secure a referendum on the organisation of schools in their area, on the size of their local authority budget, or even the organisation of the National Health Service? The instruments of direct democracy need to be wrested from the political class so that the people themselves can trigger the use of these tools.
The green paper The Governance of Britain, issued when Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, declared that “in the past, individuals and communities have tended to be seen as passive recipients of services provided by the state. However, in recent years, people have demonstrated that they are willing to take a more active role.” It is time to put these brave words into effect.
Voters should use the crisis, not to withdraw from politics, but to open up the system. I have described in more detail how this might be done in my forthcoming book, The New British Constitution. The expenses scandal serves only to underline that today, in Britain, the age of pure representative democracy is over.
Vernon Bogdanor is professor of politics and government at Oxford University. His book “The New British Constitution” will be published Hart on 8 June (£17.95 paperback)
Diary of Deceit
1936 The secretary of state for the colonies, Jimmy Thomas, leaks the Budget
1963 The war secretary, John Profumo, quits over an affair with a call girl
1973 Lords Lambton and Jellicoe resign after confessing to using prostitutes
1985 Al-Yamamah arms deal is sealed by bribing members of the Saudi royal family
1986 Splits in the Thatcher government over a rescue bid for the British helicopter manufacturer Westland lead to targeted leaks from inside cabinet
1993 John Major’s relaunch campaign, Back to Basics, is derailed by Tory sex scandals
1998 Peter Mandelson, trade and industry secretary, quits after press exposes undisclosed £373,000 house purchase loan
2001 Mandelson resigns again over allegations that he fast-tracked British citizenship for an Indian businessman in return for Dome bailout
2006 Labour found to have recommended peerages in return for money
January 2009 Allegations surface against four Labour peers concerning fee charges for influencing legislation
April 2009 Gordon Brown apologises after Damian McBride’s planned online smear campaign against Tory MPs is discovered
May 2009 Publication of MPs’ expense claims forces Speaker to quit
By Anisha Ahmed