In 1963 the anti-establishment magazine Private Eye printed a biting cartoon that was labelled as the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The cartoon showed a toga dressed Harold Macmillan lying on a couch with one hand resting on the buttocks of a naked young lady, around him are senators dressed in togas and bowler hats. The cartoon shows the Chief of the Praetorian Guard as a Sextus Profuno1(i. e. John Profumo), both of these people were going to play out roles in a scandal that monopolised the newspaper headlines and made London the centre for tales of salacious happenings in high up places.
Harold Macmillan was elected Prime Minister in October 1959. Macmillan was a man of the Establishment, educated at Eaton and attending Oxford with First World War service in the elite Grenadier Guards. His government cabinet did contain a smattering of middle and working class men, but generally they were the stuff of solid establishment stock. Hutchinson describes Macmillan’s style as, ‘This affable old rogue played the harmless, well-intentioned old buffer to the point, and almost past the point, of caricature.
John Profumo shared a similar Establishment background as Macmillan, educated at Harrow with distinguished service in the Household Cavalry. He was made Secretary of Sate for War in 1960 and was very much part of the swinging sixties social scene with a glamorous wife, the actress Valerie Hobson. The lead up to what became known as the Profumo affair was dotted with a series of security related scandals. William Vassall was an Admiralty clerk who had been blackmailed over his homosexuality to act as a spy for the Soviet Union.
Vassall had been giving information to the Soviets for five or six years and had only been caught with the help of a Russian defector3. The saga continued with a whispering campaign linking the unfortunate Vassall with Thomas Galbraith, a former junior minister at the Admiralty who was currently Under Secretary of State for Scotland. Galbraith was vindicated by an internal review that stated that, ‘The most that could be said against Mr Galbraith was that he had suffered a socially pressing and plausible junior colleague a trifle to gladly.
This was not to the taste of Britain’s popular press who had a sniff of a story containing two spicy ingredients, spies and sex; Galbraith was pursued mercilessly. Macmillan instigated another tribunal but had little choice but to throw Galbraith to the Wolves. 5 However, that was not the end of the affair because two reporters were sent to prison for six months for refusing to reveal their sources to Macmillan’s enquiry. Another low-level spy was uncovered in Central Office of Information6 and more damaging revelations came to light about the Philby, Burgess and Maclean spy ring.
In April there was a leak of civil defence information to CND and an employee doing some work for the Atomic Energy Authority was caught getting prepared to spy. The Vassall affair is an important incident to consider in the lead up to the Profumo scandal. Macmillan bitterly regretted that he had to let an innocent man leave the government while the press were alienated by the decision to jail the two reporters. These incidents also helped to create created an atmosphere of unease amongst the public that something was not quite right in government.
It was Macmillan thought, ‘an extraordinary combination of circumstances or an exceptional run of ill-luck, Parliament and the public were being continually stimulated into a sense almost of hysteria. ‘7 The press now had a huge axe to grind and an interested populous to sell newspapers to. Profumo had become involved with a nineteen-year-old ‘model’8 Christine Keeler in naked romps around Lord Astor’s swimming pool, also involved, as a middleman was the society osteopath Dr Stephen Ward. Thought to be sharing the attentions of Keeler at the time was the Naval Attachi?? rom the Soviet embassy, Captain Yevgeny Ivanov. It was a Labour MP, George Wigg, who used Parliamentary privilege to raise the issue mainly on the pretext of it being a security matter. Profumo came to Parliament and issued a personnel statement denying all involvement. Macmillan could simply not believe a Minister of the Crown (plus a brother guards officer, and no doubt one of the chaps) would tell a lie to Parliament. The press went into a full blown feeding frenzy, even the leader of the opposition, Harold Wilson, believed that there was six ministers9 involved in the Keeler affair.
Profumo eventually came clean and had to resign in disgrace. To the people of Britain it suddenly looked as if the Security Service was run by homosexuals (which in the natural course of things it partly is), and that just about every part of the Establishment, such as members of the cabinet, Peers of the Realm and even members of the Royal Family10 were involved in sexual relations outside of their marriage (which of course many of them did). Never has a nation’s bizarre and repressed attitudes to sex been so laid open as the during the Profumo affair.
It would be hard to imagine a similar matter causing such consternation anywhere else in Europe. Viewed from the safe distance of almost forty years the whole thing seems like a badly written Barbara Cartland novel, it was in truth a very ordinary scandal built on a crescendo of nudges and winks. The government was swamped by the onrush of the changes in attitudes that had occurred in large sections of society as the rather unassuming fifties passed into the swinging sixties.
Indeed it is the Profumo affair that really starts off the swinging sixties. Macmillan’s ‘old buffer’ act suddenly appeared very real, nobody really laughed very much when in his statement to parliament he said, ‘I do not live among young people much myself’11; he was out of touch, unable even to select a Minister of War capable of keeping his trousers on, but many people of his generation were suddenly finding that their cosy view of a post colonial Britain was gone and that they would have to adjust to new codes of morality and behaviour.
Macmillan’s stumbling and confused handling of the morality of Profumo’s behaviour could be used as a metaphor for a country moving into a new age. The Establishment was temporarily destabilised by the Profumo affair, an old out of touch Establishment that was unable to adjust to the new morality or to Britain’s reduced status in the world. Macmillan admitted as much when he said, ‘What has happened has inflicted a deep, bitter and lasting wound. ’12 However, the damage caused was limited to some extent because, as is natural with the press, they turned on the accusers.
The press also went too far, The Times even attacked Macmillan and his wife Dorothy as loose and degenerate! 13 Macmillan noticed a change in attitude from the public, at the start of the affair had been verbally insulted on a visit to his constituency, but by the third week he was receiving sack loads of supportive mail at number ten. It was the British sense for the underdog, and an ingrained conservatism that started to assert itself and helped to bolster, and eventually rebuild the Establishment.
There were several big losers from the Profumo affair. Stephen Ward killed himself with an overdose of sleeping tablets. John Profumo had to resign and disappeared from politics to do charity work in the East End of London. Harold Macmillan was once famously asked what would make or break his government and he replied ‘Events, dear boy. ‘ It was a classic Macmillan throwaway line, but it is true none the less, events simply broke him as Prime Minister.
Perhaps the big winner of Profumo was Harold Wilson; here was a contrast between the dissolute old order and a new modern man, a man who talked of the ‘white heat of technological revolution. ‘ The Profumo affair is sometimes written off as a public fit of morality, but it was more than that, it was an Establishment and a people coming to terms with new ideas about sex, love, war and religion, important things that had always been set in stone but now moved rapidly.
A society were the young started to express themselves in dress, music and behaviour as something different from what their parents had been. This was a society undergoing dramatic change almost at the cellular level. Britain and the Establishment had to face a decade that was going to be a roller coaster ride. One thing that can be certain is whatever temporary damage occurred to the Establishment there could be little doubt that it still holds an important place in modern British society.