Profumo: a modern-day morality tale

by Stephen Tall on March 12, 2006

The death of John Profumo has prompted the re-telling in today’s papers of the scandal to which his name is conjoined. (He was fortunate, perhaps, in one regard: that the addition of the suffix ‘gate’ to the name of whoever was up to their necks in it was not then compulsory.)

Profumo’s ‘Keeler interlude’ truly is a morality tale of its time, a wicked potion of sordid glamour and fallen glory: call-girls, a sexed-up Cliveden set, society osteopaths, the Minister of War, Russian spies, Hollywood actresses – it had it all. One man’s brief infatuation came to epitomise an age, and defined his life.

If a similar combination of circumstances occurred today, the scandal would be just as big, perhaps bigger, as Matthew Parris notes in today’s Times:

Imagine that John Reid, the Secretary of State for Defence, was caught in bed with a prostitute who included among her clients an Arab agent with the ear of the al-Qaeda high command. He would be out of his job as fast as Tony Blair could say “John has my complete confidence”.

But one aspect, above all, intrigues me: that John Profumo never uttered a single comment in public about the episode, preferring instead to devote the rest of his life to charity work in London’s East End. He rejected the idea of a knighthood in 1995, fearing the attendant publicity would scratch at painful wounds. He sought his redemption through quiet observance of his personal code of honour.

Such silence is unthinkable today. Within a couple of years of their downfalls, latter-day Profumos are being interviewed for tear-jerking telly confessionals, or volunteering for I’m A Celebrity, in order to rebuild their esteem in public eyes.

This modern response to public disgrace reveals a certain lack of confidence and self-worth in contemporary society. Profumo was content to let his private actions make amends for his earlier indiscretions, justified by the forgiveness of his wife and family and friends. Today’s Profumos seem to find inner peace only through a very public acceptance of their frailties, the popular embrace of their weaknesses.

If John Profumo’s downfall exposed much of what was rotten about Establishment England, his dignified, chivalrous and gentle response to this personal tragedy displayed some of what was best.