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.

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4 comments

I hadn’t realised until the obituries that he had been one of the rebel tories that helped bring down Chamberlain in 1940 without which no Churchill and then god knows what? I agree that today he would have been ofered numerious ways towards redemption via the celebrity circuit but is that a bad thing? All he has got for his charity work is a set of unfair obituries. Even Nixon was on the rehabilition path just before his death. Perhaps an autobiography putting his side of the story wouldn’t have been such a bad thing. Still I agree he offers an example to a shallow age.

by Cllr David Morton on March 12, 2006 at 4:21 am. Reply #

>Perhaps an autobiography putting his side of the story wouldn’t have been such a bad thing.

But late for that I fear …
He could always have … wait for it … a ghost writer.

by Anonymous on March 12, 2006 at 12:15 pm. Reply #

John Profumo made no public statements for 2 reasons:-

(1) As a would-be aristocrat, he considered himself accountable to the elite, not the British people.

(2) As a would-be aristocrat, he believed that the elite’s dirty linen should not be washed in public.

What I find so odd about John Profumo is that he was accepted into the highest echelons of society even though his father was an Italian immigrant. Remember, as late as the 1960s, the photographer, Ray Belisario, was told by the Queen’s press secretary: “We’re not having a dirty little Italian photographing the Queen.”

Profumo’s crime was really quite mild. First, he had an extra-marital affair. Most members of the upper-class did (Winston Churchill was one of the handful who didn’t). Secondly, he lied to Parliament. Few Ministers of the Crown have not.

After all, Tony Blair told Parliament that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction when he knew perfectly well that he didn’t. Surely lying to Parliament to win approval for an illegal war of conquest is a far more heinous offence that telling fibs about sex? Profumo’s lies did no harm. On the contrary, they resulted in the defeat of a Tory government and the enlightening of the British people as to the character and behaviour of their rulers: both unqualified goods.

And Profumo’s sex life, prolific though it might have been, was nothing compared to his contemporaries, William Boothby (who fathered 3 of MacMillan’s 5 children and was supplied with rent boys by the Krays), and Tom Driberg (who performed in about every public lavatory from Brighton northwards). Both were exposed only after their deaths.

Profumo’s sense of shame came from his feeling that he had betrayed his class. His indiscretion had revealed to the underlings the truth about their betters. The deference and sycophancy which underpinned the neo-feudal dispensation had been fatally holed. That’s why he wore sackcloth and ashes.

My favourite quotes from the Profumo affair are Christine Keeler on Yevgeny Ivanov: “A real man with a hairy chest;” and Lord Denning’s priceless: “Mr Roth, tell me, what is fellatio?”

Incidentally, anyone inclined to the view that Denning was a great judge should read his Profumo report.

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