An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo Richard Davenport-Hines

HarperPress, pp.400, £20, ISBN: 9780007435485

There are already two excellent books about the Profumo Affair — An Affair of State (1987) by Phillip Knightley and Caroline Kennedy, and Bringing the House Down (2007) by David Profumo — as well as five not-so-excellent ones by poor old Christine Keeler. Now Richard Davenport-Hines has marked the scandal’s 50th anniversary with An English Affair, which is set to become the standard work.

He has found new material — the police files on Perec Rachman and Charles Clore, for example — and, as his subtitle suggests, he is big on historical context. His book is elegantly arranged in two parts, the first and longer of which is devoted to setting the scene and introducing the cast (‘Good-Time Girls’, ‘Hacks’, ‘Spies’ and so on), before the curtain goes up on the drama itself, which he calls a ‘corrupt, contemptible sequence of events’, involving prurience and snobbery, ‘insolence, envy and the politics of revenge’.

For all its perspective and nuance, though, it is a surprisingly personal and angry book. Davenport-Hines grew up in Marylebone, where his rich father kept a mistress on the Edgware Road. In 1963, when he was nine, he learnt a new word from the cook’s Daily Express — ‘orgy’ — and when he repeated it at school he was caned. Soon afterwards — ten days after Jack Profumo’s resignation as Minister of War — the speaker at his school prizegiving warned the boys about the ‘deplorable breakdown of public morals’. Davenport-Hines decided that public morals meant pompous hypocrisy, and that he urgently wanted their breakdown. It became inevitable then, as he now sees it, that he would one day write about ‘the sexual oppression, guilt and bullying, the whitewashing and blackballing, the lack of irony and absurd confused anger’ of Harold Macmillan’s England.

It was an England, he recalls, ‘more drilled and regimented than at any time in its history’, where ubiquitous gravy made everything taste alike, and women were either ‘gentle daughters or dewdrops’, or ‘Wimpy Bar sluts or bossy-boots’. ‘Who has not felt,’ wrote James Morris in 1962, ‘the deadweight of that worn-out, disillusioned, smug, astigmatic, half-educated generation, weighing lumpishly upon the nation’s shoulders?’

It was against this England that the Profumos of Chester Terrace were in ‘glamorous revolt’. Jack was a rising politician, the youngest of the rebel MPs who had fatally wounded the Chamberlain government in the historic Norway vote of 1940. Valerie was a beautiful former actress, with a skirt made from python skin, who resented her husband’s assumption that any pretty woman was ‘fair game’, and objected to the cut of his trousers — ‘surely there must be some way of concealing your penis,’ she complained. As it turned out, of course, there wasn’t, and it became the ignition point of what the author calls Britain’s ‘modernisation crisis’.

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Davenport-Hines writes with perception and sensitivity about Macmillan, whose temperament — ‘nervous, subtle and theatrical’ — set the tone of the crisis; about Lord Astor, part-magnate, part-idealist and part-playboy, though ‘a man of pillow fights and romping’, as Grey Gowrie recalled him, ‘not some kind of sex maniac’; and about the scapegoat Stephen Ward.

Lord Denning, whom the author calls ‘a lascivious, conceited old man’, was so keen to suppress criticism of Ward’s trial that he proposed a change in the libel laws to allow the families of dead lawyers to sue authors who brought them into ridicule or contempt. In 1987 he wrote that Ward ‘was not “framed” by the police’, the ‘charges against him were not “bogus”’ and the ‘conduct of the trial was beyond reproach.’

In fact, though he sealed his own fate by his inability to shut up, Ward was the victim of perjury and tainted police evidence, the judge was blatantly biased, and the charges against him were inherently bogus. Under Section 23 of the 1956 Sexual Offences Act, if someone introduced a male to a female who was over the age of 16 but under 21, and the pair subsequently had sex, then the introducer had committed the offence of procuration — which meant that most undergraduates were criminals.

Days after Ward’s arrest, there was a meeting at the Athenaeum Club of men who had been asked by his solicitors to testify to his good character; they decided that if Astor had declined then so would they. ‘I can’t tell you,’ said one of them 20 years later, ‘of the moral awfulness of abandoning a friend when he needs you most, and a friend … completely innocent of the charges against him’.

Lord Carrington, as First Lord of the Admiralty, declared that security concerns over any connection between Profumo and Yevgeny Ivanov, assistant naval attaché at the Soviet embassy (who had been introduced to Ward by the editor of the Daily Telegraph). were ‘humbug from first to last’, and Davenport-Hines concurs. Indeed, it wasn’t until January 1963, when she was paid by journalists to say so, that Keeler first claimed to have slept with Ivanov in 1961 — and to have been chased naked around the swimming pool at Cliveden by Astor and Profumo.

Davenport-Hines demonstrates that the scandal was essentially of Fleet Street’s making: that Lord Beaverbrook’s staff at the Express exploited Keeler to further the old villain’s feud with the Astors, while Cecil King and Hugh Cudlipp at the Mirror escalated it into a campaign to bring down Macmillan and the establishment they resented and envied. The only tangential intelligence aspect concerned John Vassall, a cipher clerk at the British embassy in Moscow who had been blackmailed into treason.

In February 1963 two journalists, Brenden Mulholland and Reg Foster, were imprisoned for refusing to reveal to the Radcliffe tribunal their sources for stories about Vassall (which they had actually invented). On 22 March, Paul Johnson wrote in the New Statesman that Macmillan had lost any friends he might have had in Fleet Street, and that any minister involved in a scandal in the near future ‘must expect… the full treatment’.

On that same night in the Commons, Profumo became the victim, partly of his own poor judgment, but mainly of what Lord Hailsham called ‘a really foul conspiracy’ between Richard Crossman (‘utterly unscrupulous’) and George Wigg (‘positively evil’), and all hell broke loose. Until that night, newspapers had protected errant politicians. After it, ‘Fleet Street’s emetic brew of guilty joys, false tears, nasty surprises and dirty surmises seemed limitless.’ A Daily Mirror headline that summer established a benchmark of mendacious innuendo that has yet to be surpassed: ‘PRINCE PHILIP AND THE PROFUMO SCANDAL — RUMOUR UTTERLY UNFOUNDED’.

No one emerges with any credit from this story, but Davenport-Hines is to be applauded for re-telling it with such clarity, wit and passion.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated