Prolonged periods of Tory rule have a habit of ending in a tide of sleaze and scandal. John Major gained the largest Tory vote in history in 1992, but his party was brought to a historic low five years later, with their worst election result in 90 years.
A similar set of circumstances faced the Tories in 1964, after what Labour Party leader Harold Wilson famously called “thirteen years of Tory misrule”. On that occasion the most infamous scandal besetting them was “the Profumo Affair”. Today we are in a third long period of continuous Tory rule (from 2010), so BBC’s The Trial of Christine Keeler (now on iPlayer and DVD) offers a timely look at Tory undoing all those years ago.
The series, created by screenwriter Amanda Coe, concerns events surrounding the Profumo Affair of the early 1960s. Coe’s drama is keen to emphasise the experiences of the three most important women involved, who were in varying respects victims in the imbroglio.
For those on the brink of their teenage years at the time, this scandal in high places provided a first glimpse of corruption in the British ruling class establishment, as well as an opportunity to embarrass parents by asking them questions about sex.
The scandal became public in April 1963. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan — an Old Etonian, quelle surprise — and his cabinet were exclusively white and male. Capital punishment was in force, abortion illegal, homosexuality outlawed and racial discrimination perfectly legal. The second wave of feminism had yet to reach these shores.
One government department had an honest designation — namely, the Ministry of War — presided over by John Profumo. A scion of the establishment, Profumo was a product of Harrow, Oxford and the Bullingdon Club. He got entangled in scandal because of an extra-marital affair with a teenage girl, Christine Keeler, who’d also been in an relationship with Soviet naval attaché (i.e. spy) Yevgeny Ivanov at around the same time. Profumo lied to parliament about his association with Keeler and when the lie was exposed he resigned.
Profumo “redeemed himself” subsequently through charitable work a path chosen later on by Liberal leader and Old Etonian Jeremy Thorpe, who’d been embroiled in an even more extraordinary scandal in the late 1970s. However, no such get-out would be available to the two other most significant figure in the episode.
Much of the drama revolves around Stephen Ward — an osteopath who earned his living massaging the muscles of the upper classes — convincingly played by actor James Norton. Ward was a social climber who sought to ingratiate himself with the rich and powerful by procuring young women for their sexual gratification. He was motivated not by money, but a yearning to gain acceptance amongst a rich circle of friends.
Unfortunately for Ward, once Profumo resigned the powers that be sought scapegoats and he was number one fall guy. The Metropolitan Police were only too willing to oblige their superiors. They knew Ward was “kinky but not a ponce”. Nonetheless, he was charged with “living off immoral earnings”. Deserted by rich false friends like Lord Astor, whom he naively hoped would come forward as “character witnesses” at his trial, Ward was found guilty. He committed suicide rather than face jail time.
Christine Keeler, who is played by Sophie Cookson, is the shining star of the drama and its most sympathetic victim. The scene in which she is attacked and vilified by a mob as she makes her way into court highlights how traumatic her situation was.
Keeler had grown up in poverty and been subject to sexual abuse during adolescence. She would only come to recognise her period of “friendship” with Ward as exploitative grooming later on in life. Her fate at the hands of the establishment was nine months imprisonment for perjury, although she had committed the perjury so that an abusive boyfriend was put behind bars.
Keeler would never escape the undeserved notoriety for the rest of her life. She lived her later years in penury, and on one occasion got the sack as a school dinner lady when her bigoted employer realised who she was.
Other acting plaudits go to Ellie Bamber, playing Keeler’s friend Mandy Rice-Davies, and Emilia Fox as Profumo’s “wronged wife” Valerie. Bamber delivered with relish Rice-Davies’ famous courtroom answer: “Well he would, wouldn’t he” to Lord Astor’s denial he’d slept with her. It’s since made it into the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and as an abbreviation on the internet: MRDA — Mandy Rice Davis Applies.
Fox as Valerie Profumo shows outrage not only at her husband’s infidelity as such, but also because it represented to her a form of class betrayal — her husband having slept with “a common little whore”. Fox appears to be a socially aware actor, unlike her idiot cousin Lawrence. She is a supporter of a human rights charity.
Too what degree has there been social change since those days? The grooming of teenagers for the sexual gratification of rich old men automatically brings Jeffrey Epstein to mind. Prince Andrew denies he participated in anything untoward, but then he would, wouldn’t he? Definitely MRDA!
The Profumo affair was a gift for the Labour Party and its new leader Harold Wilson. Wilson’s chief attack dog was George Wigg, MP for Dudley, who would later become Paymaster General and be given a baronetcy.
Wigg claimed to be pursuing Profumo “in the interests of national security” rather moral outrage, but Baron Wigg was not beyond disreputable behaviour himself. According to Profumo’s son David, Wigg “was in 1976 charged with kerb-crawling, using insulting behaviour, accosting women and endangering the peace. His defence before the magistrates was that he was endeavouring to purchase a newspaper. Just thought I would mention it.”
Macmillan quit the premiership, pleading ill-health, four months after Profumo resigned. In those days, the Tories didn’t elect their leader or involve the party membership at all when choosing one. That task fell to the mysterious Tory grandees, aka “men in grey suits”. They decided that the leadership mantle should fall on the shoulders of yet another product of Eton, Foreign Secretary Lord Home.
The last time a lord had been Prime Minister was in 1902. By 1963 even the Tories thought it would look bad for the head of government to sit in the Lords and not have to answer questions from elected representatives. Home therefore renounced his peerage, becoming plain old Sir Alec. For most of October 1963 he was PM despite not being an actual member of parliament.
Nevertheless, a safe seat was soon found for Home in Kinross and West Perthshire, those being days when the Tories still had ultra-safe seats in Scotland. Home only lasted a year in office. Labour won the 1964 general election by a narrow majority.
Labour’s victory was regarded as a rejection by the electorate of what Wilson satirised as “the grouse moor conception of political leadership.” Britain was being run by a bunch of decrepit aristocrats who got their kicks slaughtering defenceless birds on the Scottish moors. Wilson promised to replace the Edwardian age with the jet age.
The first Wilson administration lasted six years and enacted significant reforms, even if not comparable to the social reforms of the 1945-51 Attlee government — NHS and Welfare State. Abortion was legalised. Capital punishment abolished, “homosexual acts” significantly decriminalised, laws against racial discrimination passed.
Unsuccessful attempts at imposing statutory wage controls and anti-union laws, and new racist Immigration Acts were some of the notable negative sides. And the Wilson government failed entirely on its promise of a National (economic) Plan based on high technology.
A key aspect of Wilson’s political project was the promotion of “social mobility” allied to the idea that the Labour Party needed to get away from “the cloth cap image” and appeal more to the aspiring middle classes. Dennis Potter’s two Nigel Barton plays satirised the “takeover” of the Labour Party by middle class careerists who didn’t know the words to The Red Flag, whilst academics such as Barry Hindess portrayed Labour in a similar vein (The Decline of Working Class Politics, 1969). Such were the precursors to “Mondeo man” of Blair’s era.
The Tories also made an effort to ditch their image as a party of toffs and aristos and present themselves as champions of middle class meritocracy. The next three Tory PMs — Heath, Thatcher, and Major — all played up that that were state-educated and from “modest” origins.
Cameron’s elevation to the top of the Tory tree witnessed the return of the Old Etonians with his Bullingdon pal Johnson succeeding him later as the 20th Prime Minster who’d been to that institution of entrenched white male upper class privilege.
Nowadays the Tory faithful aren’t particularly troubled by philandering at the top. Other types of scandal may lay in wait for them, but socialists can't hang around for that to happen. Instead we must fight against more serious scandals such as homelessness, starvation wages and abject poverty, and bring down the capitalist system that perpetuates them.