The Profumo Affair: a moral panic between austerity Britain and the swinging sixties

Posted: June 12, 2014 by Admin in 1960s, British politics, Capitalist ideology, Censorship and free speech, Commodification, Cultural studies, England, Miscarriages of justice, Moral panics, Organised superstition

Wardby Philip Ferguson

It’s not often that this, or any other left-wing website, would bother mentioning an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. However, the English milord’s latest outing is of some considerable interest as it is about Stephen Ward, one of the leading figures in, and victims of, the Profumo Affair of 1963.

Ward killed himself at the end of the trial where he faced a set of charges bound up with allegedly being a pimp.

The musical began previews on December 3 and had its official opening December 19. Lloyd Webber recently noted that Ward was an innocent victim of the British Establishment, something which made me prick up my ears as I happen to think so too.

Recently I ran a course on the Profumo Affair at the Canterbury Workers Educational Association. Those taking the course were all “of a certain age”, as they say. So I began by asking them to identify particular words which they associated with the Profumo Affair. Unsurprisingly, the words they thought of were bound up with illicit sex, prostitutes/call girls (Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies) and their pimp (Stephen Ward), degenerate aristos (Bill Astor) and upper class politicians (John Profumo, Harold Macmillan), espionage (Ward and the Russian Evgeny Ivanov), drugs and modernising egalitarians taking on the corrupt Establishment.

Stephen Ward and Christine Keeler, the chief victims of liberal-Labour and reactionary-Tory hypocrisy

Stephen Ward and Christine Keeler, the chief victims of liberal-Labour and reactionary-Tory hypocrisy

The ‘Scandal’, however, was much more prosaic. There wasn’t really a lot of sex, neither Keeler nor Rice-Davies were prostitutes, Ward was neither a pimp nor involved in passing any information to the Soviets, there weren’t really much in the way of drugs, and there weren’t any degenerate aristos. Rather there was an unholy alliance (not organised, more a coincidence of interests), involving corrupt police, opportunist Labour politicians, fake egalitarians, self-serving newspapers, an extremely socially conservative section of the Old Establishment, and some racism. All adding up to the one big moral panic and a lot of cynical and hypocritical politicking, in no small part by the Labour Party.

Several lives were ruined. Ward, along with Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, were caught in the war between two rival Establishments – the old conservative, privileged one and the new fake-egalitarian, liberal, soon-to-be privileged one – and paid a high price, although Rice-Davies later became a successful businesswoman and now leads a very comfortable existence in Israel. Ward committed suicide, Astor’s health was ruined and he died a couple of years later and Keeler was – and still is – harassed by British gutter newspapers who did their damnedest to wreck her life. Today she lives in a London shelter.* To understand what the ‘Scandal’ was really about, it’s necessary to see it as a product of British society on the cusp between the uptight austere 1950s and the swinging sixties. And to understand this it’s necessary, in turn, to look at British society in the period between the end of World War II and the Profumo Affair.

Austerity Britain 1945

People in Britain were actually worse off in first few years after the war than they had been during it. Britain 1945 is a foreign country compared to Britain today. There were no supermarkets, no teabags, no vinyl records, no lager, no automatic washing machines (wash day every Monday for most), no legal abortion, no legal suicide, no legal homosexuality, almost no television, almost no central heating, almost no Indian restaurants (four in the whole of Britain). However, there was hanging and lots of white faces, lots of chilblains, lots of rationing, lots of trams, steam trains, Woodbines, smog, red telephone boxes, and shops and/or pubs on every corner (well, almost). In 1948 rationing allowed the average adult 13 oz of meat, two pints of milk and one egg per week. In 1950, 54% of wealth owned by 1.5 percent of the population; the great mass of people, 62%, were essentially property-less. That same year, nearly half British homes still had no bathroom and outdoor or shared toilets were common. The working class were largely limited to a weekly bath in tin bath heated by gas burners or water heated by fireplace. Continuing housing shortages also meant many young couples had to live with in-laws, a situation still widespread in the ‘swinging sixties’ and made famous on TV in the comedy Til Death Us Do Part.

The two decades after WW2 were times in which socially and sexually conservative attitudes predominated. Or did officially anyway. The Patterns of Marriage survey (1943-6), published in 1951, involved 200 working class soldiers and their wives focussing on courtship, marriage and sex and indicated an extensive amount of “passive endurance” by women, epitomised by the comment “He’s very good; he doesn’t bother me much.” Another survey found 25% of married men had sex with prostitutes.

However, married women didn’t just endure: 20% of married women had extramarital affairs. Richard Davenport-Hines, the latest historian of the Profumo Affair, has noted however that attitudes towards marital fidelity are more rigid now than they were in the conservative 1950s and early 1960s. Adultery was not regarded as a deal-breaker.

‘The Age of Boom’

The 1950s also saw a substantial improvement in living standards and consumer spending. For instance, there was a 115% rise in spending on household items, while average consumption rose 20% per person, an increase as great as that of the entire interwar (1918-39) period. In the late 1950s there was an especially noticeable rise in the number of households with cars, TVs, washing machines and fridges and a massive expansion in hire purchase. Wages, meanwhile, rose by about 90%. While the first real supermarket didn’t open in Britain until 1950, by 1960 there were nearly 370 and, by 1967, about 3,000.

This period also saw a marked rise in quality paperbacks, especially associated with Allen Lane and his company, Penguin. These included not only novels but also history, sociology, and investigations of social, economic and political conditions in Britain. In 1960 Lane took on state censorship by publishing D.H. Lawrence’s long-banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover and won the subsequent court case (see below). While 1945-51 had still been a period of austerity, it also saw the belated creation of the modern British welfare state. One of the results was expanded education for bright working class kids, a layer of whom got into university and, continuing to be upwardly mobile, subsequently came to occupy an important place in the leadership of the Labour Party and media. This was a particularly important development as this new layer, ex-working class but now thoroughly petty-bourgeois, played a crucial role in the modernisation of British capitalism and British society more generally.

The modernisation was vital because, although the 1950s were a time of increasing affluence, the British economy was declining in relation to competitors, especially the very powers which had been defeated in World War 2 – Germany and Japan. At the same time, Britain was losing its empire. This may have had little effect on the mass of people in Britain, but it certainly affected Britain’s place in the world and intensified the sense of decline in the upper echelons of society and the need to modernise among the new layers of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois emerging out of the war and the postwar boom of the 1950s.

It also made Britain increasingly dependent on its ‘special relationship’ with the USA to maintain its status as a global player. Despite its special relationship with the United States, Britain escaped the full-blown paranoia of McCarthyite anti-communism. However, the Cold War was important and there were significant spy scandals.

New cultures

This period also saw a kind of cultural rise of the working class. Shift to social realism in literature and film in late 1950s. Novels, stories and films depicting working class life found significant audiences and won prizes. Writers, directors, actors and producers from working class and lower middle-class backgrounds – especially from the ‘provinces’ (Midlands and northern industrial areas) shot to fame.

Teenagers were a new demographic; they hadn’t really existed before. They were a product of the baby boom and economic boom, along with earlier puberty). With them came the rise of teenage subcultures – teddy boys, mods etc; and fears of juvenile delinquency. A Daily Mirror headline dubbed them “Spendagers” as 5.5 million teenagers in the early 1960s were spending a billion quid. While they didn’t really have a fortune, teenagers did constitute a large part of the market for specific goods, such as clothing, make-up, music and scooters.

By the mid-1960s Britain was an international centre for fashion (clothing and appearance) and music. Mary Quant opened her first shop, Bazaar, in 1955 and in late 1960 went wholesale and into exports. Fashionable clothing became more economically accessible. John Stephen established ‘His Clothes’ in Carnaby St in 1958, selling continental suits but got more adventurous in the early 1960s and Carnaby St started to take off as a fashion centre. Vidal Sassoon had opened his first Bond Street shop in the early 1950s, but took on a big new premises in 1959 and in 1963 established the ‘Mary Quant cut’.

Nevertheless at the start of the 1960s, there was little indication of what was to come. 1960 was still an innocent time – the South Pacific soundtrack was #1 for 37 weeks, 101 Strings for 5 weeks and Elvis for 1 week); #1 singles were songs like “It’s Now or Never” (Elvis) , “My Old Man’s a Dustman” (Lonnie Donegan), “Cathy’s Clown” (Everly Bros) and “Apache” (the Shadows). Princess Margaret married Anthony Armstrong-Jones in the first televised royal wedding and the Grand National was televised for first time. ITV broadcast the first live football match, Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker had its first production, London got its first traffic wardens, Britain had its first successful kidney transplant, the first episode of Coronation Street aired and a four-piece group from Liverpool performed as The Beatles for the first time.

Indicating the shift with the loss of empire, the Times newspaper section called “Imperial and Foreign News” became “Overseas News” while the new era of affluence was represented by Manchester City signing a record contract with 20-year-old soccer player Denis Law for £55,000. December 31 was the last day the farthing was legal tender and the last man was called up for National Service.

1960 was also the year of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, an indication that a new wind, or at least some fresh air, was beginning to blow in stuffy old Britain. Allen Lane, as a shrewd businessman, had sniffed the fresh air as well as being encouraged by the Obscene Publications Act 1959.  This piece of legislation meant that a book had to be looked at as a whole and its literary merit taken into account; it could no longer just be banned because of some passages.

Lane’s defence team could call on a range of impressive witnesses; indeed 35 were called. These included the Bishop of Woolwich, E.M. Forster, Tory MP Norman St John Stevas, Richard Hoggart and Rebecca West, while the prosecution were unable to find witnesses. Chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones, who seemed determined to represent everything decrepitly elitist in British society, famously told the jury, “You may think that one of the ways in which you can test this book, and test it from the most liberal outlook, is to ask yourselves the question, when you have read it through, would you approve of your young sons, young daughters—because girls can read as well as boys—reading this book. Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?” Not surprisingly, this “had a visible – and risible – effect on the jury and may well have been the first nail in the prosecution’s coffin” (Rolph, 1960, p17). The jury of nine men and three women took only a few hours to find Penguin not guilty – according to Rolph, 3/4 of them were for acquittal before the trial began; the judge, however, was pro-prosecution – and the book became a runaway best-seller.

The late 1950s and early 1960s was also the heyday of ‘social realist’ writing, such as John Braine’s A Room at the Top, Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, David Storey’s This Sporting Life, Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction and many more becoming critically-acclaimed best sellers and being turned into movies.

Social change speeds up

Social change began to speed up. In the period 1960-63, television replaced radio as the main broadcasting medium and there were new voices at BBC, new accents (working class), and new ideas with Hughie Greene as head of the Corporation. Along with kitchen sink drama like Coronation Street, depicting working class life, there were new types of show aimed at the young –eg Ready Steady Go! (1963). There was a shift in young women’s magazines – the more conservative ones of the 1950s began to go under, replaced by more modern, buoyant publications like Honey (1960/61), Jackie and Fabulous (both 1963).

While the social realist novels, plays and films mentioned earlier continued – the BBC’s Wednesday Play being a good example – the new age of affluence was soon also represented by glossy escapist films like the James Bond productions. There were also stirrings of political protest at the end of the 1950s and start of the 1960s with the annual Aldermaston anti-nuclear marches from Easter 1958 to 1963. Fashionable middle class criticism of ‘The Establishment’ developed with circles like the Chelsea Set , while dissatisfaction among younger people was also evident in arts colleges. There was a growing trend to less deference and even to ‘take the piss’ out of the social and political elite – for example, Private Eye (1961) and That Was the Week that Was (1962).  At the same time, the rise of TV put pressure on newspapers: as a result there was a trend for them to become more intrusive and salacious – the beginning of a trend which continues to this day.

Changed social and sexual attitudes were reflected by 1963 being declared ‘The Year of the Leg’ – women’s legs – with shorter skirts, tights, and ‘boots with everything’.

The doyen of sixties historians, Arthur Marwick, has argued that the increased affluence that came in the 1950s started to be reflected in the 1960s. Furthermore, “The changes which were most evident at the beginning of the sixties were in material conditions, social relations, and sexual morality” (A. Marwick, The Sixties, Oxford: OUP, 1998, p. 113). Eventually the personal choices made possible by rising affluence came into conflict with continuing restrictions on personal freedom.  In my view, Stephen Ward, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies are good examples of this.

In October 1962 John Vassall was convicted for spying for the Soviet Union. The following year World In Action began on Granada; the musical film Summer Holiday, featuring Cliff Richard, opened; Kim Philby disappeared on January 23; De Gaulle vetoed UK entry into the Common Market; Harold Wilson became leader of the Labour Party; the Hillman Imp was launched; there was a royal wedding as Princess Alexandra married Ian Ogilvie at Westminster; 70,000 marchers arrived in London from Aldermaston on a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament march; and late in the year the Beatles had their first number one single (“From Me To You”) and album (Please Please Me).

In December 1962, a West Indian called Johnny Edgecombe fired shots at the front of society osteopath Stephen Ward’s flat while his former girlfriend Christine Keeler was visiting Mandy Rice-Davies – this was possibly the point at which what became the ‘Profumo Affair’ began to unravel.

Christine Keeler and John Profumo

Christine Keeler was born in 1942, growing up in a railway carriage not far from west London. At 15 she left a job in Slough to move to London, worked in a gown shop, then took up modeling her first picture appeared in Tit-Bits magazine in 1957. In 1959 she became a waitress; one of her customers worked in a cabaret club and she got a job there. In June 1961 Keeler moved into a flat in Marylebone with Stephen Ward and the next month met and began a very short affair with John Profumo.

Profumo was of Italian descent; his great-grandfather, Antonio, was Baron of Sardinia. Antonio’s son Guiseppe moved to Britain, married an English woman and became Joseph; his son Albert married a Scottish woman and their children included John Profumo (b 1915). The young Profumo attended Harrow, then Oxford, flew planes and hung out with the upper echelons of the Tory party. He became an MP in 1940 and joined the rebellion which replaced Chamberlain with Winston Churchill. He joined the armed forces and by the end of the war was a brigadier. However, he lost his seat in Labour’s 1945 election victory.

Profumo met actress Valerie Hobson in the late 1940s; she was married to philanderer Tony Havelock-Allan. Hobson self-aborted during the marriage and also decided to do a bit of philandering herself, having her first extramarital affair not with Profumo but with an also-married admirer. She then took up with Profumo and became pregnant again in 1949. He expected her to have an abortion, which she did, and their affair was suspended. These episodes provide an interesting little insight into the hypocrisy of our social betters. While they preached the sanctity of marriage to the working class and maintained rigid laws against abortion, they thought little of affairs and abortions for themselves.

Profumo re-entered parliament in 1950, Hobson had another child with her husband, then they divorced. Profumo and Hobson married in 1954 , becoming very much a ‘society couple’, although, as was common at the time, she was expected to give up her career. In July 1960 Profumo became Secretary of State for War, a position outside cabinet. (Despite its important-sounding name it was essentially about men and equipment rather than actual policy-making about war and peace.) The following July he met Christine Keeler at a pool party at Cliveden, the estate of Lord Astor. (The Astors were from the United States and bought their way into the English aristocracy in the late 1800s.)

During the period between Profumo’s affair with Keeler and his fall, came the Vassall case. In the late 1950s, John Vassall of the Admiralty’s naval intelligence division supplied thousands of pages of documents to the Soviet Union. He was arrested in September 1962 and the next month sentenced to 20 years. A tribunal was set up to investigate the circumstances of his case. Additionally, like most of the Cambridge spies, Vassall was gay. Just before Profumo was getting involved with Keeler, came the Portland Naval trial. Two two civil servants, Henry Houghton and Winifred Gee, and three others were charged with spying and selling nuclear secrets to the Russians.

This period also saw the rise of the Bond novels and movies. Sex and espionage were very exciting after the dreary 1950s and the public imagination, notes Davenport-Hines, was primed for a scandal involving sex, snobbery and spying. Moreover, since Profumo, Astor, Ward and Ivanov were heterosexual: the salacious details could be published – this wasn’t the case with gay scandals, as the intimate details of gay sex were not to be publicly written about or even provided in trials in court.

The relationship between Profumo and Keeler was very brief: three-four weeks according to him, several months according to her, with assignations sometimes taking place in Stephen Ward’s flat. Ward himself was an osteopath, with a number of famous and/or wealthy clients. He was also a social gadfly, who enjoyed being around the rich and/or famous. Among Ward’s friends was Soviet naval attache Eugene Ivanov. However, as Davenport-Hines notes, Ward’s minimal secret service connections were not with the Soviets but with MI5. Keeler had also become acquainted with Ivanov; she claimed, albeit under pressure and inducements, that she had sex with him, but this appears to be somewhat unlikely, as Davenport-Hines shows.

Keeler and Rice-Davies were not prostitutes – they simply enjoyed life and did what later young women would take for granted they could do. They got labeled “sluts” and “tarts” by a press that was both salacious and moralistic when really “they were just pioneers” (Davenport-Hines). The 1956 Sexual Offences Act also worked against them and, especially, against Ward. According to this archaic law any man who introduced another man to a woman under 21 who later has sex with that woman was guilty of a criminal act!

The ‘scandal’

Security Services warned Profumo about Ward’s friendship with Ivanov, but they appear to have been unaware of his affair with Keeler. Keeler, however, told other people of the affair (including a policeman, an ex-MP and two newspapers), especially after Edgecombe’s arrest; a letter from Profumo to her was also given to a newspaper. In March 1963: Labour MP George Wigg raised the affair using parliamentary privilege, asking the home secretary to deny rumours regarding Keeler and Profumo Interestingly, newspapers were initially reluctant to publish stuff about the affair because of a recent libel trial and the jailing of several journalists – it was also a time in which respect for authority figures such as Profumo was stronger than today. Nevertheless rumour and innuendo abounded.

Profumo assured Macmillan there was nothing to worry about from a security angle (true) but also that there had been no impropriety between him and Keeler (not true). Profumo then lied to parliament about the affair. Ward backed Profumo’s denials, then cracked and in June 1963 went on trial for living off immoral earnings, procurement and inciting Keeler to procure. The chief prosecutor was Mervyn Griffith-Jones, the prosecutor from the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial. On June 5, 1963 Profumo confessed he had lied to parliament and resigned. He retired from politics and did charity work in the East End of London for many years and died in 2006. Premier Macmillan had to fight to survive; he fended off Labour no-confidence motion, but the Profumo Affair was effectively the end of his career. He was replaced by Alec Douglas-Home in October 1963, but Labour came to power in 1964.

The unholy alliance of moral panic merchants

The Profumo Affair had been a godsend to Labour; pro-Labour papers like Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror used it to portray the upper class as effete, lazy, sexually degenerate, and an obstacle to progress (even breeding ground for traitors), not only social progress within the country but progress in terms of British industry’s competitiveness on the world market. Initially the Labour leadership had not been keen to muckrake (some of them had skeletons in closet; also some decorum about right to privacy) but Wigg hated Profumo over arguments they had about the British Army; Labour leaders also saw the potential to harm the Macmillan government and stir up fears about ‘national security’, Labour being, of course, very patriotic.

The ‘liberal’ Labourites were helped by Christian reactionaries in the Tory party. For instance, Home Secretary Brooke instructed police to investigate Ward, although no crime had been reported (ie the inverse of proper process). The Denning Report also helped Labour, describing Ward as “utterly immoral”. Lord Denning was a very senior judge, elevated to the peerage, puritanical, devout, and obsessed with sex; he even wanted men with vasectomies (and doctors who did the operations) prosecuted. Lord Hailsham (former barrister, elevated to Lords, cabinet minister) had strong views about what should happen during sex also helped put the nail in the political coffin of Profumo and wreck the lives of Keeler, Ward and Astor.

The conservative Beaverbrook press also played a role. Beaverbrook was a great one for vendettas; he hated the Astor family and saw vendettas as part of his role/right as a press baron. While Mirror papers went after Ward, Keeler, Profumo, Macmillan and the supposed Russian connection, Beaverbrook’s Express newspapers were to the fore in going after Astor. In July 1963 Edward Heath told parliament that Philby was the third man in Burgess/Maclean spy scandal, reinforcing Cold War paranoia.

The victims

On August 3, on the last day of his trial, Ward committed suicide by sleeping tablets. The jury actually found him not guilty on the first several charges, but guilty of living off immoral earnings in relation to Keeler and Rice-Davies, effectively deciding they were prostitutes and he was a pimp. In December 1963 Keeler was found guilty of perjury, despite the fact that, as Davenport-Hines shows, her perjury was actually the result of newspaper and police pressure. She was also found guilty of attempting to obstruct the course of justice in a related trial and imprisoned for nine months.

The result of a moral panic cooked up by Labour liberals and old-style Tory Christian reactionaries was a bunch of wrecked lives. As a Marxist I’m not too bothered about Profumo, but the affair killed Ward, while Keeler and Rice-Davies were continually defamed in press. Astor, who Davenport-Hines records as being at the humanitarian end of Toryism, had his life cut short, being afflicted subsequently by a heart attack; his health never recovered and he died a social outcast in 1966. Keeler had a troubled life afterwards; last year, aged 71, she was living in sheltered accommodation, estranged from her kids and grandchildren; recently a tabloid published a very unflattering photo of her out shopping. Rice-Davies did better; successful in business, she married an Israeli, now lives in Israel, and has converted to Judaism.

Late last year renowned British lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC brought out Stephen Ward was Innocent OK.  Robertson, supported by Lloyd-Webber and a number of other luminaries is trying to get Ward’s conviction overturned.

Contradictory trends in British society

The Profumo Affair showed contradictory trends in British society. It was certainly a body blow to Macmillan government and a turning point in the shift form the austere Britain of the 1950s to the ‘swinging sixties’. It indicated that the morals the ruling class sought to impose on the rest of society were often breached by our ‘social betters’. However, it also helped bring the end to notions of privacy, being one of the first instances of the rise of invasive, prurient press, cheque-book journalism (journalists even broke into Astor’s house and school locker of one of Profumo’s kids looking for dirt).

While Labour and its supporters in the growing, new mass media formally championed a meritorious society as opposed to one based on ‘birthright, many of these folks were only too happy to receive titles and awards when their time came, as Davenport-Hines points out. Moreover, once in power, Labour began an assault on the working class far worse than workers had experienced under 13 years of Tory rule. Labour’s ‘modernisation’ of Britain was primarily about making the British economy more competitive on the world market and that meant attacks on workers’ pay, rights and living conditions. The assault came to a head with Labour’s In Place of Strife industrial document in 1968. For an outline of the attacks on workers in the early years of the Wilson Labour government, see here.

*I actually began writing this in late 2013; I have no idea where she lives as of June 2014.

Further reading: An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines (2013); Stephen Ward was Innocent, OK: the case for overturning his conviction, by Geoffrey Robertson (2013); Scandal ’63, by Clive Irving, Ron Hall & Jeremy Wallington (1963); An Affair of State: The Profumo Case and the Framing of Stephen Ward, by Philip Knightley & Caroline Kennedy (1987).  Christine Keeler has produced several accounts of her own, most recently Secrets and Lies (2012).


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