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Notes on a Scandal

by John O'Sullivan

It is 50 years since the headlines were dominated by the scandal of the British Minister for War who had a fling with a night-club dancer who also happened to be having a fling with a Soviet military attaché. John Profumo, the minister, died six years ago; his loyal wife, the former film actress Valerie Hobson, pre-deceased him in the 1990s; but Christine Keeler, the dancer in question, is still alive. Her life was probably more damaged by the scandal than anyone’s. For, as Peggy Noonan pointed out in a fine columnProfumo’s disgrace, repentance, and 40-year penance as a social worker in East London’s Toynbee Hall ended well. Not only was he restored to public favor — he was seated next to the Queen at Margaret Thatcher’s birthday party in a gesture of establishment approval — but he also told friends at the end that he was contented with his life. Neither would have been possible if his social service had been a brief and superficial gambit.

One of Peggy’s purposes in writing about this 50th anniversary, of course, was to contrast Profumo’s long and hard penance with the easy absolution that other politicians wounded by scandal have recently granted themselves. In passing, however, she notes that Profumo was brought down less by the sexual element in the scandal and less by its national-security implications (there really weren’t any though Ms. Keeler now claims to have been a dangerous spy) than by the fact that he had lied to his ministerial colleagues in the Macmillan Tory government and to the House of Commons about it. That was the main “political sin” he had committed, and he probably felt particularly ashamed of doing so. If he had simply confessed to a sexual indiscretion and resigned when the rumors began to circulate, neither his fall nor his later rise would have been so dramatic. He might even have remained in politics.

So there has always been a small mystery as to why he lied. “Jack” Profumo was not a timid or weak man; he was brave physically and robust morally. While serving in the British army as a young officer in 1940 he was elected to the House of Commons in a special election, and soon afterwards he was one of the small minority of Tory MPs who voted against the government in the famous “Norway debate” that brought down Neville Chamberlain and helped to usher Winston Churchill into 10 Downing Street. If he had done nothing else memorable, he would deserve to be honored for that. But he went on to have what the Brits call a “good war,” earning several decorations, including the U.S. Military Bronze Medal, and ending up as a Brigadier. He was an effective House of Commons performer too. And he had shrewdness and common sense. Telling a foolish and easily exposed lie was the single worst course open to him. Why did he do it?

The reason was explained to me 20 years ago by William (later Lord) Deedes, the Minister responsible for government communications when the scandal broke, and later my boss as Editor of the Daily Telegraph. There are other versions, but this was Bill’s, and he was one of four ministers sent by the prime minister late at night to question Profumo about the allegations that he had slept with the dancer. The ministers, however, went in a mood of neither skepticism nor inquisition. They went, Bill said, almost to plead. In summer 1963 the government was just beginning to recover from a string of scandals and presumed scandals including one — in fact completely false — that alleged a homosexual relationship between a minister and a civil servant spying for Moscow. The thought that another scandal might just be about to break over their heads was too awful to contemplate.

When they arrived at Profumo’s home, they discovered that he and his wife had already gone to bed. Indeed, because of the stress they were both under, they had taken sleeping pills to ensure a good night’s sleep. They nonetheless had to be woken. (His wife was unaware that her husband had strayed.) When he appeared, the four ministers asked their colleague if he had slept with a showgirl. But they put what in Latin lessons we called a “Num question — one expecting the answer No.” As Bill put it: ”We more or less said: You didn’t sleep with the girl did you, Jack?” And Profumo, drowsy and drugged but dimly conscious that his wife would be horribly wounded and humiliated if he told the truth, gave them the answer they expected: No.

The four ministers happily left it at that. They had heard what they wanted. They did not feel it necessary to cross-question him closely or ask him about discrepancies between his denial and the rumors. They departed, not exactly rejoicing, but relieved. As minister for communications, Bill at once set about preparing all the steps that followed like claps of doom: Profumo’s false statement to the House, the prime minister’s expression of confidence, the threats of libel actions against newspapers, a breezily confident appearance by Profumo at the races. . . . And that is an account not from Profumo or from his family or from those convenient ”friends” who talk to reporters, but from one of the inquisitors appointed to get the truth.

It couldn’t hold. Too many people knew the truth; too many other people had an interest in the truth coming out. And Profumo was a realist. Three months later, as his denial was beginning to unravel, he took his wife to Venice for a break, and over lunch he confessed the affair. Valerie Hobson was one of the great stars of British cinema of the thirties to the fifties. See her in Kind Hearts and Coronets, or The Drum, or The Card. Her response might have come from one of those movies in which good girls meet bad news with lips that tremble only briefly before becoming dutifully stiff again: “Oh darling,” she said, “we must go home as soon as we can and face up to it.”

Well, they did. And because their life wasn’t a movie, no one shouted “Cut!” And they faced up to it for 40 years or more. They felt it was worthwhile at the end, and so did everyone else, including some of their former tormentors. Would it have been better for the Profumos if he had told the truth that first night when his colleagues turned up at 2:00 a.m. to interrogate him? In conventional wordly terms, it would certainly have given them an easier life. But a better life?

Well, I don’t think that I’m in a position to judge that, but I can guess the answer of the breezily repentant candidates in New York.

 

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