Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Britain fifty years ago (2013)

Book Review from the May 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines. Harper Press, 2013. £20

It is 50 years since what was termed the ‘Profumo Affair’ rocked the Establishment and the ruling class in Britain, but particularly in England and London. Davenport-Hines asserts that it was ‘a nation on the brink of a social revolution.’ It was not that, but there was considerable change in the mores and life-styles of many workers compared to the pre-war period and for many years after that war.

Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, was very much an old-fashioned Tory, dedicated to tradition, hierarchy, so-called Christian morality and, of course, a capitalist society not unlike before the war; although he realised that the sun was setting on the British Empire and Commonwealth. The working class, he felt, ‘had never had it so good.’ Many other Tories pretended to be much the same as Macmillan but, in fact, spent their time in nightclubs and at parties on estates such as Lord Astor’s Cliveden, where the osteopath, Stephen Ward, would bring young and attractive (mainly working-class) girls, such as Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, mostly for their sexual pleasure.

One such visitor to Cliveden was the Minister for War, John Profumo, the grandson of an Italian baron. Ward introduced Profumo to Keeler, who had been swimming naked in the pool. Also joining the party, which included the President of Pakistan and Lord Mountbatten and other establishment figures, was the Soviet assistant naval attaché Yevgeni Ivanov (actually a Russian spy known to MI5) brought to Cliveden by Ward. Following his return to London, Profumo phoned Keeler and arranged to meet her the next weekend, as his wife would be away. Subsequently, Profumo and Keeler had an affair which was furtive but known to many people including MI5. Christine Keeler also knew Ivanov, claiming to have had sex with him. The Cold War had been ‘hotting up’; and Ward became an unofficial go-between for the Soviets and some British politicians.

When challenged by government ministers, MI5 and others, including Parliament, John Profumo denied having sexual relations with Christine Keeler. But it was too late. It was common knowledge. Profumo resigned as Minister for War, and Stephen Ward was arrested on trumped-up charges of keeping and living off the earnings of prostitutes, and various abortion offences. During his trial, however, Ward committed suicide. The so-called popular press had a field-day, publishing lie after lie about Ward, Keeler and Profumo. Davenport-Hines has an interesting chapter (‘Hacks’, no.7), demonstrating that the ‘popular’ papers and their writers were just as bad as, if not worse than, the red-top papers of today.

The author of An English Affair is not a socialist, and his analysis has its faults, but it is a useful reminder of British society 50 years ago. It’s worth a read.
Peter E. Newell

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