Sunday, February 1, 2015

Greasy Pole: Mandy and Christine (2015)

The Greasy Pole Column from the February 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

There can't be many ex-pupils of Sharmans Cross Secondary Modern School in Shirley, Solihull responsible for coining a phrase which, for its terse penetration of a barricade of hypocrisy, has endured for fifty years and merited its originator a place in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Or whose later judgement of one of her 'affairs' when she was fifteen was 'I was an enthusiastic participant in what struck me as a perfectly pleasant way to spend an afternoon...the worst I could be accused of is bad judgement and a healthy libido...' We are discussing here Marilyn (more profitably known as 'Mandy') Rice-Davies who in the early days of Harold Macmillan's Nineteen Sixties never had it so good in numerous contacts with older, richer, more famous men. And who, when she was informed by a barrister in court that the Third Viscount Astor from Cliveden in Buckinghamshire denied that he had been one of those men retorted 'Well he would, wouldn't he'. She died last December, after a life she recalled as 'one slow descent into respectability'.

Rice-Davies' family moved to Solihull for her father to take a job at the Dunlop factory. She seemed older than her years and moved to London, became a dancer at Murray's Club in Soho, met Christine Keeler to replace her in the home of the notorious persecuting slum landlord Rachman. 'It was dislike at first sight' was how she described her original contact with Keeler; 'I enjoyed her company and learned never to rely on her for anything'. Which did not deter her from being one of a threesome sexual service for any client who was rich and energetic enough. During this time she was introduced by Keeler to, among others, Lord Astor and Stephen Ward Рa highly successful osteopath. For some people Ward was cynically plausible and indiscreet, always ready to work a deal to promote the situation in which he was a favoured therapist for, among others, Paul Getty, Colin Coote and Frank Sinatra and a clutch of politicians including Churchill, Eden and Gaitskell. Meanwhile among Keeler's attendant men was Yevgeny Ivanov who was the Naval attach̩ at the Russian Embassy.

In July 1961 the Astors threw one of their lavish parties at Cliveden, attended by the customary slew of notables including John Profumo, the Tory MP. The assembled guests made their way down to the house swimming pool which was close to a cottage rented by Ward. Taking a refreshing dip – made more so by having her swimming costume mischievously removed by Ward – was Christine Keeler. Before she left that evening with Ivanov, Profumo had made a note of her telephone number, which he used to facilitate an affair. At that time Profumo was very much a man with a future. He had been to Harrow School and then Oxford where while 'studying law' he found time to be a member of the vandalising Bullingdon Club. He was elected as an MP and in May 1940 he joined 30 other Tory MPs in a vote which effectively led to the resignation of Neville Chamberlain. The Tory disciplinarians in the House were not pleased; one Whip spat on Profumo's shoes and the Chief Whip snarled at him that he was ' utterly contemptible little shit'. Notwithstanding this he remained in favour with the leadership; although he lost his seat in Kettering in the 1945 Labour landslide he was later elected for Stratford-on-Avon. It did not take long for him to squirm his way up the Greasy Pole to the extent that he was tipped as a future Foreign Secretary or Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was Secretary of State for War when he was sexually linked with Keeler and the fact that she was also involved with Ivanov accentuated concerns about security. Meanwhile in Westminster Profumo developed a reputation as a persistent womaniser, accustomed to excuse his absences from home as due to late night sittings in the Commons. His wife, the film star Valerie Hobson, complained about him instructing his tailor to fashion his trousers so as to hint at his unusually large penis.

The Westminster rumour mill ground hungrily into the Profumo/Keeler scandal with the Labour MP George Wigg particularly active. In March 1963 the Whips decided that enough was enough and one night in the small hours they hauled Profumo out of bed to insist that he came clean. But the most they could manage was a denial which Profumo was to read later that day to the Commons, part of which said: 'Miss Keeler and I were on friendly terms. There was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintance with Miss Keeler.' But when this was read to the House it only aggravated the problem. Typically, Wigg '...left the House that morning with black rage in my heart because I knew what the facts were'. In addition when the police interviewed Keeler in their investigation into Ward on charges of ‘living off immoral earnings’ she confirmed having a sexual relationship with Profumo. It did not then take long for him to give in; during what might have been a conciliatory trip to Venice he confessed all to his wife and then to Macmillan. On 5 June he resigned. Among a flood of similar comment The Economist asked '...may the government, or rather the Prime Minister of Britain be about to be overthrown by a 21-year old trollop?' The police had also been active and Ward appeared at the Old Bailey on what was very doubtful evidence. Just before the day of it all being summed up he committed suicide at his home. Tory MP Alan Clark, whose own adventures made it difficult for him to overflow with any delicate sympathy, later blurted that the whole affair had ' their (Tory politicians') essential rottenness'.

And so we return to Mandy Rice Davies and her enduringly perceptive phrase. That all happened fifty years ago but it is no better now. We have David Cameron claiming the ability to control the vagaries of capitalism. And Ed Miliband desperate to convince us that his party is even more capable. And Nick Clegg striving to make us forget the Lib Dem's record of deception. About each and all of them we must declare:

He would, wouldn't he?

Editorial: Whatever is Happening to the 'Middle Class'? (2015)

Editorial from the February 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Was it really only a generation ago that Tony Blair was telling us that we are all middle-class now?  Today, few can be unaware of the widening gap between the incomes of the owners of capital and the rest of us, or that since the credit crunch of 2008 wage and salary earners have been afflicted by a massive slump in their incomes.  To find a comparable situation, say the TUC researchers, it would be necessary to go back to the experience of our Victorian great-grandparents in the 1860s and 1870s. Back then, Disraeli had written of a country starkly divided into two nations, the rich and the poor.  Today, it seems, under the power of global capital, we, their inheritors, inhabit a planet divided into two worlds. 

So what, in this time of polarising incomes, has happened to the middle-class?  Who, indeed, are the middle-class?   Despite Tony Blair’s convictions, most people, when surveyed, are reluctant to pigeon-hole themselves into class categories, no longer certain, perhaps, how meaningful they are.  For working people in the middle-income groups, however, one thing is certain.  They are not doing well.

To be sure, they have not done as badly as industrial workers and those on low pay, but they have received serious blows to their incomes and expectations.  In the months after the 2008 crash of the big banks, there were massive lay-offs of financial services workers.  And since then, the squeeze on middle incomes has been relentless.  Like everyone else they are working harder and earning less.  Their expectations of a secure career, a comfortable pension and a good return on savings have been dashed.  More and more of their income is being eaten up by childcare and commuting costs, while private health care for the family, and foreign holidays are becoming a distant memory. With the soaring cost of private education and university fees, there is concern over the kids.

And yes, what about the kids? The children of the middle class are increasingly taking jobs well below their educational attainments.  That time as a barista is now looking less like an entertaining stop gap between university and a professional career, and more like a dead end job. They are beginning to understand that the ‘cost of living crisis’, zero hours contracts and surviving on the minimum wage are now no longer concerns only for blue collar workers.  Not for them, any more, is the desirable home they grew up in.

Tyler Cowan, an American economist predicting the destruction of the middle class, may or may not have consulted his crystal ball accurately, but it nevertheless appears that the super-rich owners of capital are only getting richer, and the poor are remaining poor or getting poorer.  And like their Victorian forebears, those in the middle income-bracket are increasingly fearful of falling into the ‘abyss’, a formless underworld of poverty and destitution. With declining incomes and job prospects, the withdrawal or reduction of benefits and reports of over a million people now accessing food banks,  that does not seem an unreasonable fear.