By Carl Trueman
An Affair to Remember
The death of Christine Keeler a few weeks ago marked the passing from the scene of the last major character from the most notorious sex scandal in British politics of the latter half of the twentieth century. The Profumo Affair brought down the Macmillan government, paved the way for the election victory of the Labour Party in 1964 and shaped the political landscape of Britain for a generation.
The details of the scandal were typically tawdry. Keeler, a girl who had grown up in a nightmarish world of sexual and physical abuse, ended up as (to use the standard euphemism) a ‘model’ who had affairs with the British Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, and the Russian military attaché in London, Yevgeny Ivanov. The matter became public knowledge and, in an early test of the ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’ gambit, Profumo lied to parliament about the affair. When exposed, he resigned in disgrace. Thus, when he died in 2006 he was not remembered for his achievements — as the last surviving MP who had voted in 1940 against the Chamberlain government in the Norway Debate that brought Winston Churchill to power, nor as the war hero he had been, nor even as the husband of British actress, Valerie Hobson. Instead he was remembered as the man whose libido brought disgrace to him and his party and helped deliver an election victory to the Labour Party.
That is a real shame, because it is the story of Profumo after the scandal that is so interesting and instructive, and which speaks of a political world, indeed, of a society, that is now sadly no more. Unlike today’s politicians, Profumo made no attempt at a political comeback, gave no cringe-inducing speeches about how sorry he was and wrote no self-exculpatory memoirs. Instead, he volunteered at an East London charity as a toilet cleaner and served there for the next forty years. He knew that he had let down his wife, his party and the people who had elected him. He knew he was unworthy of their trust as an elected official and spent the rest of his days serving the public – not the public service that involves money, power and restored personal prestige, but the public service that involved a mop, a bucket and a bottle of disinfectant.It is hard to imagine any politician of any party today acting with such honor. The apologies for ‘hurt caused’ are usually nothing more than throat clearing in anticipation of ‘Let me back at the trough. I’ll try to behave better – or at least more discreetly – next time.’ I doubt that any of the fallen Hollywood idols will be turning down those rehab sessions on the network talks shows in order to work in a local soup kitchen. And even prominent church leaders are in on the act, often claiming their falls as making them more qualified to speak of forgiveness. This is the twenty-first century: Every setback is an opportunity and every scandal exposed is a potential deal for a soul-baring autobiography.
Profumo was a man of independent wealth. He could have retired to his family estate and simply indulged himself for the rest of his life. But he did not. He still cleaned toilets for a charity, year after year after year. His choice was a matter of duty and honor and speaks to us of a world now lost where yes, people fell into the same sins we see today but where honor and decency still counted, where public apologies were not simply empty platitudes designed to facilitate a swift return to business as usual, and where public trust was earned by effort not demanded by right.
I suspect many of us who read the obituaries of Christine Keeler were merely reminded (as if we needed it) that sexual sleaze is not a monopoly of current politicians and showbiz personalities but has a long and notorious pedigree. But the real tragedy of the Profumo Scandal is not that we remember the sexual sleaze, it is that so many know nothing of the aftermath. Profumo achieved greatness not by getting his snout back in the trough as soon as possible, or indeed ever, but by a lifetime of humble service for others. In that he is a model for fallen politicians, celebrities and churchmen for whom “sorry’, on the rare occasion it is spoken, is often little more than a magical incantation to make everything go back to the way it was.