Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The Profumo scandal

John Profumo MP
Newspapers are reporting the death of Christine Keeler who hit the headlines in 1963 as the woman at the heart of the Profumo scandal.

John Profumo (1915-2006) was the Secretary of State for War in the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan.  It is interesting to recall, in passing, that he was married to Valerie Hobson, an actress who was born in Larne.

Christine Keeler
The scandal erupted in 1963 when it was revealed in newspapers that he had been in a relationship with Christine Keeler, who was just nineteen and a would-be model.  

Interest in the story increased when it emerged that Keeler had also been in a sexual relationship with a Soviet naval attache. 

The story also involved Peter Rachman, a notorious property owner, an osteopath named Stephen Ward, and a Soviet double-agent.  This was the era of the Cold War and there was widespread concern about the intentions of Russia and about Soviet spies. 

In the end the Profumo scandal helped to bring down the Conservative government.

There are three interesting themes running through this story.

(1) Sometimes today when we hear about sexual scandals involving prominent individuals, especially in politics, we might be tempted to think that this did not happen years ago.  However that is not true.  There was plenty of wrongdoing years ago and Profumo was only one of many public figures who lived a hedonistic private life.
Lord Boothby and Ronnie Kray

(2) Although these things happened, they were not so widely reported and even the most extreme cases received little public attention.  Lord Boothby, for example, was a hedonistic bisexual who had an affair with the wife of Harold Macmillan and socialised with the Kray twins, who were violent criminals..  However much of this went unreported because the press and the BBC were generally deferential towards those in authority.  Indeed Boothby was one of the BBC's favourite Conservative politicians.

(3) Throughout the Cold War, which ran from 1947 to 1981, the peoples of Britain, Western Europe and America, were deeply concerned about Russia and the threat from Communism.  It was the involvement of a Soviet naval attache that took the Profumo scandal to a higher level.  When we look back at political events in the 1950s and 1960s we need to remember how much this impacted on public opinion. 

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