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An English Affair

Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo


Richard Davenport-Hines


London: Harper Press, 2013

Hardcover. xv+400 p. ISBN: 978-0007435845. £20.00


Reviewed by Nicholas Deakin

University of Birmingham



Here we have another book on the Profumo affair, to add to the vast pile of journalists’ accounts, films, television plays, romans more or less à clef and now, we are to understand, a Lloyd-Webber musical. What exactly is it about this often-told tale that has drawn Mr Davenport-Hines to add his version? The basic story is surely well enough known by now and he has no new evidence of any significance to add, though he tells the familiar story with tremendous verve.

A clue may lie in the rather curious structure of his book. As he has ordered it, 241 pages pass before we get to the actual events that make up the Profumo Affair (the capital A seems obligatory), which are then disposed of in a hundred. Most of the preceding passages are devoted to a passionate assault on the culture, values and key personalities from the period in English history that roughly corresponds with the Conservative party’s time in power after their success in the General Election of 1951, up to the emergence of the Affair into the full light of day, in the summer of 1963.

Davenport-Hines moves successively through a series of different worlds, which were brought into accidental conjunction by the scandal – politics (specifically,Tory politics), journalism, espionage, urban redevelopment (then renewing the face of London), and the press. The descriptions that Davenport-Hines provides of each of these worlds drips with disgust. With one conspicuous exception, none of the main political figures from this period escapes his lash. The principal item on the charge sheet that he draws up against them and the others is hypocrisy – immorality concealed under the wrappings of conventional behaviour. The property developers, the high heid yins of medicine and the bar, the spymasters, and the sex-kings all have their personal behaviour judged and found wanting. But it is with the press barons and their creatures in Fleet Street that his rage and contempt rise to a new level.

How did it come about that Disgusted of London W1 – he is at pains to tell his readers where he lived during these events – has a rod in pickle for all of them, which he now employs with such enthusiasm? Taking a leaf from the author’s own book, the explanation seems to lie in his personal circumstances. The description he gives of his childhood suggest an early life lived in what Ferdinand Mount has described (following Lorenz Hart) as “hobohemia”, disconnected from conventional constraints of attitudes and behaviour but retaining a sense of entitlement to class privileges. In particular, Davenport-Hines refers to trips made during his childhood with his father, speeding up the newly-opened M1 motorway, stopping the traffic with flamboyant selfishness in Park Lane. But most of all being taken to visit his father’s latest mistress, a “leggy brunette” – many leggy females undulate through Davenport-Hines’s narrative – and invited to admire the power of money, in making such delights possible.

Hence, the book he was “born to write”. Hence, also, the passion that informs it. This certainly makes for high drama and vigorous prose. But is it good history? It is sometimes hard to tell when Davenport-Hines’s zeal to pin down the latest of his victims trespasses over the boundary between accurate reportage and wish fulfillment. Some of the striking statements that he cites are referenced; others are not. Some source material comes from conversations, but “as these talks were social or informal, it is better not to name my informants or provide the sources for certain details” [347]. Also rather awkwardly, there is no bibliography, although it is possible to approximate one from the footnotes. Thus, he has certainly seen David Profumo’s account from the family’s perspective, although the use he has made of it is very limited. Some of the source material is distinctly elderly – for example, for London’s redevelopment he leans heavily on Oliver Marriott’s excellent The Property Boom: there is little evidence that he has consulted over forty years’ worth of urban scholarship that has accumulated since Marriott’s work appeared in 1967. Rather, for updating purposes, we have his disarming confession that those recent accounts that he has drawn upon come from books he obtained by asking to review them. So perhaps the best thing is to treat what we are given for what it is – a rattling good yarn – and settle down to enjoy the ride.

The single exception to the author’s desire to drag down all the dramatis personae of the times he describes is Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister for much of that period. Cuckolded quite early in his marriage by Bob Boothby, a man described by Davenport-Hines as “ductile” (he does enjoy his fifty-dollar words) in his feelings, Macmillan was driven to the verge of suicide and sought psychiatric treatment before resolutely screening out his emotions and settling down to build the new image of unflappable Mac. The assumed nonchalance of his manner now perfectly concealed an iron resolve to atone for a damaged personal life by rising to the top in politics. After ruthlessly disposing of his main rival for the Prime Ministership, Rab Butler, Macmillan set himself to taming the Tory party – “the Tory grandees had not been fooled by so brilliant a man since Disraeli”, says Davenport-Hines. Meanwhile, he was persuading the electorate at large that the Conservatives represented liberty and modernisation. His consequent success in the General Election of 1959 appeared to liberate him to pursue his ambitions in foreign policy, hoping that by working with the young President Kennedy, Britain could play Greeks to the Americans’ Romans.

The narrow escape that the world had in 1962, where rash brinkmanship on both sides brought mutually-assured destruction closer than at any time during the Cold War, underlined the importance of achieving some measure of detente. But a sequence of security scandals compromised Macmillan’s approach at the time when he needed calm and order on which to base approaches to the Soviet Union. And then the Profumo Affair broke surface, when a series of rumours and innuendo gradually gathered pace until they could no longer be repressed. What had begun as a casual encounter in 1961 between Minister and good time girl beside the swimming pool at the Astors’ house, Cliveden, became two years later a scandal, universally so described. Davenport-Hines disposes briskly of the contention that there was ever any security risk involved – all that was self-serving fiction dished up by the Labour party and the press. There remained the question of morality and in particular Profumo’s fatal error in lying to the House of Commons about his brief affair with Christine Keeler. Once he took that step – and his senior colleagues chose to believe him – the damage was done.

The intermediary, the osteopath Stephen Ward, was indiscreet to the point of self-incrimination. Davenport-Hines is rightly indignant about the way in which he was treated by politicians, police, security services and eventually Lord Denning, from whom Harold Macmillan commissioned a once notorious report on the Affair. Ward died a suicide, deserted by his friends, having chosen not to await sentencing for offences he certainly did not commit. But pointing to this injustice and the way in which Ward, Keeler and Bill Astor were treated as sacrificial victims leaves little more to say except to turn back to the overriding theme – the affair was so important because it reflected the temper of the times: the hypocrisy behind the formal manners. As for Profumo’s own subsequent history, Davenport-Hines has no time for the redemption narrative about forty selfless years of charity service; he gives that less than a line and balances it with a dirty story about Profumo’s continued incorrigible womanising. Those like the present writer who knew Jack during this period may find this account somewhat inadequate, not to say malicious.

A case could be made that the Affair reflected nothing more than the prurience at that particular time of the British press and public and that in the longer term it made little substantial difference. Jack Profumo’s political career had probably reached its peak – he was not likely to rise much further, if at all. The Conservative party was damaged in the short term, but recovered to come within touching distance of winning the 1964 Election under Alec Douglas-Hume (about whom Davenport-Hines is typically catty) and was back in power in 1970. The Affair may have sharpened scepticism about traditional forms of behaviour and encouraged an altogether more cynical view of politics and politicians. But the young satirists of TW3 and Private Eye made a much better fist of that – they are curiously almost completely absent from Davenport-Hines’s analysis.

Other omissions include the churches, once so formidable in their disapproval, now apparently silent. Macmillan once famously declared himself content to leave morals to the bench of bishops, but answer came there none – except from the editor of the Times, widely ridiculed for his editorial “It Is a Moral Issue”. Davenport-Hines has no time for the official Opposition – in Hobohemian, “socialist” as an adjective implies automatic dismissal. And he resists temptation to engage with the Duke of Argyll’s notorious divorce case, source of many of the contemporary rumours about sexual misconduct. Lord Denning succumbed, though whether Davenport-Hines has any warrant for his accusation that his lordship “may have squirmed inwardly with tut-tutting excitement” [330] when taking such evidence for his inquiry may be doubted.

Also absent is the transatlantic perspective on the sex and security angles, both highly germane to Kennedy’s White House. But Davenport-Hines does acknowledge that in this country the Affair was very much the concern of a limited circle, by geography and class. Some other omissions are positively welcome. It is a great relief not to have events measured out to the accompaniment of the pop charts, as younger historians now seem obliged to do – a book on events in the sixties without Beatles is a rare pleasure. This also means that we are spared Philip Larkin’s ironic salute in his Annus Mirabilis – after all, if anything could conclusively demonstrate that sexual intercourse did not have to wait until 1963 to be invented, it was the Affair.

In sum, the Britain of the year of the Affair (1963) was a different animal to that of a decade earlier, Coronation year (1953). For many young adults the early sixties were a good time, with the end of conscription for men (an unseen ghost at the feast of most narratives of the fifties), for women the first stirrings of second-wave feminism and, for both, sexual intercourse becoming liberated from the fear of conception. These changes began precisely during the period to which Davenport-Hines devotes so much of his venom. In those times, the green shoots of social liberalism which would bud during the later sixties during the otherwise disappointing Prime Ministership of Harold Wilson (another victim of Davenport-Hines’ contempt) began to appear.

But whether all that meant the end of hypocrisy is quite another matter…


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