The death of the disgraced former British secretary for war, John Profumo, at age 91, reminded me of my first intervention in the public affairs of my country.
I was 14 at the time, and it was just before the general election of 1964 that was to sweep the Conservatives from power. With my brother, I attended the final election meeting of our local Conservative member of Parliament. He was making a pompous speech, enumerating the government’s achievements, when I shouted out: “What about Profumo?”
I concluded from the angry red faces that turned on me and told me to shut up that I had made a witty and telling remark. Little did I imagine at the time that one day I would come to see that it was the people with the angry faces who were right.
The Profumo affair had a profound effect in Britain. It destroyed the traditional political establishment forever. Probably it would have dissolved anyway, but perhaps not so quickly.
John Profumo was a rich man of aristocratic Italian descent, elected to parliament while young (he was one of the MPs who voted to replace Neville Chamberlain by Winston Churchill). As secretary for war in the early sixties, he had a torrid and uninhibited affair with a high-class prostitute called Christine Keeler. She had earlier had a liaison with an official from the Soviet embassy, and so there was the possibility that Profumo had compromised national security.
At first, Profumo denied the whole business, and in the process lied to parliament, which in those days many regarded as the most heinous sin a gentleman could commit, rather than as merely par for the course. When denial became no longer possible, and it was clear that he had lied, he resigned in shame and resolved never to obtrude upon the public again. (The public, alas, did not fully reciprocate his delicacy.) Profumo traded his glittering political career for social work drudgery: he went to work for the poor of the East End of London, starting by washing dishes in a hostel. Eventually, he became one of Britain’s most respected social workers, but he always maintained the strictest anonymity.
Those who knew him said that, for the rest of his life, not a day went by when he did not feel the shame and guilt of his conduct in the early sixties in a real and personal way. Though long redeemed in the eyes of the world, he never forgave himself.
According to the obituary published in the Guardian, the Profumo affair, as everyone came to call it, revealed the moral corruption of the political establishment of the time. I think this is what most people who remember the affair at all would say; but I think the lesson is a different one.
True, the British then stood on the verge of overthrowing their traditional restraint in favor of personal licentiousness of the kind that Profumo briefly indulged in, so the incident is certainly a milestone in the country’s moral decline. But the real lesson of the affair was, first, that—since man is a fallen creature—temptation and foolishness can ambush anyone, especially one who believes himself invulnerable, as the highly privileged Profumo must have done; and second, that most of us are redeemable, so that men can sometimes be, and John Profumo was, deeply and almost exquisitely honorable. His wife also showed great steadfastness by remaining loyal to him.
In fact, the dignity, discretion, restraint, and repentance with which Profumo lived his life after his fall were the last gasp of an old system of values. His honorable conduct—continued for years, away from the blaze of publicity—would now be almost inconceivable among the political elite. Like the population at large, it has little, if any, sense of personal honor, but a lively sense of personal advantage. Tony Blair, a thoroughly modern Briton, can see no reason why the disgrace of his associates should be any impediment to their reappointment to government positions, even when, as has happened in at least two cases, they have disgraced themselves not once but twice. As far as he is concerned, his personal liking for them outweighs all other considerations, and in itself confers upon them fitness to serve.
If the present British government had one-tenth the character of the late John Profumo, they would all, each and every one, long ago have sought decent obscurity as anchorites in the Syrian desert, subsisting on locusts and wild honey.