Jack Profumo and the Profumo Affair
A political scandal that rocked the UK in the early 1960s
Jack Profumo will long be remembered as the British Cabinet Minister whose personal life made a major contribution to bringing down a government, but less well known is the important work he did in the years following the “Profumo Affair” in the area of social and charity work.
His early life and rise to office
John Dennis Profumo was born in London on 30th January 1915, the fourth of five children of a barrister and an actress. The Profumo family came originally from Sardinia, John’s grandfather having settled in London in the 1880s.
John, who was always known as Jack, was educated at Harrow School and then Brasenose College, Oxford, where he studied Law. He was more interested in sport and socialising than studying, and left Oxford in 1936 with only a pass degree.
He had shown an interest in politics at Oxford, and became approved as a Conservative candidate for Parliament in 1937. War broke out before he could fight an election, by which time Profumo had joined the Northamptonshire Yeomanry as a territorial. However, he was persuaded to fight a by-election in March 1940 (for the Kettering constituency), which he won with a large majority although Labour did not fight the seat.
He was able to attend the House of Commons during his first two years as an MP by virtue of being a general staff officer stationed in England, but in 1942 he was posted to North Africa and was then involved in the Italy campaign, being mentioned in dispatches and awarded a military OBE in 1944.
He was allowed to return to the UK to take part in a Parliamentary debate on demobilisation, but lost his seat in the Labour landslide of 1945. He remained in the Army until the Autumn of 1946, finishing with the rank of brigadier.
He waited until the general election of 1950 before attempting to return to the House of Commons, which he did as Member for Stratford upon Avon. After the Conservatives returned to power in the 1951 general election, Profumo was given a junior post in the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation. His political advance was a slow one, his first post as Minister of State (in the Foreign Office) only coming in 1959.
He was married in 1954 to film actress Valerie Hobson and their only child, a son named David, was born in 1955.
In 1960 he was appointed Secretary of State for War, a non-cabinet post but a very important one, involving making arrangements for the ending of National Service and the re-establishment of an all-regular Army.
The Profumo Affair
No doubt all would have gone well, and Profumo would have continued to be a middle-ranking politician who attracted relatively little attention, had he not been invited to an evening function at Cliveden, the Thames-side home of Lord Astor, on 8th July 1961. There he came across one of the female guests swimming naked in a pool in the grounds with some friends. This was Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old model and occasional prostitute, who was a friend of Stephen Ward, an osteopath who lived in a cottage on the estate. Profumo, then aged 46, was immediately attracted to Keeler and an affair began that lasted for a month.
The problem was that Christine Keeler had, at the same time, been seeing another friend of Stephen Ward’s, namely the Soviet naval attaché Yevgeny Ivanov. Ivanov had been a member of the pool party that Profumo had stumbled upon. As this was at the height of the Cold War, any suggestion of “pillow talk” between Profumo and Keeler, that might then find its way to Ivanov, was clearly going to be political dynamite.
It was therefore in Profumo’s interests to deny any involvement with Keeler, but he did not help himself much by writing a letter to her, breaking off the affair, which was headed “Darling”. He was also compromised by Keeler’s indiscretion, as she had told several people about the affair.
Despite all Profumo’s denials of the affair in private, coupled with threats of legal action, the time arrived when he was forced to confirm or deny the affair in the most public arena possible, namely the floor of the House of Commons. He was persuaded by government colleagues to make a clear statement of the truth, as they wished it to be, so he announced to the House, on 22nd March 1963, that there had been “no impropriety whatsoever” in his relationship with Christine Keeler.
When a government minister makes a statement of fact in the House of Commons he is honour bound to tell the truth, so this should have been the end of the matter. However, the rumours continued to circulate, and the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, was eventually forced to institute an enquiry into the affair, to be conducted by Lord Dilhorne, the Lord Chancellor.
It was Jack Profumo’s wife who persuaded him to tell the truth, which he did in a letter of resignation on 4th June 1963. He also resigned as a Member of Parliament.
Despite the fact that there was never any suggestion that state secrets had been passed to the Soviets, the inept handling of the affair by Macmillan and his government was enough to discredit the Prime Minister and led to his own resignation four months later, although his state of health (not helped by the Profumo affair) was also a factor. The Conservatives under their new leader Sir Alec Douglas-Home were unable to withstand the Labour onslaught at the general election held in October 1964 and were swept from office.
Out of Parliament
Jack Profumo’s life following his political exit has been described, by Simon Heffer, as “an epic of redemption”. In April 1964 he volunteered his services to Toynbee Hall, a charity in the East End of London that served those at the very bottom of the social structure. He willingly got his hands dirty doing any job that was needed, and, despite his privileged social background, built a genuine rapport with the people he met.
Many of his former political friends stood by him and he was able to use his contacts to good effect, raising huge amounts of money to fund the charity’s work. In 1971 the Queen visited Toynbee Hall to open a new building, created largely due to Jack Profumo’s efforts. He maintained his links with Toynbee Hall until his death, having become chairman and then president.
He also served, from 1968 to 1975, on the board of Grendon Underwood psychiatric prison in Buckinghamshire.
He was awarded the CBE for services to charity in 1975.
His health began to fail in his 80s and he was not able to do as much as he wished in his final years. He was also deeply affected by the death of his wife in 1998. One thing he was determined not to do was write an autobiography to justify himself, or to make money on the lecture circuit. He said very little about “the affair”, although his friend Bishop Jim Thompson is quoted as saying that: “No-one judges Jack Profumo more harshly than he does himself. He says he has never known a day since it happened when he has not felt real shame.” (quoted in The Guardian, 11th March 2006).
Jack Profumo died on 9th March 2006, in London, from pneumonia following a stroke. He was aged 91. His name will always be associated with the scandal that brought down Harold Macmillan, but it has been pointed out that many politicians have done worse things and suffered much less. Jack Profumo was neither the first nor the last minister to tell a lie in Parliament, and neither is he unique for having had a brief extra-marital affair. His misfortune was to do so at a particularly sensitive time in British political history, not only because of the Cold War but also due to the hypocritical outpourings of moral outrage that the press was prone to at the time (and has been at other times since).
Jack Profumo should be remembered as a basically good man who lost control of himself for one brief moment, and a courageous man whose courage failed him when it should not have done. His example of doing everything he could to make up for his misdeeds is certainly a fine one that many others should emulate.