The Lessons of The Profumo Affair (1963)
The Profumo scandal (1963) – the message is not to indulge in scurrilous assertions but to aver the value of the man himself: John Profumo. His fate might have been changed but he chose not to save himself.
1. First Thoughts
The first moral to take on board is to reduce the affair to its bare essentials. A number of red herrings were raised and a lot of newsprint was wasted on chasing them. In any mini crisis like this it is vital to sort the wheat from the chaff. Did the crisis strike at the heart of the government? No as clearly Macmillan the Prime Minister was not adversely implicated at any stage. He could have soldiered on to 1964 but chose to stand down in favour of Alec Douglas-Home apparently for medical reasons namely his prostate. The crisis called for strong leadership and Macmillan for whatever reason decided to hand over the reins. Home made a good job of the remaining period of this Tory Administration and nearly won the 1964 general election fought against Labour’s Wilson. So much for the fallout from the Profumo fiasco.
2. Should Profumo have played his cards differently?
This meant the demurrer of admitting the affair with Keeler but denying the remedy of terminating his political career with no hope of regeneration. We all know Profumo opted to deny to the Commons and thereby fell on his own sword. If he had chosen to admit the sexual liaison he would have taken the sting out of the gossip and rumours and the misleading of the Commons would have not taken place.
Would he have been able to rebuild his political career as a backbencher with his own subjects to debate? Quite possibly and his family honour would have been rescued. He had not imparted top secret information to Keeler as came out in Denning’s Report after his resignation. There was a terrible maelstrom of unsubstantiated allegations in London at this time (1963) centring on Profumo and the Keeler coterie. If Profumo had boldly admitted what he had done and resigned his ministerial office order would have been restored in all likelihood. This scenario was only possible if initiated by Jack Profumo himself.
3. Profumo’s denial and how it happened
I argue Profumo should not have denied this carnal knowledge of Keeler. His denial sealed his fate and the end of his public and political life. We are told on Friday 22nd March 1963 (early hours of the morning) a meeting was convened of:
- Derek Clogg – Profumo’s libel solicitor
- Sir Peter Rawlinson – Solicitor General
- Sir John Hobson – Attorney – General
- Profumo himself – Minister of Defence
- Redmayne (Brigadier) – Chief Whip
Profumo was told by the law officers to make and sign a personal statement denying any sexual impropriety with Keeler or resign his Cabinet office forthwith. Macleod Party Chairman had instructed these law officers to draw up this statement of denial for Profumo. After consulting Clogg Profumo signed the statement and thereby ended an honourable political and public career. There was no going back – Parliament was mislead and his resignation followed quickly as the facts became clearly known. Profumo had been persuaded against his better judgement to sign the statement but he only had himself to blame. A married man in his position with a good war career and he was a Brigadier OBE (Military) and fought in Normandy on D-Day 1944 – should have resisted the temptation to cheat Parliament however powerful the pressure may have been to deny the extra marital sexual engagement from the law officers. This was his career and life and his decision alone. So far as the parliamentary law officers were concerned they wished to present a good face to Parliament and the press regarding the Profumo case – they did not have Profumo’s best interests at heart despite him being a Senior Cabinet Minister. They effectively redoubled his public shame but Profumo should have seen through their two faced approach and called a halt to the charade. He knew the truth – they only dimly perceived it and put all the onus on him. He was fatally wrong footed yet a straight bat would have saved the day for him. He is remembered for his weak and insincere denial. He should have been counted for his honesty and sincerity and his profound example to his colleagues. At the end of the day Profumo missed his opportunity to demonstrate these qualities. Whether he could have saved his public career and indeed wanted to do so would have been a matter for him. I surmise as a high ranking Cabinet Minister with his background he would have saved his political public life as a Member of Parliament for Stratford – on – Avon on the backbenches by initially confessing his wrongdoing if he had the willpower to continue in politics out of office.
Without doubt Profumo was a gallant British Army Officer in World War II who was involved in actions in North Africa and Normandy 1944. His high military rank is testimony to his presence of mind and ability to command and lead by example. He was a Member of Parliament from 1950-1963 for Stratford-on-Avon. Macmillan would not have made him Minister of Defence without good reason as it is a very esteemed Cabinet Office. We will never know how the sexual liaison with Keeler came about – clearly an unguarded and careless moment for which he paid dearly. There may have been a different result if he had conceded the sexual interaction to Parliament at the outset.
In the frenzied atmosphere prevailing in Westminster 1963 his fate was not certain whichever way he chose. Would his colleagues in his party have backed his continuation in backbench politics if he made his confession initially? He eventually did make this admission when his untruthfulness was revealed. Macmillan (if Profumo had not mislead the House of Commons) would have supported him as a backbencher for sure – he had appointed him to Secretary of State for Defence and he knew his acumen and military career in Italy 1944/45. The Conservative Party were not short of candidates for that post when Profumo was appointed in 1960. Profumo was a modest man but he would have faced the music in the House of Commons if he had elected confession first, rather than denial in respect of the affair with Keeler. He would have had the courage to return to those back benches if the P.M. and his constituency party had resolved to support him in the absence of his misleading the Commons as a Cabinet Minister. The decision would have been Profumo’s alone. Life involves taking responsibility for our mistakes. Profumo spent the rest of his life (1963-2006) out of the limelight and the action in works of charity. He lived his life to the best of his ability and at the end of the day his family’s honour was restored. His life was humility and charity – no more fitting epitaph can be made for him: a true English gentleman.