Sex and Society in Britain since 1900
Tutor: Harry Cocks
Student Number: 4065501
24th March 2010
Word count: 3,013
Has the significance of the Profumo Affair been massively overstated?
The Profumo Affair had all the ingredients of a classic sex scandal – “a clandestine affair, adultery, potential conflict of interests, second-order transgressions and a stream of revelations about the seamy underside of high society London in the 1960s.” It is no surprise therefore, that the story dominated the press and the public’s imagination in the summer of 1963. The Sixties were regarded as an era of decaying moral values and following the Profumo Affair a string of revelations exploded in the media highlighting corruption and scandal amongst the upper classes. Gerald Sparrow suggests that “although the Profumo Affair came as a bombshell to the public, it does, in fact, fit into [this] pattern” of change which had been going on rapidly for a decade. Pimlott further supports this in suggesting that “no real issue existed” apart from the “state of the nation in the age of affluence.” However, the press who played on national fears at the time following the Philby and Vassall scandals, have subsequently been criticised for sensationalising the affair and creating an inflated media scandal over something of little significance. Additionally, it is evident that historians have disagreed on the importance of the affair in both politics and in general British culture. Although, Weight believes that the scandal “destroyed the moral authority of Britain’s ruling elites” Gilmour and Garnett down play the importance of the scandal by referring to the affair as a matter of “puzzling triviality.” It is clear, nevertheless, that the story had all the ingredients for a national sensation and it could hardly fail to leak out however, its impact on British society as a watershed in political scandal must be examined further.
To Wayland Young the affair was something rather new in Britain, unlike France who had experienced the Dreyfus affair in the 1900s and Italy the Montesi Affair during 1954-1958. It has therefore been implied that “in Britain, the Profumo Affair was the watershed; in the US, it was Watergate. After Profumo and Watergate, political scandal was never quite the same.” Furthermore, as Philip Knightley and Caroline Kennedy argue, it was “no wonder that the British public was both excited and frustrated. A minister of the crown had had an affair with a call girl, who had been shot at by one West Indian and then assaulted by another. A society osteopath friendly with a Russian diplomat had informed MI5 about the affair. The minister had lied about it to the House of Commons and then recanted and resigned. Clearly something amazing was going on.” Although the affair itself was brief and did not ultimately compromise the security of the nation, for the press and public alike Profumo’s actions fell under three scandalous headings; prostitution, espionage and mendacity. Young implies that there was a general feeling amongst the public in the 1960s to want ministers to be morally good both personally and sexually “at least as good as us and probably better” and Harold Macmillan himself, discusses in his memoirs that “the whole of our public life is based upon complete confidence within Parliament.” Profumo undermined this trust.
It has been suggested recently that the affair could have been “brushed under the carpet in the time honoured English way, but Profumo made a fundamental error: he lied to the House of Commons” in stating that “there was no impropriety whatsoever in [his] acquaintanceship with Miss Keeler.”An inquiry carried out in Profumo’s own constituency by the Banbury Guardian found that although his lie to the public and government was resented, his affair with Keeler itself was not indicating perhaps that attitudes towards...