John Profumo Affair Rocks British Government Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A high-ranking government official, a beautiful show girl, a whiff of communist espionage, concerns over breached national security, and the fall of the mighty defined a scandal in the British government that became sensational tabloid news in 1963. In the end, the Conservative Party lost its hold on government, a doctor committed suicide, and John Profumo, secretary of state for war, lost his job.

Summary of Event

The actual drama that would unfold as the Profumo affair involved beautiful women, adultery, sex for hire, and the fall from power of the rich and blessed. It also included a prominent London doctor who may or may not have been a Soviet spy but who was surely something of a pimp, and it included gun-play by a minor actor, a flight from the law, suicide, and redemption. [kw]Profumo Affair Rocks British Government, John (Mar. 2-Sept. 25, 1963) Profumo, John Keeler, Christine Ward, Stephen Soviet Union;espionage Profumo, John Keeler, Christine Ward, Stephen Soviet Union;espionage [g]Europe;Mar. 2-Sept. 25, 1963: John Profumo Affair Rocks British Government[01170] [g]England;Mar. 2-Sept. 25, 1963: John Profumo Affair Rocks British Government[01170] [c]Espionage;Mar. 2-Sept. 25, 1963: John Profumo Affair Rocks British Government[01170] [c]Government;Mar. 2-Sept. 25, 1963: John Profumo Affair Rocks British Government[01170] [c]Politics;Mar. 2-Sept. 25, 1963: John Profumo Affair Rocks British Government[01170] [c]Public morals;Mar. 2-Sept. 25, 1963: John Profumo Affair Rocks British Government[01170] [c]Sex;Mar. 2-Sept. 25, 1963: John Profumo Affair Rocks British Government[01170] Macmillan, Harold

John Profumo.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By most accounts the story began in January of 1961 when John Profumo, secretary of state for war and on the fast track to leadership of the British Conservative Party, met aspiring London model-actor Christine Keeler at a gathering at the home of Viscount William Astor. Keeler, who maintained that she had shared a drink with Profumo at an earlier party, was present as one of the companions of Stephen Ward. Ward was a prominent London osteopath who was known for giving grand parties and surrounding himself with young and glamorous women whom he often introduced to his friends in Britain’s ruling class.

Although Profumo was married at the time to an established actor, Valerie Hobson, he began a brief but torrid affair with Keeler. The affair ended in less than one month, and—given the discretion with which the British press then treated rumors involving the private lives of the politically influential—the story would have ended before it really began had it not been for the fanfare that soon engulfed the lives of both Keeler and Ward.

Christine Keeler, right, and Mandy Rice-Davies after the first day of court in the criminal trial of Stephen Ward.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

From the moment that the story broke across the front pages of the British tabloids and serious press alike, the affair had the ingredients of a miniseries or feature film. Keeler’s life at the time of the affair was crisscrossed with contacts, sexual and otherwise, and with abusive and violent characters, including an acquaintance who fired a bullet into the door of Keeler’s residence. The incident drew a significant amount of public attention to her private life. That life also included—at the same time that she was having an affair with Profumo—a sexual relationship with Yevgeny Ivanov, the senior naval attache at the Soviet embassy in London who was later confirmed to have been involved in espionage activities while in England. Ivanov’s acquaintanceship with Keeler, like that of Profumo, was the product of an introduction by Ward.

On March 2, 1963, a member of the Labour Party expressed his fears of a possible compromise of British national security. He asked Profumo to answer a variety of charges, including whether he had compromised state secrets or assisted Keeler in an escape to Spain to avoid testifying against her acquaintance in the shooting case. On March 22, Profumo answered the charges, categorically denying he had revealed state secrets or abetted anyone in evading the law. In both instances he was telling the truth, but his statement also included a denial of any “impropriety” in his relationship with Keeler, a lie shortly ferreted out by the press. Caught in his fabrication, on June 5 Profumo submitted his resignation to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

Three days after Profumo’s resignation, Ward was arrested by British authorities and charged, but not with espionage. He had been living on the earnings of his stable of “friends,” Keeler and Rice-Davies, Mandy Marilyn “Mandy” Rice-Davies, who were nineteen and sixteen years old, respectively. In what amounted to pimping, Ward had demanded money from the “dates” he arranged for the young women. Publicly disgraced and abandoned by his influential contacts, Ward took his own life on August 3, the last day of his trial before the jury was to deliberate on the case against him.

Keeler continued as a quasi-celebrity for some time, and she occasionally resurfaced. In 1989, she appeared in public when Scandal, a film about the affair that was based on her 1989 book of the same title, made the rounds of theaters in Britain and North America and, in 2001, she published her autobiography The Truth at Last: My Story. In 2007, the play Keeler, based on the autobiography and authorized by Keeler, opened in London.

Profumo’s political career ended in June of 1963, but his public service career remained intact. Although he still had powerful friends within Britain’s establishment and the career options of the independently wealthy, Profumo began to literally clean toilets at Toynbee Hall, a charitable organization located in London’s poor, east end district. Eventually he was persuaded, and it was evidently a hard sell, to move from that job into the organization’s administration, where he spent the rest of his active life helping Toynbee Hall function and raising funds for its work.

In 1975, Queen Elizabeth II recognized Profumo’s good works by making him a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and shortly before his death he received an even greater honor: In 2003, he was awarded the prestigious Beacon Fellowship Prize for his work at Toynbee Hall in combating the social deprivation of London’s working classes and poor.

Impact

The Profumo affair had no direct effect on the Cold War or the ceaseless game of espionage and counterespionage during that period in world history. Even if Ward was an agent of the Kremlin seeking intelligence relating to the operations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization North Atlantic Treaty Organization, no vital information was compromised. An exhaustive investigation led by Lord Alfred Denning and including the participation of Federal Bureau of Investigation director Hoover, J. Edgar [p]Hoover, J. Edgar;and Profumo affair[Profumo affair] J. Edgar Hoover, made that clear when it released its report on September 25, 1963. The scandal nonetheless affected the British system of government.

In the short term, the Profumo affair tainted the Conservative Party’s image and was at least partially responsible for the loss of the conservatives’ power in government. Health problems caused Macmillan to step aside as prime minister in favor of Alec Douglas-Home in October of 1963, and the Conservative Party was defeated by Harold Wilson’s Labour Party in Britain’s 1964 general election.

The long-term impact of the Profumo affair is more elusive and difficult to pinpoint. Unlike the U.S. political system, there is no written constitution to limit the powers of the British government, nor is there a federal division of power between the central government in London and the lower levels of government in the realm; nor is there a separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches to help keep that central government in check. Indeed, until the United Kingdom joined the European Community (now the European Union) during the early 1970’s, the majority in the House of Commons could do what it desired. What confers legitimacy on this system in Britain is thus not a system of checks and balances designed to discourage abuses of government power but the bond of trust between the government and the governed. The lynchpin of that trust is the unwritten rule of British politics that the country’s political leaders will not lie to the public. In asserting that there was no impropriety in his relationship with Keeler, Profumo broke that cardinal rule. In resigning, he validated the rule’s continuing vitality as a fact of British political life. Soviet Union;espionage Profumo, John Keeler, Christine Ward, Stephen

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aldrich, Richard J. The Hidden Hand: Britain, America, and Cold War Secret Intelligence. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2002. Chiefly of interest as a work that places the Profumo affair into the much broader context of Cold War espionage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coates, Tim. The Scandal of Christine Keeler and John Profumo: Lord Denning’s Report, 1963. London: Tim Coates Books, 2003. The official report of Lord Alfred Denning, the investigator looking into the circumstances that led to Profumo’s resignation following revelation of his affair with Keeler. Includes many photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Irving, Clive, Ron Hall, and Jeremy Wallington. Anatomy of a Scandal: A Study of the Profumo Affair. New York: M. S. Mill, 1963. Published quickly to capitalize on the publicity still being generated by the scandal, this widely available (in libraries) book remains a useful starting point for further studies of the affair.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keeler, Christine, with Douglas Thompson. The Truth at Last: My Story. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2001. Less a tell-all story than an insider’s recollection of the scandal by Keeler, the woman at its center. This book was the basis for the 2007 play Keeler.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knightley, Phillip. An Affair of State: The Profumo Case and the Framing of Stephen Ward. New York: Atheneum, 1987. An argumentative retelling of the scandal, focusing on Ward, the person who has remained its most controversial figure.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodhouse, Diana. Ministers and Parliament: Accountability in Theory and Practice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Woodhouse examines the resignation scandals of modern British politics, seeing patterns of responsibility and accountability.

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