In the Beginning

23 June 2022

In the Beginning

by J.R. Thomas

It is symptomatic of our age.  Cliveden, that stately palace perched above the Thames just north of Maidenhead, is now a five star hotel; any pleb can partake of the famed hospitality – afternoon tea for a mere £45, anybody?  Sorry, “from £45”; perhaps scones and cakes are extra.  But you do get one of the best views in Europe from the south terrace; and for patriots, the warming knowledge that Rule Britannia was first played in the outdoor amphitheatre overlooking that very view. 

But really, what a comedown. Cliveden was the site of the greatest political salons of the twentieth century, beginning under Nancy, Lady Astor, the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons (M.P for Plymouth Sutton, 1919 to 1945).  It was the centre of the Conservative establishment in the 1930’s and in particular the social heartland of the appeasers in the run up to the Second World War, when lavish Astor hospitality and an easy journey from London lured many Ministers to this Berkshire country seat. (Some of us might sniff a bit at “country”, but it certainly had been, though London rapidly got nearer with the suburban building boom of the 1920’s and ‘30’s.)

Post war, in spite of the sneering that mention of “Cliveden” was liable to provoke amongst those who remembered the closed circle of weekending appeasers, the great house once again became a major Tory social centre as Astor wealth (derived mainly from property holdings in New York) was poured into entertaining those that mattered.  All was not quite as it seemed; the Astor’s had given the house to the National Trust in 1942, with an enormous endowment, on condition that they could continue to live there and not open the house to the public.  And the lavish socialising was kept very quiet, so as to avoid controversy.

And so, as bad fiction might say, so the stage was set.  In early July 1961 the principal guest at the house was the President of Pakistan, and Lord Astor had invited other appropriate guests.  Among them was John Profumo, M.P. and Minister for War, and very much a rising star in the Conservative Party, (though probably best known then as the husband of Valerie Hobson, a film star).  After dinner he and others went for a swim in the famous Cliveden pool, where, it so happened, a rather different group was swimming – tenant and friend of Lord Astor, society osteopath Stephen Ward, and some naked and attractive young women.  We will not dally on the details of what fell out beside the pool, other than to say that one of the swimmers, Christine Keeler, chatted to Mr Profumo, and then went off to bed with her lover, a Mr Ivanov.

These things happen, and would normally not be something remembered today.  But Ms Keeler on occasion charged for her friendships, via Mr Ward, and Mr Ivanov had met her that way.  He was in fact Captain Yevgeny Ivanov, who happened to be a senior Soviet spy.  Plus a former lover of Ms Keeler had been a jealous West London gangster with a very sharp temper.  Mr Profumo, alas, began a passionate relationship with Ms Keeler and Mr Ivanov continued his.  Trouble was inevitable and sixty years ago next week it happened.

Gossip began, as gossip does.  MI6 became aware of goings-on, but knew not quite what to do. In July 1961 hints appeared in society magazines.  The Prime Minister, the ailing Harold MacMillan, took Mr Profumo’s gentlemanly word for it that there were no goings-on. Slowly things simmered; things involving shotguns and fights at Ms Keeler’s residence, strange society ostracising of Stephen Ward, subtly suggestive comments in newspapers (frightened then, as now, of being sued by the rich and powerful), enquiries made by Labour M.P. and scandal hound George Wigg.  Finally Mr Profumo was told that he must publicly deny all, or step down.  Foolishly, he denied all, in a personal statement to the House of Commons.  Then the dam burst.  Various participants gave their versions of events.  Three months later Profumo resigned and disappeared into a long obscurity; Ward committed suicide; Keeler and others went to jail (mostly for perjury); Astor became sick and died; Ivanov was recalled to Moscow.  The Astor’s moved from Cliveden, which eventually became an hotel; guests now swim in the pool – that pool. 

Why should all this matter now?  Perhaps it should not, but it began to create a public view of the Conservative Party which it has never thrown off.  Not just that politicians behave badly or have affairs; that is surprisingly common among politicians of all parties.  But that Tory politicians, in particular, lie.  There has never been any serious suggestion that Profumo ever discussed with Keeler politics or security matters, or that defence secrets were compromised or matters of state disclosed.  (Captain Ivanov also seems not to have gained any governmental insights through his relationship with Ms Keeler.) But what Mr Profumo did not do was to make a full and open disclosure of facts as soon as he was aware of them; indeed, he lied about them on oath.  Had he dealt with his situation more swiftly and openly it is possible that his political career might have recovered. Alas, he set a standard by which every subsequent “randy” “lying” “cheating” “dishonest” Tory has been judged since – and which a number of those so labelled seem determined to follow. Certainly apologies, frankness, humility, a sense of guilt or need to regain public confidence by the doing of humble tasks really have not caught on.  (A royal Duke might consider how best to work his way back into public esteem also.)

Sleaze became a mainstay of much journalism, especially in such papers as the News of the World and the Daily Mail; and linked, it seems, irretrievably, with Tory politicians.  Social media has given this a continuing lease of life, with it being almost automatic to link “corrupt” “bent”, “sleaze bag” with the word Conservative, usually with no evidence at all, or indeed any proof that Tories are any worse, or better, than any other species of politicians.  It is strange that the party and its leaders have not attempted to clear things up and restore its public reputation. To impose the highest expected standards of discipline so as to become regarded as of the highest probity would do no harm to party electoral prospects; though that seems unlikely to be achieved in the near future.

One coda should be added; when John Profumo vanished into private life he resigned all his roles and responsibilities and took on a voluntary job.  He become an unpaid volunteer at Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, an organisation that helps the poor and sick and distressed.  He spent most of the rest of his long life (he died in 2006 aged 91) working there. After years doing menial and manual jobs he was persuaded to become a fundraiser and advocate for Toynbee Hall, all of which he did with great success (but without any publicity) until he was appointed chairman in the 1980’s.  If there is an example of redemption that might be valuable to some of today’s scandal touched politicos it is that of John Profumo, a man who made a serious mistake but comprehensively redeemed himself; an example to us all.

tile photo of Cliveden House : simononly / wikimedia commons / creative commons

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