David Holford Welcomes You To
Holford Web
Home of David's Mental Meanderings

 Who is David Holford?
 David's Mental Meanderings

Daily Diversions (Web Log)

  Photos of Aidan and Abigail

David’s Mental Meanderings
27th May 2003

I learned on Antiques Roadshow last night that the song “Rule Britannia” was first performed at Cliveden (which, despite that pesky “e” in the middle, is pronounced Cliv’-den [rhymes with “lived in”], as the British are generally given to ignoring the rules of grammar and spelling when it comes to place names). It is the piece played (or at least was when I lived in the States) as the intro to Prime Minister’s Questions on C-SPAN. It is probably the second unofficial national anthem after Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory” (the song played at high school graduations throughout the US). The piece was debuted for the Prince of Wales in 1740. Not to be confused with present Prince of Wales, this one was the father of King George III. (He was all set to become King Frederick I, but death intervened in 1751. The UK still has yet to have a King Fred.)

In case you aren’t familiar with the lyrics, the chorus (the bit with the most triumphal sound) is:

Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves;
Britons never will be slaves.

Ironically, this was composed at the time when Britons were making slaves of a lot of other people and ruling the waves to enforce their ability to ship them to the Americas. We better keep this quiet, though, because if certain groups find out, they will turn their attention away from the Georgia state flag and demand that C-SPAN change the theme music to PMQs or press Congress to boycott UK goods or something.

I mention Cliveden because it was the scene of the incident that set in motion the most significant scandal in British politics in the 1960s, the Profumo Affair. The general facts are probably known to most on this side of the Atlantic. The up and coming Minister for War in Harold Macmillan’s Government, Jack Profumo, was a guest of Lord Astor who owned Cliveden. Stephen Ward, a London osteopath and spy wannabe, rented a cottage in the grounds, where he was staying with his protégé, a showgirl named Christine Keeler.

Christine was swimming naked in the pool when Jack first met her. Ward made arrangements for Jack and Christine to see each other naked on a regular basis, usually in his Central London flat. The problem was that Keeler was also spending intimate time with the assistant Russian Naval Attaché, who worked for Soviet Intelligence. Ward set that up, too. (When I lived in London in 1992, I took a photo of the flat in Wimpole Mews where these liaisons occurred. It is no surprise there is no blue plaque on the wall outside explaining the historical significance of the building.)

Everything would have been kept quiet, had not another of Christine’s lovers, a dope smoking Jamaican named Johnny, gone nuts with a pistol outside the flat, resulting in the police being called. As rumours started to leek out, Profumo denied it all in a statement to the House of Commons. Ten days later, he had to retract his denial and make an admission to the House. He resigned from Parliament and has never made another statement about the affair.

He also resigned from the Privy Council. The Privy Council is the body that, inter alia, issues royal proclamations, royal charters, appoints High Sheriffs, and appoints members to certain professional regulatory bodies. If you have watched Prime Minster’s Questions, you may have noticed that some members of the Commons are referred to as “Honourable” and others as “Right Honourable”. The latter denotes what is usually lifetime membership of the Privy Council. The Council as a whole really does nothing. On a practical level, membership carries no real responsibilities. At actual monthly Privy Council meetings the usual attendance is HM the Queen and four Government ministers.

I should point out that Profumo didn’t have to resign because he’d become involved with someone reputed to be a call girl. This was, after all, the 1960s. The Profumo scandal occurred the same year as assassination of JFK. Many politicians were not faithful to their marriage vows. And normally the press followed a hands-off policy in these matters. It was only a scandal because at the height of the Cold War it involved the Russians (though no secrets were divulged) and because Jack lied to the Commons about it.

As is often the case, our sins affect more than just ourselves. Profumo’s lie was a key factor in the resignation of the Prime Minister, and ultimately in the Tory defeat in the elections of 1964.

Unlike members and former members of the present Government, Profumo didn’t try to justify his lying. He didn’t blame the press, the Opposition, or a secret conspiracy. There was no spirit of Peter Mandelson or Stephen Byers or any of Tony Blair’s other disgraced ministers in his actions. While Mandelson, who was involved in not one, but two scandals, is still scheming and conniving from the back benches, Profumo took a different approach to his disgrace.

Since his resignation, Profumo has devoted his life to charitable work, principally through Toynbee Hall, an East London charity. Toynbee Hall is not a posh person’s charity. It is in a rough area. It backs onto the street where Jack the Ripper killed his last victim five years after its establishment by an Anglican priest and his wife in 1873.

He initially went there simply to wash dishes, but became its most important fundraiser. This work saw him receive the CBE in 1975. (The CBE is one of the honours given to people who have made a significant contribution to the good of the realm by the monarch on the advise of the Prime Minister.) According to the Toynbee website, he was responsible for seeing it through the particularly tough time for charities in the 1980s. Profumo, now 88, doesn’t get out as much anymore.

Though Profumo has shown no interest in having the honour, a former Labour minister wants to see the former Tory minister reinstated to the Privy Council. Frank Field wants to honour Profumo, not for just for his work for charity, but for his actions as the youngest back bench member of the House of Commons in 1940. Profumo holds the distinction of being the only person alive to have brought down not one Government, but two. He is the last surviving Tory rebel who voted against Neville Chamberlain and forced his resignation, bringing Winston Churchill into power and very probably a different outcome to World War II. It was his first vote as a Member of Parliament.

Field believes that restoring Profumo will help bring this bit of history to national attention. But he also believes that “you can do wrong and be punished for it, but you can earn your passage back.” He has been joined in his motion by 22 other MPs from across the political spectrum.

I most often see forgiveness toward public figures displayed in one of two perspectives. There are those who hand it out like candy. They either dismiss faults or indiscretions altogether, or accept simple apologies, based upon the perception of sincerity. Then there are those who want offenders banished to outer darkness, with no hope of reprieve.

But there is another way. I would have been much more impressed with Bill Clinton if he had resigned (after lying to prosecutors, Congress, and the American people) and devoted his days to washing dishes in an inner city mission. There’s never been a suggestion that Profumo went to Toynbee Hall gain forgiveness from the British people or anyone else. But he did works demonstrating repentance.

Considering the Parliamentary wrongs that have been done and not been punished, and the ease with which other evil-doers have returned to power, I agree with Field and the writer for The Sunday Times, that forty years of penance is long enough. To restore Jack Profumo as one of Her Majesty’s “trusted and well beloved” Privy Counsellors would demonstrate that there is a way for those who have betrayed the public trust to be redeemed.

© Copyright 2000-2003 David Holford All Rights Reserved.