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