Remembering the Profumo affair. Remembering Profumo.
Eleven years ago today, John Profumo died – which got me thinking about the Profumo Affair again, and about John Profumo himself.
The headlines at the time and the mythology afterwards asserted that the Profumo scandal was about hypocrisy and scandal in high places. The discovery that the ruling classes were highly libidinous was felt to legitimate a more transparent subsequent sexual revolution. Poets as diverse as Philip Larkin and Paul Muldoon found in the year 1963 an epoch making moment of sexual fascination and demystification and even as they both satirized the idea of such a sudden transition, they perpetuated it at the same time.
But the most interesting thing about the Profumo affair was perhaps Profumo himself, and the most interesting aspect of John Profumo was the second half of his life. 1963 marked not the end of him but his beginning.
Having been discredited as a politician, John Profumo abandoned all worldly ambitions and devoted the remainder of his long life to charity work with the homeless. He never tried to explain or justify his affair with Keeler and indeed never seemed to be that bothered by what the world thought of him. He just tried to do some good with the time left to him and in so doing, recovered a sense of purpose and self worth.
Profumo’s affair with Keeler was rather dull and commonplace. His subsequent work with the homeless was rare, fascinating and inspirational. Look up Toynbee Hall. An inspiring place, and Profumo’s spiritual home.
It is instructive to note that Profumo did not make any sort of “political” conversion. He was a one nation Tory before his political downfall, and remained one for the rest of his life. His was a Conservatism that believed that wealth and privilege carried with it certain obligations. Macmillan-era one-nation Toryism is now utterly alien to the modern British political landscape. Profumo believed that the poorest and most vulnerable members of society deserved compassion and practical assistance, whereas the ruling consensus now is the poorest and most vulnerable members of society should provoke fear and loathing and should be kicked repeatedly in the head.
Profumo also clearly believed in a sort of “core self” that was more important than personal advancement or the gratification of private appetites. By acting selflessly he was taking care of a version of the self that might as well be called a “soul” (whether or not one want to believe in some Cartesian immaterial creature with that name). Insofar as such priorities threaten the absolute demands of aggressive twenty-first century capitalism, the “soul” is an equally unfashionable concept.
The twentieth century orthodoxy regarding from Profumo was that he destroyed himself as a result of sexual scandal, but achieved personal rehabilitation through his charity work. If fear that twenty-first century political morality with its dominant register of paranoid kickdownism threatens to reverse this verdict. The gratification of private appetites is now everywhere celebrated whereas those on benefits, those who are without a home or an income – are so vilified that charity work on their behalf, of a kind that Profumo devoted decades to, is considered a far far more morally reprehensible than anything the Minister for War might have got up to in the early 1960s.