By Simon Heffer
A glance at today’s political class makes us see all too clearly that the concept of shame has almost disappeared from public life.
Men who have lied to the House of Commons still sit there, some in very senior positions. Peers imprisoned for fraud blithely return to the House of Lords after being released from jail.
Some MPs still draw parliamentary salaries despite having deceitfully fiddled their expenses. One such miscreant, Lib Dem David Laws, even attends Cabinet meetings.
If I was to identify the moment the rot set in, I would go back to an event that ‘celebrates’ — if that’s the word — its 50th anniversary this year.
I am referring to the Profumo scandal of 1963, which changed the nature of British public life for ever.
Rumours had circulated around Westminster about an affair between War Minister John Profumo and Christine Keeler, a call-girl, who had also slept with a Soviet naval attaché.
The gossip was fed by a group of Labour MPs who had spotted a golden opportunity, at the height of the Cold War, to embarrass and weaken an already troubled government.
This rabble, though, showed the symptoms of decline, too. For example, Labour MP George Wigg, who helped bring down Profumo, was caught kerb-crawling.
By March 1963, the rumours about Profumo had become so destabilising that he was forced to make a Commons statement.
During his liaison with Keeler, he did not pass any to secrets to her that she might have shared with her Soviet lover. Yet, in the moral climate of the time — the Lady Chatterley ban had only just been lifted and divorcees were still not welcome at royal events — he was vulnerable. Senior politicians were supposed to set an example to the country.
Scandal: Profumo with his wife, actress Valerie Hobson. His affair is seen as one of the defining events of the so-called Swinging Sixties
Profumo's affair with Christine Keeler (pictured), the reputed mistress of an alleged Soviet spy, was at odds with the climate of the time when politicians were expected to set an example
Profumo lied to protect his family, denying any impropriety with Keeler. This misjudgment, I believe, changed the whole political culture.
Eventually, a shamed Profumo resigned from the government and as an MP. His departure precipitated a profound change in the old order.
The so-called satire boom was in full swing, with the emergence of Private Eye and the TV show, That Was The Week That Was. Their main targets were the ageing grandees, who ran Britain, and the attacks were corrosive.
The Commons debate over Profumo was Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s chance to restore his authority but he blew it. Within four months, Macmillan was gone.
As for Labour, following the death of the urbane, gentlemanly Hugh Gaitskell earlier in the year, the party had elected Harold Wilson as its leader.
Profumo lied to protect his family, and was forced to resign for it. Subsequently, far graver lies would be told to the Commons - and those responsible would see no need to resign
Wilson was clever, cynical, manipulative and unscrupulous. He’d also realised that Britain wanted a leader, who embraced an exciting vision of the future, not a class-ridden, fusty idea of the past. Significantly, in 1967, Britain started to withdraw from its bases east of Suez, and devalued the currency — which caused Wilson to make his cynical and dishonest remark about the value of ‘the pound in your pocket’ being unchanged as a result of the pound’s value being cut from $2.80 to $2.40.
Standards of probity were already tumbling. Social standards were revolutionised, too. Divorce was made easier; abortion was legalised; homosexual acts between men over 21 were legalised; capital and corporal punishment were abolished in the penal system; the first race-relations legislation came in; and the voting age was cut to 18.
The whole public framework of moral values was being forcibly changed by the political class.
The Profumo affair is seen as one of the defining events of the so-called Swinging Sixties, and marked the advent of the permissive society. In fact, it is better seen as the last roar of the old order. Within a few years, the concept of a politician nobly resigning in the way that Profumo did would become alien.
The process of lowering standards began in the early Seventies, but has picked up momentum in recent years.
First, Tory Reginald Maudling left the Government (but didn’t resign as an MP) because of unwise connections with the corrupt architect John Poulson, who had been at the heart of a local-government scandal in the North-East.
Then, a Labour minister, John Stonehouse, faked his own death on a beach in Australia and ran off with his mistress, leaving a trail of debts.
By the Eighties, politics had become more about self-service than about public service.
Subsequently, far graver lies would be told to the Commons and be found to damage not just the reputation of Parliament, but of the country — and those responsible would see no need to resign. It was as if the political class decided that Profumo’s sense of shame was excessive.
The Profumo scandal also marks a milestone — when amateur politicians started to make way for a professional breed.
After Macmillan’s fall, we witnessed — first in the Labour party, then in the Tory party — the creation of a political class that was full-time, well-paid, and increasingly divorced from Victorian ideals of honour and public service.
The irony is that Jack Profumo, with his discretion and charity work, set an example in adversity that today’s politicians lack the moral fibre to follow.