The Profumo affair 50 years on: The collapse of the old establishment has not brought enhanced democratic participation

Wyn Grant looks back at the Profumo affair and suggests that it represented the beginning of the end for the old ‘establishment’. In the place of ‘club government’, a more rule bound regulatory state was created. However this transformation has been arguably incomplete, with politicians still being drawn from a narrow range of occupations and not being representative of the population they are supposed to serve.

On a recent visit to the National Portrait Gallery, a small exhibition on the Profumo affair was attracting more attention than any other exhibit in the free part of the gallery. Why is there so much fascination with this series of events fifty years on? The whiff of corruption and sleaze in high places that was so evident? The cast of characters such as Mandy Rice-Davies whose comment on Lord Astor denying sleeping with her [probably he didn’t] ‘He would, wouldn’t he?’ has become a catch phrase? The iconic and much reproduced photograph that was taken of Christine Keeler? The sexual dimension, some of which was greatly exaggerated in accounts provided at the time and since, not least in the report by Lord Denning? As a schoolboy, I went with friends to the local railway station to buy French papers to find out what was ‘really’ going on with such characters as the ‘man in the mask’, rumoured to be a Cabinet minister, but in truth a businessman.

Richard Davenport-Hines has recently written an excellent new book on the Profumo affair, An English Affair. No one involved comes out of it very well, least of all prime minister Harold Macmillan who was evidently ‘out of touch’ and too ready to believe Profumo’s assurances because he felt guilty of hounding an innocent man out of office (Thomas Galbraith) in an earlier ‘scandal’. What is really shocking, even after this passage of time, is the lying, deception and intimidation engaged in by the print media and the extent to which the police were prepared to go to threaten or frame often innocent individuals to secure convictions. Stephen Ward, admittedly something of a fantasist, was made a scapegoat for the whole affair and took his own life before the judge could pass sentence.

I would suggest, however, that the affair had a wider significance. It represented the beginning of the end for the old ‘establishment’. The Spectator political commentator Henry Fairlie, in his column of 23 September 1955, famously identified the establishment as the mechanism through which power was exercised in Britain. It was dissected in great detail by Anthony Sampson in The Anatomy of Britain(1962)but in later editions the old style establishment fades from view. Its central focus was the old style London club system where the wielders of power could network informally.

Its disappearance was part of a wider displacement of what Michael Moran has identified as ‘club government’, succeeded by the creation of a more rule bound regulatory state. It was no longer possible for a closed elite to seek to run the country in terms of a narrow conception of the public interest. Decisions became more transparent and had to be more evidence based and properly justified. Moran understandably saw this as a progressive development, although he later qualified his initial welcome for the arrival of the regulatory state.

Very few mourn the old establishment, but is the creation of a professional political class such a great advance for inclusiveness and democracy? It is possible to take a degree in politics or a related subject, if one is fortunate or well-connected get a job as a researcher with a MP or think tank, and then seek out a parliamentary seat. Does this give more insight into the challenges of everyday life than we had among decision-makers fifty years ago?

It could be argued that the problem is the incompleteness of the transformation that has taken place. Politicians are drawn from a restricted range of occupations and the under representation of women remains a problem. Attempts at political reform have admittedly met with little success, but they have been relatively conventional and not have embraced new thinking, for example the possibilities of deliberative democracy. Adversarial politics looks increasingly tired and irrelevant, but there has been a lack of boldness in seeking new ways of making decisions. The professional political class has filled the vacuum left by the collapse of the old establishment, but not in a way that has enhanced democratic participation.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of Democratic Audit, the British Politics and Policy Blog on which it originally appeared, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

About the Author

Wyn Grant is Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. He joined the department in 1971 and was chair of department from 1990 to 1997. In 2010 he was presented with the Diamond Jubilee Lifetime Achievement award of the Political Studies Association of the UK at their Awards Ceremony. He was elected an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2011.


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