The death last week of Christine Keeler, a central player in the Profumo scandal which helped bring about the end to thirteen years of Tory rule in the early 1960s, can be seen as another salutary reminder of Britain’s decline. To put it simply: even sex scandals ain’t wot they used to be.
British decadence is usually measured by such dull yardsticks as GDP, the fall in value of the pound, withdrawal from the far flung outposts of Empire, and the decision – taken by the then Prime Minister Harold MacMillan just before the Profumo affair broke – to apply for membership of the Common Market, today’s European Union. But the drop off in quality of the sex scandals that regularly embarrass our ruling caste is an equally valid sign of decline and fall.
Back in the day when Britain still ruled an Empire embracing one quarter of the globe, and national government was firmly in the tight grasp of a tiny circle of noblemen, sex scandals – when they could not be safely hushed up – were earth shattering events, causing the disgrace and even deaths of statesmen, the fall of governments, and tectonic shifts in social attitudes to sexuality and human frailty. Today, it is more a matter of hands on knees or bottoms on long forgotten drunken evenings, and dim policemen rummaging through computer porn.
Walking through Westminster on a summer evening in 1822, Lord Castlereagh, arguably Britain’s greatest ever foreign secretary, who was largely responsible for the reconstruction of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars – was accosted by what he took to be a female prostitute. But when the ‘woman’ undressed, ‘she’ turned out to be a ‘he’ and threatened to blackmail Castlereagh for the then illegal offence of homosexuality. A few days later at his Kent country home, Castlereagh – his mind already unhinged by overwork and possible syphilis – fatally slit his throat with a penknife.
The late 19th century was the golden age of the political sex scandal. It kicked off in 1885 when the leader of the ruling Liberal party’s radical wing, Sir Charles Dilke, was accused by a fellow MP’s attractive young wife, Mrs Donald Crawford, of ‘teaching her every French vice’ during three in a bed romps with a housemaid. In fact, Dilke was probably innocent, but could not prove it in court as he was actually having an affair with his accuser’s mother, who, to complicate matters yet further, was his late brother’s mother-in-law. The scandal scotched Dilke’s high hopes of succeeding Gladstone as Liberal leader and Prime Minister and ruined his career – though he remained an MP until his death in 1911.
At about the same time, Charles Stewart Parnell – brilliant leader of the Irish nationalist party at Westminster, on whom the Gladstone government depended for its survival – was living with, and fathering several children by Katherine ‘Kitty’ O’Shea, wife of a fellow Irish MP. When the scandal broke, Parnell lost the support of both Gladstone’s puritanical nonconformist Liberal base, and piously Catholic Ireland, and was dead within a year – setting back the cause of peaceful Irish nationalism for a century. Gladstone himself was accused of having less than noble motives behind his habit of picking up London street-walkers to ‘reform’ them.
In the 1890s another Liberal PM, Lord Rosebery, was accused by the Marquess of Queensberry of having a gay affair with his son and heir Lord Drumlanrig. When Drumlanrig died in a mysterious shooting incident, Queensberry went ballistic, threatening to follow Rosebery to a German spa and horsewhip him.The Government’s decision to prosecute Oscar Wilde for homosexual ‘offences’, including an affair with Queensberry’s younger son, Lord Alfred Douglas, was widely seen as a cover-up for the PM’s own peccadilloes, and Rosebery abruptly resigned soon afterwards.
A third Liberal premier, Herbert Henry Asquith, was notoriously ‘unsafe in taxis’ and spent Cabinet meetings scribbling billets doux – including state secrets during the first world war – to his lover Venetia Stanley. When Venetia wed one of Asquith’s ministers, Edwin Montague, the priapic PM simply transferred his amorous attentions to her sister. Asquith’s successor in Downing Street, David Lloyd George, was dubbed ‘the Goat’ for his philandering, and maintained his mistress, Frances Stevenson, as his secretary for decades while remaining married to his ‘official’ wife, Margaret.
But the mother and father of all sex scandals was the Profumo affair. As the Sixties started to swing, it had everything: a beautiful ‘model’ bestowing simultaneous favours on Britain’s war minister and a Russian spy at the height of the Cold War; kinky aristocratic sex parties; a photo of a Duchess performing fellatio on a headless Cabinet minister; a shooting; a suicide; and a long lurid court case in which high society’s dirty linen was thoroughly washed before the eyes of a delightedly prurient public. Harold MacMillan, then an ageing Edwardian prime minister (himself cuckolded by bisexual fellow Tory politician, Lord Boothby) admitted he was unable to understand what was going on as he did not ‘move much among young people’. No, they certainly don’t make scandals like that any more.
Since those halcyon days – apart from the tragi-comic coda of the Jeremy Thorpe affair in the 1970s – there has been a dramatic falling off in the style of our politicians caught with their trousers down. The slew of minor ‘back to basics’ scandalettes that helped speed the demise of John Major’s inglorious regime in the 1990s, and today’s rash of ‘Pestminster’ allegations can hardly compare with the high drama of yesteryear. Frankly, who – except those involved – gives a damn what our demeaned and diminished MPs get up to? Society has lost its sense of shame, and, sadly, we no longer expect our lords, masters and mistresses to behave any better than we do ourselves.