50 years ago: The Profumo Affair

Profumo’s election address from 1950, when he was elected for Stratford-upon-Avon

On 22 March 1963, British Secretary of State for War John Profumo made a statement in the House of Commons in which he declared, ‘There was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintanceship with Miss Keeler’. Profumo had been implicated in an affair with Christine Keeler, a model whose relationship with a senior Soviet naval attaché made her connection to the Secretary of State for War concerning (read the full statement on the Hansard website).

In June 1963, Profumo resigned, admitting that he had misled the House in his testimony. The scandal rocked the Party and damaged the reputation of its leader, Harold Macmillan. Macmillan resigned due to ill health in October 1963; many felt the crisis had played a role in his illness. The reports surrounding the 1963 Conservative Party Conference include motions of support from various constituencies, though letters from area agents and the public in the summer of 1963 show mixed feelings.

The Archive contains relatively little about the affair, but there are a few bits and pieces that shed light on the Party’s stance. The Party conducted a survey to determine how sentiment towards Prime Minister Macmillan had changed; although it showed that 44% (59% of Labour supporters) called for a General Election, the survey report indicated little concern, stating that it showed that ‘the immediate effects of the Profumo crisis on the popularity of the Government and on the personal popularity of the Prime Minister may have been exaggerated.’ Various meeting minutes make it clear that the affair was discussed in detail, if not the details of the discussion.  

National Opinion Poll on the effect of the Profumo crisis (CCO 180/25/2/1)

Though the scandal eventually blew over, its effects were far flung and contributed to significant changes in Party leadership. It has been reintroduced to the public through various films, plays, songs and memoirs, from the 1989 film Scandal to mentions in tracks by Billy Joel and The Clash.

Profumo retired from politics after his resignation, but devoted the remainder of his life to volunteer work in London’s East End. He died in 2006.

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