SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 176 March 2014

The Profumo stitch-up

Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK: the case for overturning his conviction

By Geoffrey Robertson QC

Published by Biteback, 2013, £12-99

Reviewed by Greg Randall

It is hard to overstate the shock caused by the 1963 Profumo affair. Just over half a century ago many if not most people in Britain thought that capitalist politicians invariably tell the truth, that judges are guardians of the nation’s morality and that policemen always act with impeachable motives. This cosy worldview could not survive an encounter with reality.

The bare facts of the affair are well known. In early 1963, after libel laws had held back publication of rumours circulating for months, Labour MPs used parliamentary privilege to claim that John Profumo, the Tory secretary of state for war, had engaged in a sexual affair with Christine Keeler, who was also sleeping with the senior naval attaché at the Soviet embassy, Yevgeny Ivanov. Profumo admitted knowing Keeler but denied the affair in parliament.

Geoffrey Robertson’s book concentrates on Stephen Ward who, during a period when his friend Keeler lived at his flat, introduced her to both Profumo and Ivanov. Ward was a successful osteopath and portraitist who treated, drew, and mixed with the rich of London. Robertson describes him as sexually promiscuous. Though we might not approve of all of his conduct or attitudes (not the subject matter of this book) he was to meet an undeserved fate.

Although the security services had courted Ward due to his friendship with Ivanov, the establishment was so offended that a government minister could be embarrassed by someone so ‘immoral’ that the head of MI5, the home secretary, and the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police met to arrange a prosecution of Ward. Perhaps they thought the damage to the ruling class’s moral standing could be undone by sacrificing a scapegoat.

Intrusive police enquiries and surveillance began, designed to harass Ward. In response to this he wrote to newspaper editors and Labour leader Harold Wilson confirming that Profumo had lied to parliament about his affair with Keeler. The denial could no longer stand and Profumo resigned, severely damaging the government and contributing to the resignation of Harold Macmillan as prime minister later in 1963 and the subsequent year’s Labour election victory.

In parliament and the press Ward was accused of being a pimp, a Soviet agent and a traitor. Wilson described him as representing "a diseased existence, a corrupt and poisoned appendix of a small section of society", though he must have known the allegations to be, if not untrue, moralistic hyperbole at best. The treatment of Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, another friend and former flatmate of Ward’s, was in some ways worse. Keeler was described by MPs as a "whore", "harlot" and "call girl". The supposed security concerns justifying the hue and cry were slight. It is even unclear that Keeler actually had sex with Ivanov. If she did, it was once only.

Four days after Profumo’s resignation, Ward was arrested. Keeler was pressured to testify against him and Rice-Davies was ‘persuaded’ to give evidence after being imprisoned on flimsy charges. Another witness, Ronna Ricardo, was threatened with her child being taken into care. Ward’s upper-class friends largely abandoned him.

The revelation that a minister was an adulterer and a liar really did shock many people. The changes in social attitudes of the sixties and seventies had hardly begun, and ‘permissive’ social reforms, such as legal abortion, decriminalisation of male homosexuality and ease of access to divorce, were still some way off. The erosion of faith in British institutions began with the realisation that the powerful might preach one thing and practice another.

To be fair to 1963, the essential hypocrisy in capitalist society is clearer now. Then, workers had the relative economic stability and the gains of the post-war boom. Now, the ruling class give us unemployment, cuts and privatisation and austerity while foregoing none of their privileges or wealth.

Ward was very swiftly tried for living off immoral earnings of prostitutes. Some charges were easily disposed of (courageously, Ricardo told the court about the pressure she was put under), but two key counts alleged that he had lived off Keeler’s and Rice-Davies’s earnings as prostitutes.

Robertson shows that neither Keeler nor Rice-Davies was a prostitute, unless accepting gifts from lovers constitutes prostitution. Far from Ward living off such ‘earnings’, the women were living off him. During their separate periods in his flat they did so largely rent free, without paying towards bills, having free use of his telephone and access to the contents of his fridge.

Nevertheless, the prosecution invited the jury to convict Ward, described as a "filthy fellow" and "a thoroughly immoral man", in service of "the highest public interest". Evidence that would have put Keeler’s testimony against Ward in doubt was withheld from his lawyers and the jury, not only by the police, prosecution and trial judge but also by the Court of Criminal Appeal, including the lord chief justice. The judge’s summing up was a litany of misdirection, including not warning the jury to ignore the press stacked up against Ward and the still fresh accusations made in parliament against him, Keeler and Rice-Davies.

Rarely can anyone not charged with a political offence have had the legal system so stacked up against him or her. After the penultimate day of his trial, with the judge’s summing up not yet finished, Ward took an overdose and was hospitalised. Disgracefully, the judge allowed the trial to proceed the next morning, and Ward was convicted on the two counts of living off immoral earnings. He died in hospital three days later, never having regained consciousness.

Robertson has asked the Criminal Case Review Commission to refer Ward’s conviction to the Court of Appeal. He considers that even now the legal system can and should make good its miscarriage of justice.

The Ward case shows the pressure that can be brought to bear by the ruling class when it wishes: parliamentary attacks exploiting immunity from prosecution, press vilification, and the use of the law for the ends of the powers that be. Robertson believes in the rule of law and constitutional convention, those polite fictions that mask and sustain the British polity. These are window dressing for the ruling class, who are content to hound their enemies to death. In 1963 they decided Ward was their enemy, as they have done since with many trade unionists and socialists. The names of other, much wealthier, individuals were kept out of the trial and Profumo was not called to testify.

Prevailing ideas about sex and morality have changed for the better since 1963, but progress is not guaranteed forever. Morality is still contested today, in particular as to whether the state is entitled to intervene into our consensual sex lives, and there is a growing element on the right of politics in both the Tory Party and UKIP that hankers after what they see as the certainties of the pre-Profumo 1950s.

As recently as 2003 a High Court judge decided a case based on the proposition that "in the eye of English law all sexual relations outside marriage are unlawful".* Attitudes and laws that seem to be in abeyance can be brought back to create scapegoats if convenient for the ruling class.

The Profumo affair is misnamed. The real scandal was the treatment meted out not only to Ward but also to Keeler, Rice-Davies and others. It stands as a warning as to what the ruling class can do with their ideological and legal weapons when they feel threatened.

* The case citation is Mark Reginald Sutton v (1) Mishcon De Reya (2) Gawor & Co [2003] EWHC 3166 (Ch)

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