Lord Denning’s Report
Stephen Ward Speaks
The Trial of Stephen Ward
“We know of no spectacle so ridiculous,” said Macaulay, “as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality”; and he proceeded to describe, in caustic language, the national tendency to indulge an outraged and “outrageous” virtue at the expense of some unfortunate public man who has been convicted of an indiscretion that snocks its sense of decency. There has been in recent years no better example of these national explosions of “outrageous virtue” than that provoked by the affair connected with Miss Christine Keeler, and the Bishop of Southwork well expressed the feelings of the outraged majority when he told a diocesan conference that “Things have happened in recent weeks that have left an unpleasant smell—the smell of corruption in high places, of evil practices, and of a repudiation of the simple decencies and the basic values,” and declared, in smug and stirring tones, that the time had come “to clean the national stables.” The books under review illuminate the affair from diverse angles: Mr. Charlton’s “Conversations” give us a glimpse through the stable window; Mr. Kennedy, like the Bishop but preaching from a different pulpit, indulges a strong vein of moral indignation; Lord Denning provides a comprehensive survey of the facts.
Looking back upon the whole story, one may very well conclude that vice did reveal itself among those who occupied positions of power, but that the vices and the persons who displayed them were not those at which the moral censors at the time pointed their accusing fingers. The most shameful feature of the affair was the unscrupulous procedure of a number of newspapers which, with an unctuous affectation of highmindedness, propagated rumors that were sure to stimulate the prurience of the public, regardless of the cost to the reputation of innocent individuals, of the Government services, and of the nation itself in the eyes of foreign observers. Let one example stand for many: “PRINCE PHILIP AND THE PROFUMO SCANDAL” was the form of words with which the editor of a daily paper headed a column that loyally contrived at once to “clear” and to smear the name of the Royal Family.
If moral condemnation was called for it was surely on account of such performances as these; and the most interesting ethical problem that was raised by the affair was not to fix a proper standard for the behavior of public men, but to decide how other responsible citizens should react when a public man has apparently fallen short of such a standard. The issue is one that confronts not the erring politician but his critics: what, to put the question in a nutshell, are the circumstances that justify public criticism of private lives?
“Civilization,” according to an acute and liberal thinker, “is a thin and precarious crust erected by the personality and the will of a very few and only maintained by rules and conventions skillfully put across and guilefully preserved.” Whether or not that has always been true of civilization …