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Private Lives & Public Life

Lord Denning’s Report

H. M. Stationery Office, 114 pp., 7s 6d

Stephen Ward Speaks

by Warwick Charlton
Today Magazine, Odhams Press, 174 pp., 3s 6d

The Trial of Stephen Ward

by Ludovic Kennedy
Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $4.95

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 in a large sense, it is certainly the case that in civilized society today, at any rate in Great Britain, a fragile crust protects, and a tenuous curtain conceals, the private life of the individual in all walks of life and at all social levels, from the gaze and criticism of the public. The crust is thinner, the curtain less opaque, than in Victorian days; the line it cuts through the nation does not coincide, as it then practically did, with a line of social stratification that divided London “Society” from the country at large; but, in spite of the breakdown of class barriers and the penetrative assaults of radio, of television, and of the popular press, the curtain holds; and how resistant the crust can be when under stress was shown most strikingly in the weeks that immediately preceded the Abdication in 1936.

Some veil must be kept drawn to shield the privacy of the individual if a civilized life is to be possible in a society that is at once complex and libertarian. If those who “guilefully preserve” this veil may be thought to minister to a sort of hypocrisy, those who seek to tear it aside in the name of truth or morality are themselves often humbugs of a higher and a holier kind.

Suppose that a journalist or politician has obtained convincing evidence about the private morals of a prominent man which, if disclosed, would ruin his reputation and drive him, perhaps for ever, from public life. The guilty secret need not involve criminal liability; it is enough that it should be something that would cast serious scandal upon his name. Rumors, let us assume, are in circulation; this evidence would prove them true. What use should the possessor make of the damaging material?

Two conflicting answers are suggested: the first by those who insist that the issue in such a case is essentially a moral one—the school of thought represented by the newspapers already referred to (one of which declared that Parliament should “see exposed and cleansed whatever there may be in this noxious episode”), by the Bishop of Southwark, and by some at least of the pack that hounded Mr. Profumo from Ministerial office; the scandal, they insist, should not be covered up; the facts should be brought into the light of day; the claims of Truth are paramount.

The opposing school of thought maintains that in the interests of society at large, no less than those of the individual primarily concerned, the first duty of the possessor of such evidence (even if he is a politician or a journalist) is to keep it to himself; rather than lend his voice to the propagation of rumor, he should do all he properly can to preserve unbroken that façade on the maintenance of which depends the smooth functioning not only of the social organism but also, so long as ministries are manned by human beings and not by angels, of the machine of government itself.

Those who deplore the hushing-up of moral delinquencies on the part of politicians will insist that a nation cannot afford to be served by men whose private lives will not stand up to the severest scrutiny. On the other side it may be said that a nation looking for public servants cannot afford to limit to such persons the ambit of its choice. Certainly it would not conduce to the efficiency of administration if a blameless private life were deemed a necessary qualification for positions of public responsibility; such an ethical criterion would exclude from office many an outstandingly able man, and the impeccable morals of those who satisfied the test would hardly be a guarantee of their professional capabilities.

What is it, after all, that we really require of our public servants? Not, surely, that they should live spotless private lives (if they do, so much, from every point of view, the better), but that they should do their jobs efficiently and honestly, and should maintain in public the dignity and decency appropriate to their position. That a politician should be given to excessive drinking or that he should be a philanderer or an unfaithful husband is no doubt something that is for several reasons very much to be deplored; few people today, however, would feel that he should therefore on moral grounds be excluded, or extruded, from the Government. But if he cannot keep sober in public, if he is always to be seen about with women of obviously low character and habits, or if his private failing is displayed in newspaper headlines or made the subject of political debate, then he is surely disqualified from high office not on moral grounds but on grounds of decency; the rulers and representatives of a great nation must—the requirement is almost an aesthetic one—maintain in the eye of the public an appropriate dignity. Appearances count.

If that is so, it is in a real sense true to say that the crime in such cases consists in being found out; and that politicians or journalists who drag into the light of day the private weaknesses and peccadilloes of public men, so far from performing a meritorious action, are doing the nation a disservice by turning a private moral failing into a visible public blot; seeking to castigate one kind of offence, they are themselves accessories to the commission of another. Only over-riding considerations of public policy can justify in such a case the breaking of the protective crust erected by civilized society.

It was said, indeed, that such overriding considerations existed in the case now before us; it was not the moral aspect of the matter but its “security aspect,” if their professions are to be taken at face value, that moved those who pressed in Parliament for an inquiry into the Keeler affair—though this did not prevent Mr. Harold Wilson from sanctimoniously haranguing the House of Commons about the “odious record,” “the sickness of an unrepresentative section of our society,” and “the moral challenge with which the whole nation is faced.” Yet one wonders whether the public would ever have heard of the affair had not its circumstances, so heavily charged with possibility of scandal, afforded an opening for the Opposition to aim a crippling blow at the prestige of the Government, for dissident Conservatives to attempt the discomfiture of the Prime Minister, and for the proprietors and editors of newspapers to set before their readers a feast of nauseating innuendo. As soon as the matter was franked “Security” those who wished for one reason or another to exploit it could do so with a clear conscience, or at least with a plausible excuse, however little danger to security in truth existed.

What grounds were there in fact for supposing that a security leak had occurred? There was evidence that the Minister of War had had an affair with Miss Keeler at a time when she was on intimate terms (it is doubtful how far in fact the intimacy went) with an attaché at the Soviet embassy in London. But no one examining that evidence today is likely to conclude that she in fact ever obtained, or even asked for, any secret information from the Minister, let alone that she passed on any such information to a foreign agent. And, in any case, “Nobody in their right senses,” as Stephen Ward himself declared, “would have asked somebody like Christine Keeler to obtain any information of that sort from Mr. Profumo—he would have jumped out of his skin.” None the less, it may be said, there must have been a period of risk; and the real charge against the Government was that they did not detect and eliminate that risk through their Security Services. Was there not some fault in the organization of the functioning of the Services or in the handling by the Government of the information that reached it?

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