Fallon’s resignation raises fundamental questions for this government, writes KEITH FLETT
ON JUNE 5 1963 the Tory secretary of state for war John Profumo resigned following a sex scandal. Profumo (who was schooled at Harrow, an elite boarding school for boys, followed by Oxford University where he became a member of the Bullingdon Club) had had a brief affair with a 19-year-old model, Christine Keeler, in 1961 who had also been involved with a naval official from the Russian embassy.
At the height of the Cold War these things mattered. Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan hung on until October and then used a health issue as cover to resign.
The Profumo affair had been known for a good while before his resignation and the minister had denied any wrongdoing to the Commons.
As early as March 28, Tony Benn wrote in his diary that he had a long talk with fellow Labour MP Dick Crossman about what he termed the “Profumo-Keeler” scandal.
Benn notes that Labour leader Harold Wilson had written to Macmillan warning that if Profumo was not removed from office, Labour would raise the matter in the Commons.
Benn’s view was clear: “I’m not in favour of private life scandals being used politically but it certainly makes the government look pretty hypocritical.”
Benn kept to his word as well. He refused to join a BBC discussion on the matter when Profumo eventually resigned, underlining that he didn’t think it was a useful thing to participate in.
Fifty-odd years on, Tory sex scandals are apparently of a different character but the result is much the same, including the hypocrisy.
The Tories are far from the only party to be implicated in such matters but there is, invariably, a specific character to a Tory scandal, underlining the difference between the traditional values they claim to have and what they actually do.
After Profumo’s resignation the political discussion broadened. Macmillan had clearly known the position but had done nothing about it.
Benn thought that the situation was such that Macmillan “must go” but he saw off Commons vote demanding immediate resignation and a departure in August 1963.
He did win a vote but he did not resign in August. Rather, he left in October using the short-term health issue as cover. A year later there was a Labour government and Harold Wilson was Prime Minister.
Michael Fallon, occupying the same ministerial position as Profumo — now renamed the secretary of state for defence — has resigned partly because it would appear he was unable to keep his hands to himself in the company of younger women.
Profumo left politics and worked as a volunteer raising funds for charity at Toynbee Hall in East London.
It was widely recognised that despite his Tory background and the scandal that had forced out of him political life, in the end he made a worthwhile contribution to society.
One wonders if the same will be said about Michael Fallon?
More broadly, as Benn noted in 1963 about Macmillan, the Fallon resignation raises fundamental questions about the future of the current Tory Prime Minister Theresa May.
Perhaps May knew about Fallon’s activities but only when these appeared in the public domain did anything happen.
Whether Tory MPs have now given May an ultimatum to depart and who might replace her is, of course, unknown.
In 1963 the old Etonian relic Lord Home returned from the Lords to become Tory leader. That simply underlined the bankruptcy of the Tory government of the time.
The Fallon affair belies something like the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s “morbid symptoms” of a capitalist crisis. Unlike 1963, however, the “new” may be born rather more quickly than the 14 months it took back then in the form of a Jeremy Corbyn premiership.