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Monday 08 November 2010

Proclamations of the Red Queen

4th November 2010

Review: Frank Mort: Capital Affairs: London and the Making of the Permissive Society

Posted by: Craig Young

 Frank Mort: Capital Affairs: London and the Rise of the Permissive Society: London: Yale University Press: 2010.

Before the swinging sixties arrived, what about the prelude? In the context of UK homosexual law reform, there have been several historical accounts of this period, such as Stephen Jeffrey-Poulter’s Peers, Queers and Commons (1992) and Patrick Higgins’  Heterosexual Dictatorship (1995).  Frank Mort provides an intriguing addition to this literature with his latest social history of that period.

Mort’s case begins with the premise that London is a diverse metropolis that reflects changes in social relationships within its geography.  In historical terms, it begins with the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 and the resurgence of the British aristocracy at the same time that there was postwar social dislocation, relative economic prosperity and growth, social mobility and mass migration occurring. Moreover, there was also the decline of religious authority and the advent of effective contraceptives like the pill.

Accordingly, there were some visible pressure points, much as there was in New Zealand’s case with the Parker/Hulme murder and the Mazengarb Report of the same period, although our politicians appear to have been boring paragons of virtue by comparison. After the appearance of Betty Windsor, there ensued the trial of the serial killer John Christie, executed in 1953 after the murder of his wife and several other young women, three of them sex workers. Inevitably, the Wolfenden Report also materialises in this context, although later gay scholarship has drawn attention to its hesitant and highly constricted concept of limited ‘reform’ in the context of decriminalisation of homosexuality- not in Northern Ireland or Scotland, not in the armed forces, not in groups, not in public and one had to wait until one was twenty one.

However, the focal point of this book is the heterosexual Profumo scandal. For those not au fait with this period, it was as follows: John Profumo was Secretary for War in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative Government. In 1963, he met call girl/sex worker, exotic dancer and future mistress Christine Keeler at a Cliveden party and embarked on an affair with her. The problem wasn’t the affair, it was who else was involved- her criminal ex-lover Johnny Edgecumbe and a Soviet military officer and KGB agent at the Russian Embassy. 

Edgecumbe made a scene at the offices of Dr Stephen Ward, where Keeler was staying to avoid her violent ex, and retaliated against Ward, Profumo and Keeler by disclosing their affair to the tabloid media and general public. Profumo really should have resigned, especially once the Soviet attache connection emerged, but compounded his misery by misleading Parliament over his relationship and whether pillow talk emerged. It was all a rich confection of social mobility, geographical mobility, cross-cultural relationships, mass immigration, and changing gender roles. No parliamentarian indiscretion elsewhere has had quite the impact, with the exception of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in the mid-nineties. Even then, the US general public got tired of right-wing prurience and punished Republican obsessing about that issue.

Also Recommended:

Stephen Jeffrey-Poulter: Peers, Queers and Commons: London: Routledge: 1992.

Patrick Higgins: Heterosexual Dictatorship: Homosexuality in Postwar Britain: London: Fourth Estate: 1995.

Tags: Politics

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