How a Cold War sex scandal toppled the British government

The model at the center of a scandal, which rocked the British political and social establishment, and ended an age of deference in British culture, has died.

Christine Keeler, a young woman catapulted into British history through a scandal involving UK Cabinet Minister John Profumo in the 1960s, was confirmed dead yesterday by her family. She was 75.

Keeler was a model and showgirl who spent time in London dance clubs, where she came into the orbit of British high society along with other young women in her position. She was 19 at the time.

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Her life became the object of a Cold War political scandal when it became public knowledge that she had been sexually involved with Profumo — then Britain’s minister for war — while doing the same with a Soviet diplomat based in London.

Opposition MPs alleged that having such a close link between a senior government minister and a rival power presented a security risk, predicated on the idea that Keeler could be a conduit to leak secrets to the Russians.

Attempts by Profumo to distance himself from Keeler led to him lying to parliament, saying there was “no impropriety whatsoever” in his relationship with her. When it the lie was found out, he resigned from his position.

John Profumo in 1960, at his desk as Secretary of State for War (Image Wikipedia Fair Use)

John Profumo in 1960, at his desk as Secretary of State for War (Image from Wikimedia Common)

An official government report into the affair concluded that there had been “no security risk,” though Keeler herself later said that some of her activities effectively constituted spying.

The scandal was seen as a watershed moment in British public life, when a long-standing tradition of deferring instinctively to those in positions of power came to an end.

Since then, it has become a cultural norm in Great Britain for revelations about the personal lives of ministers to end careers and change the shape of the government.

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In a fiery exchange after his resignation, Labour leader Harold Wilson said the affair “shocked the moral conscience of the nation,” and then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, agreed.

Meanwhile, Keeler gave an interview to the tabloid press and reportedly received thousands of pounds in exchange.

photograph of her posing nude while straddling a chair, released shortly after Profumo’s resignation, became the iconic image of the scandal.

The iconic photo of Christine Keeler. (Image from Flickr user hydRometra)

The iconic photo of Christine Keeler. (Image from Flickr user hydRometra)

Profumo’s resignation was a major blow to Macmillan’s government, and was one of several factors which led to his resignation later that year and a loss for the Conservative Party in 1964 to Harold Wilson.

Keeler went on as a minor celebrity in the UK, appearing in interviews and in newspapers based on the scandal, which produced books, the 1989 film “Scandal,” and the West End musical, Stephen Ward.

Some official papers relating to the case are due to remain classified until 2046, 100 years after the birth of Mandy Rice-Davies, Keeler’s roommate and the youngest figure in the scandal.

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