The sixties will be forever remembered as a decade of immense change within Britain and beyond. For many social historians the starting point for all that followed was the boisterous summer of 1963. Its events would ultimately affect Parliament, Politics, and Society. Some good, some bad though certainly not forgettable.
In this blog, I shall be taking a nostalgic sepia-toned trip back sixty years to focus on five notable moments of national significance that took place in this period. Additionally celebrating a landmark day in the storied history of a place very close to my heart the Victoria Tower.
*All links are for Hansard Parliamentary Debates
THE HOUSE THAT JACK SPLIT
Scandals of a personal nature weren’t a rarity in Parliamentary trials and tribulations. However, the storm that brewed around John ‘Jack’ Profumo in 1963 went to another level. The Minister for War was a rising star amongst the Conservative ranks. Two years previously at a country estate party given by Lord Astor he’d been introduced to a model named Christine Keeler. A brief relationship ensued between the pair yet there was an overriding security concern as she’d also been seeing Eugene Ivanov, a Russian spy known to MI5 operatives. As the connection came to light Profumo had to come clean.
Delivering a statement from the benches in the spring Profumo denied ‘any impropriety’. Still, the Labour Party backed by several newspapers sniffed blood continuing a pursuit of him on grounds of immorality. As further damaging evidence of the liaison surfaced, he resigned prompting a Punch Magazine cartoon tag lined ‘The House that Jack Split’. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was left anguished by the ongoing turmoil as rumours circulated that consequently, the 1922 Committee wanted him to vacate office. To help salvage this situation Macmillan instructed the Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning to head a governmental inquiry into this unsavoury business.
PEER TO PREMIERSHIP
When the story of the 1963 Peerage Act is retold quite rightly Tony Benn takes centre stage for his campaign to constitutionally disclaim hereditary peerages. Granted Royal Assent in July, by the autumn it proved to be a game changer in appointing a new Prime Minister. Harold Macmillan in addition to the stress of the Profumo fall-out was suffering from a prostate illness that forced him to stand down from government, triggering a leadership contest. The recent advent of high-street bookmakers ignited a betting frenzy on the battle for the premiership featuring two Peers. Lord Hailsham the favourite at odds of 7-4 with Lord Home a modest 10-1.
Blackpool was the setting for the Party Conference. Hailsham hastily staked his claim or as the Daily Express stated, ‘threw his coronet over the Tower’. Unexpectedly he fell out of favour with the judging panel not enamoured with his rash candidacy pronouncement. The main ministerial candidate Rab Butler didn’t cut the mustard either thus rank outsider Lord Home achieved enough momentum to be offered the behind closed doors succession. More comfortable compiling The Times crossword than chairing cabinet meetings he dutifully accepted despite murmurings of discontent. This was the last time the Conservatives forwent a ballot in choosing a leader.
TOWER OF 28,000,000 SECRETS
As a mini heatwave hit London that July a select group of political dignitaries and esteemed historians gathered at the far end of the Palace of Westminster to celebrate the grand reopening of the Victoria Tower Record Repository. The culmination of a fifteen-year restoration programme to modernise Charles Barry’s grandiose gothic structure once joyfully described as a ‘trumpet blast of the Victorian age’. Overseen by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works the project required tremendous engineering prowess to reconstruct seven floors in the upper part of the Tower and incorporate modern air conditioning units and an operational lift system.
Prior to the unveiling ceremony journalists enjoyed a preview of the interiors that contained five and a half miles of steel shelving. Subsequent articles affectionately referred to it as ‘Parliament’s Attic’ and the ‘Tower of 28,000,000 Secrets’. Clerk of the Records Maurice Bond assisted by archival colleagues Harry Cobb and Elizabeth Poyser curated an accompanying exhibit of the most iconic historical documents including the 1688 Declaration of Rights. A special tea reception awaited the assembled guests where Master of Ceremonies, Lord Hailsham heartily wished ‘this new building a long and distinguished career in the service of History, Parliament and Culture’.
Topping the hit parade throughout 1963 was The Beatles with the release of ‘She Loves You’ becoming the pop chart soundtrack of the season for the prominent youth demographic. Parliament couldn’t escape this musical phenomenon and the Merseyside band was inevitably mentioned in Hansard dispatches. Surprisingly the Parliamentarian who firstly spoke of them was World War Two hero Viscount Montgomery of Alamein aka ‘Monty’. He dismissively referenced the Fab Four’s distinctive mop top hairstyle in a debate on the Armed Forces in November sarcastically telling his fellow Lords that ‘National Service may even result in The Beatles having a haircut’.
Beatlemania mushroomed and Parliamentarians began to fall in line. Lord Willis debating 'The Problem of Leisure' stressed that they showed the potential for ‘ordinary young men to attain wealth and success’. By the mid-sixties Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson had nominated them for an MBE for services to industry in response to the huge dividends accrued by unprecedented worldwide sales. This establishment gesture attracted controversy leading commentators to suggest it trivialised the honour. Former recipients mainly military veterans reacted by returning their awards. Ironically John Lennon did the same by the decade’s end in opposition to British involvement in Biafra.
OFF THE BUSES
Since the first Caribbean migrants arrived in the UK on HMT Empire Windrush a sizeable proportion had settled in Bristol. Hospital and factory postings could be found but the city’s Omnibus Company staunchly retained a ‘colour bar’ for employing frontline staff. In April 1963 youth worker Paul Stephenson inspired by the actions of American activist Rosa Parks led a newly formed West Indian Development Council that called for a complete bus boycott by the Black community. From the outset the protest bubbled with a righteous energy gaining the support of local MP Tony Benn and retired cricketing legend Learie Constantine.
After four months the Transport General Workers Union decided to put the matter to a vote and the Bristolian bus operatives overturned the ‘colour bar’. In Westminster various Public Petitions and Private Members Bills had broached the racial discrimination issue to no avail. The bus boycott was instrumental in reigniting this dialogue and the Labour Government once in power passed both the 1965 and 1968 Race Relations Acts. Seeking to ensure a greater degree of equality in the areas of housing, employment, and education. Without the efforts of Stephenson and cohorts like Roy Hackett this may have remained a pipedream.
READ ALL ABOUT IT
Her Majesty’s Stationery Office printing presses were in overdrive to deal with the order requirements for Lord Denning’s Report on the Profumo Affair. Speculation was rife all summer regarding its findings and with a September publication date announced the excitement reached fever pitch. Denning’s preparation was ultra-cautious even asking his secretarial pool to make themselves scarce on Christine Keeler’s arrival for interviewing due to fear of media leaks. He questioned nearly all the saga’s key players. One exception being Stephen Ward who died before having a chance to clear his name on charges of procuring young women for wealthy associates.
Astonishingly 100,000 copies costing seven schillings each was sold on the day of release. Its chapter headings seemingly in the vein of a news-stand pulp-novel with titles such as ‘Mr Profumo’s Disarming Answer’. Hoping to finally draw a line under the episode it concluded that the shenanigans provided no security risk to the state. Upon reading its contents Harold Wilson remarked that there ‘wasn’t much in it’ and the Earl of Arran criticized its overall ‘sanctimonious tone’. A quarter of a century later a movie depicting the scandal was made starring Ian McKellen and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as the infamous protagonists.
Never Had it So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to The Beatles by Dominic Sandbrook
English Affair: Sex, Class, and Power in the Age of Profumo – Richard Davenport-Hines
The Beatles and Sixties Britain by Marcus Collins
Lord Hailsham: A Life by Geoffrey Lewis
Guide to the Records of Parliament by Maurice Bond
The Oxford Companion to Black British History
1965 Race Relations Bill Standing Committee Debates, HC/OF/SC/102, Parliamentary Archives
Lord Denning’s Report. Profumo. Cmnd. 2152, HL/PO/JO/10/11/874/1661, Parliamentary Archives
Hansard Parliamentary Debates