By Ivan A
The Profumo Affair of 1963 is one of the most well-known political scandals in British history. Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, was accused of having an affair with British model, Christine Keeler who was also simultaneously having an affair with Soviet spy, Eugene Ivanov. Profumo was brought before the House of Commons in March of 1963 to testify on the nature of the relationship after being alleged to have committed espionage and leaking state secrets. Profumo denied all initial allegations, thus breaking the ministerial code of conduct, and was discovered 10 weeks later to have misled the house.
Its particular significance? The public outcry and the height of sensationalist media hysteria was simply unprecedented, calling into question the credibility and competence of the party, with Harold Macmillan taking most of the backlash and ridicule from the newly created satirical show That Was The Week That Was (1962-1963) and the publication Private Eye. The affair eventually cut short Macmillan’s tenure as Prime Minister due to the unfavourable public response despite the Denning enquiry which found that the then-Secretary of State had in fact not breached national security. The Profumo Scandal alongside many other political scandals illustrates how a lack of faith in elected officials can be detrimental to any functioning democracy.
As outlined by Edmund Burke in his trustee model of representation, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”. For this model of representation to fully function, it is imperative that the electorate has considerable faith in their elected officials. In recent years, many sceptics have commented on a rising trend in current politics: an increasing democratic deficit. This can be defined as when democratic institutions or democratically elected officials fall short of the principles of democracy, inducing a loss of faith from voters. The 2017 Ipsos Veracity Index cites politicians as being the least trusted profession amongst the British public. Furthermore, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reveals that in 2020, 51% of citizens (of OECD countries) claimed to mistrust their government officials, which at first glance may not seem immediately concerning. However, it is crucial to note that amid a World Health Organisation-declared pandemic, over half of UK (63% as of 2021) had little or no faith in their political leaders; whether it be due to a certain political advisor’s trip to Barnard Castle, directly contradicting No 10 Covid-19 isolation policy, or the Home Secretary being alleged to have spent £5,415.90 of taxpayers’ money in Primark and £77,269.40 on eyebrow appointments (ooh what a treat!) during a national crisis.
In Trust and Democracy, Jeffrey Abrams makes the case that a continued culture of distrust can challenge the mandate and authority of the government and “cause citizens to reflexively respond to politics with distrust even when it is not justified”. In moments of extreme crisis when governments either need to legislate or roll out emergency policy, they will not be listened to. For instance, the Ebola epidemic of 2014, demonstrates just how vital it is for an electorate to have faith in their elected officials. Many Liberian citizens initially ignored the advice of the Liberian government which at the time was distrusted by citizens over corruption. The failure of the government to instil faith among the electorate was arguably one of the main reasons that led to the deaths of 11,310 people, despite the UN Security Council declaring the epidemic a “threat to peace and security”.
Scandals and lies told by politicians can lead to the public becoming apathetic and result in lower turnout as they may feel like their voices hold little to no value in comparison to the individual will of politicians. Distrust of politicians can also lead to individual party membership being affected and lowering grassroots participation. For instance, reports of anti-Semitism in the Labour party during Corbyn’s leadership arguably played a vital role in why the party’s membership fell below 500,000.
Over recent years, there seems to be a growing culture of the public abandoning their political representatives in favour of taking political action directly into their own hands. For example, between 2011-2015, 150 electronic petitions gained at least 10,000 signatures warranting an official response from the government. This suggests that the electorate is straying away from relying on their elected officials to handle political matters, perhaps signalling the fall of Britain’s representative democracy.
So next time one finds oneself surreptitiously nibbling on a cheeky wedge of Gruyère in the blistering month of May concealed by the foliage of public office, or casually stocking up one’s tote bag with some boozy delights purchased at a certain Tesco Express in Westminster (oooh how industrious!), there might just be the tiniest chance that one might be putting the state of democracy, as we know it, in jeopardy.