1963: a year to remember

Harold Macmillan Harold Macmillan won the 1959 general election with a Tory majority of 107

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The political storm clouds were already gathering for Harold Macmillan's Conservative government as 1963 arrived, with Britain shivering in the coldest January of the 20th Century and the prime minister about to experience a nasty chill of a rather different kind.

In the previous year, his image as Supermac - that glorious soubriquet given to him by the cartoonist Vicky - was starting to look somewhat jaded. Having won the 1959 general election by increasing the Tory majority over Labour from 68 to 107 - thus confirming his own assertion that under the Conservatives the electors had "never had it so good" - his reputation was starting to fall apart by 1962.

Balance of payment problems led to a wage freeze in 1961 and amid the economic turmoil the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror asked, in a front-page banner headline, "Is it Macwonder or is it Macblunder?"

The prime minister got his answer from the electorate in a by-election in March 1962 when Liberal candidate Eric Lubbock sensationally won the safe Tory seat of Orpington with a 30% swing. This led to the so-called "Night of the Long Knives" when the prime minister, equally sensationally, sacked a third of his cabinet - seven of them - in one brutal culling exercise.

John Vassall Vassall was arrested and charged with spying for the Soviet Union

There was more bad news to come. In September 1962 an Admiralty clerk by the name of John Vassall was arrested and charged with spying for the Soviet Union. This was a major embarrassment for Macmillan's government. It was at the height of the Cold War, and an impression was gaining ground that Britain's military secrets weren't safe in Tory hands - especially as the Vassall case came so soon after the unmasking of the Portland Spy Ring the year before.

Add to this the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 - when "the world held its breath" for almost two weeks during the dangerous stand-off between Washington and Moscow - and the tensions were almost unbearable.

Leadership election

Even though the immediate threat of nuclear war had been lifted, there was a feverish atmosphere when 1963, with its vicious winter, was ushered in. However, the first political shock of that year involved not the governing Conservatives but the opposition Labour Party.

As Britain froze, Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell died suddenly on 18 January from a rare disease at the age of 56. Although George Brown was his deputy, the subsequent leadership election was won not by Brown - who was regarded as far too unstable for the highest office (chiefly because he was a heavy drinker prone to erratic behaviour) - but by Harold Wilson.

John Profumo and his wife, former actress Valerie Hobson Rumours began to circulate about John Profumo, who was married to former actress Valerie Hobson

The first delicate issue Wilson had to handle was not in his own party; it concerned yet another scandal facing the increasingly beleaguered Harold Macmillan. For some time in Fleet Street it had been known that the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo - who was married to the former film actress Valerie Hobson - had in the summer and autumn of 1961 been associating with a good-time girl called Christine Keeler.

By the time of Wilson's accession to the Labour leadership in mid-February 1963 the party's self-appointed adviser on security matters, Colonel George Wigg MP, was already well aware of this association. But infinitely more sensational than the minister's dalliance with a pretty young female was the fact that the woman in question had also been going to bed with Yevgeny Ivanov, assistant naval attache at the Soviet Embassy, ie a Russian spy.

The possibility that Profumo's philandering also posed a security risk was political dynamite. Combined with a heady mix of aristocratic shenanigans at Cliveden, Lord Astor's Berkshire mansion, low life criminality and the web of relationships that had been spun by the society osteopath Stephen Ward, the so-called "Profumo Affair" embraced a good deal more than the fall-out from a government minister's short-lived fling with a flighty young woman who was 19 at the time of their furtive meetings.

Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies Profumo was challenged by senior figures in the government about his relationship with Christine Keeler (on the right)

The security services had been monitoring the situation and informing key ministers of what they had found out. But the government was loathe to force Profumo into a resignation on the basis of rumours, especially since there was still remorse over the way the Admiralty minister Thomas Galbraith had been unfairly cast adrift in the wake of the Vassall scandal a few months earlier. And despite George Wigg's continual straining at the leash this was also the official view of the Labour Party under Wilson's leadership.

What really lit the blue touchpaper was Keeler's failure to turn up as a prosecution witness at the Old Bailey trial of one of her former lovers, West Indian Johnny Edgecombe, who'd found himself in court after firing a pistol at the home of Stephen Ward, where both Keeler and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies happened to be at the time.

  • 1963 - A Year To Remember will be broadcast on BBC Parliament at 6pm on Sunday 31 March.

On 21 March, several Labour MPs used a Commons debate on the jailing of the two journalists Reginald Foster and Brendan Mulholland to interject with veiled references to Profumo. George Wigg challenged Home Secretary Henry Brooke to deny rumours implicating a government minister with "Miss Christine Keeler and Miss Davies and a shooting by a West Indian".

In a personal statement to the Commons the following day Profumo denied any improper relationship with Keeler. But the pressure was on, and on 5 June Profumo came clean and admitted he had lied. He resigned both from the government and as an MP.

Macmillan's successor

It was a crushing blow to Macmillan, and has often been cited as a major cause of the illness that prompted his resignation as prime minister in October that year. Macmillan did not think he had long to live because he had been diagnosed - wrongly, as it turned out - with prostate cancer.

His succession by the 14th Earl of Home was regarded as a piece of Macmillan-inspired mischief on the Conservative Party. Two of its most senior parliamentary figures - Iain Macleod and Enoch Powell - refused to serve in Sir Alec Douglas-Home's cabinet. Macleod later coined the phrase "The Magic Circle" to describe the secret process by which leaders of the Conservative Party were chosen. This was, in fact, the last time it happened. From then on, Tory leaders were elected, the first of them being Edward Heath in 1965.

Richard Beeching Beeching's brief was to reform the railways

But while this drama had been unfolding at a political level another was taking place in public transport. Dr Richard Beeching, a senior executive with ICI, had been recruited by the government to become chairman of British Rail - at a then unheard-of annual salary for the public sector of £24,000. His brief was to plug the losses being incurred by the railways, which were running at tens of millions a year.

He set about his task with surgical precision and recommended getting rid of thousands of miles of uneconomic rail routes and the stations that went with them. His first report on 27 March 1963 called for the closure of a third of the country's 7,000 stations and withdrawal of passenger services from about 5,000 miles of railway track, as well as scrapping over 300,000 goods wagons.

The proposals also entailed cutting some 70,000 British Rail jobs over three years. The so-called "Beeching Axe" was opposed by the Labour opposition and by the unions, not to mention the rail-travelling public. But the closures went through - much to the regret of later generations searching for ways of easing Britain's clogged-up road network.

Great Train Robbery

While people were fretting about what was happening to the railways something occurred on the tracks that caught everybody by surprise. In the early hours of 8 August a Royal Mail train carrying £2.6m in used bank notes from Glasgow to London was stopped in Buckinghamshire by a bunch of exceptionally enterprising robbers. They made off with the loot - worth over £40m at today's prices - in what was then the single biggest theft of cash in British history.

What became known as The Great Train Robbery captured the public imagination and has since become the subject of numerous books, films and expressions of popular culture. Such was the audacity of the theft that there was even a feeling of "good luck to them" in some quarters - tempered only by the distaste over the coshing of train driver Jack Mills. Most of the cash was never recovered and some of the gang was never caught. Those that were received sentences of up to 30 years in jail. Fifty years later the event is still talked about as one of the more colourful episodes in British folk history.

Just as Britain was coming to terms with its less deferential regard for the powers-that-be in the aftermath of Profumo, a political convulsion occurred in the United States. John F Kennedy, the president who for so many represented hope, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. On 22 November 1963 he was shot dead while travelling with his wife in the presidential cavalcade through the city.

The event cast a deep gloom over politics and politicians, especially Labour's deputy leader at the time, George Brown MP. Summoned to appear on a special ITV programme to pay tribute to Kennedy - as Labour's man who had probably been closest to the dead president - Brown was hopelessly drunk, and it showed.

He later apologised for his performance, which alternated between morose and aggressive.

If nothing else it must have convinced Labour MPs that they'd made a wise choice in picking Wilson instead of Brown as party leader, but that is another story...

1963 - A Year To Remember will be broadcast on BBC Parliament at 6pm on Sunday 31 March.

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