In the mid-1960s the Conservative Party was still recovering from the Profumo affair when a new scandal was uncovered… and quickly covered up again, with the help of some unexpected allies. Historian Daniel Smith, author of The Peer and the Gangster, tells Historia how the story was quickly and conveniently ‘forgotten’.
There was a peer, a gangster and a Prime Minister’s wife… It sounds like the start of a terrible joke. Instead, they were ingredients in a political scandal that for a time looked set to topple the British government and quite possibly undermine public faith in Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition as well. But then came a bravura cover-up, the full extent of which is still emerging today.
It was 1964 and the powers-that-be felt vulnerable like never before. Harold Macmillan‘s administration had collapsed just a year earlier amid the fallout of the Profumo affair. The Beatles were at the forefront of a cultural movement that many feared was instantaneously corrupting the nation’s youth. Even Lady Chatterley’s Lover was now available to all and sundry from the local WH Smiths. (At the Chatterley obscenity trial, the prosecuting counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones had infamously pondered: “Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”) The times truly were a-changin’.
Still, the scandal that threatened to engulf a much-loved Conservative peer – a man once tipped as a future prime minister – was something else again. One that would likely have surpassed the furore caused by Profumo and which posed an existential threat to the Conservative administration of Alec Douglas-Home.
On 12 July 1964, the Sunday Mirror‘s front page screamed: ‘Peer and Gangster: Yard Probe.’ There was, it reported, an investigation into a then-illegal homosexual relationship between a peer of the realm and one of London’s most dangerous criminals. The pair were not immediately named, nor in the next weekend’s paper which described a photo of the two together on a sofa in the politician’s Belgravia flat.
And then… the story fizzled out. In August, the Sunday Mirror paid a record £40,000 to the politician and published a grovelling apology – despite the fact that there was real substance to the scoop. So, what happened?
In short, the Establishment swung into action to save one of its own, and in doing so to stave off the unwelcome scrutiny of the masses. Both major political parties, senior figures from the legal profession, the Metropolitan Police and the Secret Service conspired to execute one of the most complete and outrageous cover-ups in British history.
The peer was Lord Boothby, who after long service in parliament was now a bona fide star of television and radio. The gangster was Ronnie Kray, who was on the cusp of becoming – along with twin brother Reggie – the most feared underworld figure in the country.
Even prior to the scandal, Boothby had lived one of the more notable political lives of the century. Eton- and Oxford-educated, he entered parliament as MP for Aberdeen in 1924 and was soon appointed Winston Churchill’s private secretary, with many in the party tipping him for the very top.
But before the decade was out, he had embarked on an affair with the wife of one of his fellow 1924 Westminster intake, Harold Macmillan. Dorothy Macmillan, daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, was not known as a society beauty but she and Boothby succumbed to fiery mutual desire. (She had thighs like hams, he unchivalrously reported to one friend).
For a while, Dorothy pushed Harold hard for a divorce but he refused. Instead the lovers virtually lived together for five years, a fact well known among the upper echelons of British society. Then Boothby disastrously agreed to marry her cousin. Regardless, he and Dorothy maintained a lovers’ relationship of sorts all the way through to the 1960s.
It was a betrayal from which Macmillan never truly recovered. For one thing, he was always unsure whether his daughter Sarah was biologically his or Boothby’s. Yet, the two men remained professional allies throughout it all, and in 1958 Boothby even suggested that Macmillan might find his way to giving him a knighthood. Remarkably, Macmillan assented.
This ought to have provided enough drama for any one life. But Boothby also happened to be prodigiously bisexual. (Dorothy, he told another friend, reminded him of a caddy he’d once ravished on a golf course.) Sometime around 1963, he was introduced by his lover, Leslie Holt, to Ronnie Kray, for whom Holt worked as an occasional driver.
Kray was himself homosexual, but there was no physical attraction towards Boothby, some 33 years his senior. He did, however, see Boothby as a route into the Establishment. Get a hold over the rich and powerful, believed Kray, and the world would be his oyster.
So Boothby and Kray began to socialise, with the gangster frequently serving up young men (from late teens into their twenties) for Boothby’s delectation. There is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that many of these young men were acting under coercion.
Police surveillance of the Krays in 1964 resulted in the Sunday Mirror receiving a tip-off about the strange association between the peer and the gangster. Senior figures at the Mirror’s offices were convinced this would prove a fatal blow to the government and deliver No 10 to Harold Wilson and his Labour party.
Cabinet records reveal a Tory administration in panic, leveraging the police to pressurise Fleet Street editors to reveal exactly what they had on Boothby. There was, though, no direct legal help for Boothby from the party he had served for over forty years. Instead, incredibly, he was dug out of this tightest of holes by the solicitor Arnold Goodman – known as Harold Wilson’s legal ‘Mr Fixit’ – and Gerald Gardiner, QC, whom Wilson would appoint Lord Chancellor before the year was out. Labour, it turned out, had their own player in the scandal in the form of recent party chairman, Tom Driberg.
Moreover, Goodman and Gardiner were greatly assisted by a statement from the Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who, despite theoretically being politically independent, set about puncturing the Mirror’s story after discussions with his political overlords. The Security Service, meanwhile, briefed the government on the intelligence they had gathered on Boothby’s relationship with Kray, then sat back and watched the public drama play out.
So Boothby got his money and his apology, the police investigation into the Krays fell apart, and the scene was set for the twins to extend their reign of terror for several more years. Only after the death of Boothby in 1986 was there renewed scrutiny of those events 22 years previously.
In 2015, a stash of declassified MI5 documents confirmed what many had long suspected—the Establishment had let Boothby and the Krays off the hook to save itself from more public humiliation. But at what price? A price that, not least, can be counted in human lives that might otherwise have been saved from the Krays.
But there was also a political price, as silence and plausible deniability became staples in the handling of other political scandals – not least those involving Jeremy Thorpe and Cyril Smith – for years to come.
A price, in other words, that was far too high.
Read more about this book.
Daniel Smith has written over 30 works of non-fiction and works as a part-time editor on The Stateman’s Yearbook (published every year since 1864).