Christine Keeler, the escort who brought down Harold Macmillan’s government with the Profumo scandal, has died aged 75. In 1963, when Macmillan described her as a “tart” and Lewis Morley’s iconic nude of her straddling a modernist chair appeared, Keeler symbolised Britain emerging from wartime privation and the loss of empire to discover sex, rock and roll, and excess. It was a modern myth, because Keeler may have been an innocent in the great game, a teenager who had wandered onto the board to escape poverty.
Looking back, Britain’s greatest spy scandal looks childishly simple. These days, Russian double agents in London are undoubtedly poisoned with radioactive polonium in their tea. And the clear lines laid down by the Cold War have vanished, to be replaced by fuzzy faultlines. In our world, the enemy is protean, and often an economic competitor rather than a military foe. The honey trap could be an internet service hooking up the rich and powerful, while quietly infecting their phones. The spy could be a kid with a CD titled “Lady Gaga”, who sends it to an agency like Wikileaks, which has no national allegiance. And the battle between the forces of light and darkness, which powers almost all of the world’s myths, are passé.
Now, everyone is on the side of the angels — Russia, which stands accused of fiddling with a US election; China, which has bought deep into the US treasury; the US, which stands against the imagined hordes of Islam; and the terrorist, who is a soldier of God. The only Evil Empire is North Korea, because it keeps disturbing this topologically complex equilibrium of good with things that go “bang”.