They Do Things Differently There #2: Political Scandal

John Stonehouse: The best laid plans etc…
Last week the British public showed that it had the good taste to eject Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, from Celebrity Big Brother at the first opportunity. It may have had the bad taste to watch the show in the first place, but that is a question for another day.

Over at the Daily Mail, they have been getting in a froth about Mrs Bercow with the usual mixture of prurience and outrage. The constitutional crisis caused by this frankly unimportant woman follows on a series of scandals both minor and major – phone hacking, expenses, William Hague’s ill-advised hotel arrangements – that have affected those running the country.

What these scandals lack, for all the intrigue, is genuinely colourful characters. Tom Watson, the chubby Columbo at the centre of the phone hacking investigation, is the only member of the committee I could actually name. The bloke claiming expenses for his duck house was mildly diverting but who remembers him now?

Back in the 1970s, a politician called John Stonehouse put these grey men to shame. Stonehouse was a minister in Harold Wilson’s administration of the late ‘60s and although not a household name on a par with the giants of the era –Wilson, Heath, Maudling, Benn, Powell, Jenkins, Healy – was nonetheless a serious politician.

After a series of failed business ventures, falling in love with his secretary and becoming increasingly paranoid that his phone was bugged (by MI5 not News International), he hatched a plan.

While on a business trip toMiami, he would disappear, apparently lost at sea. His wife would receive a lump sum from an insurance policy and he would later marry his secretary. Job done.

However, as Mark Garnett puts it in his excellent ‘From Anger to Apathy: British Society since 1975’ ‘the same ineptitude which had dogged his business forays thwarted him in simulated death.’ In short, his plan was completely loopy.

Firstly, just before disappearing he asked a question of the home secretary in the Commons relating to ‘arrangements for preventing drowning accidents’, thereby raising eyebrows when the same fate befell him a couple of weeks later.

Then he decided to drown himself on a beach where bodies of drowned swimmers always wash up after a couple of days and the coastguards work around the clock checking on paddlers.

Finally, and most unfortunately, he then chose to flee toAustralia, where he was collared in November 1974. He had arrived in the country at exactly the same time as it was on high alert for the fugitive Lord Lucan. Slipping through the net was not likely to happen in the state of heightened security.

He was brought back toEnglandto face trial. Abandoned by his party and erstwhile colleagues after loudly slagging off most of them, he then compounded his reputation for unhinged behaviour. Stonehouse resolutely refused to go quietly – he wrote public letters to various international leaders; the new Prime Minister, his party boss Harold Wilson; and the Queen. He went on hunger strike and then wrote a book defending his actions.

Nonetheless in 1976 he was sentenced, after conducting his own defence, to 7 years in prison for various frauds. He married his Secretary, Sheila Buckley in 1981, and died in 1988.

The saying goes that we get the politicians we deserve. The current bunch are bland management consultant dweebs with not an ounce of charisma between them. Do we, the Great British public, deserve that? I think not. What we need is a couple of rock’n’roll nutjobs like John Stonehouse to relieve the tedium.