‘I got fed up with all the sex and sleaze and backhanders of rock and roll so I went into politics .’
Some of you following the Leveson Inquiry (see our previous post on the media aspect of the inquiry), seeing various parliamentary worthies, including four Prime Ministers, berating journalists for their disreputable practices may be thinking – if you have a cynical nature – that it really doesn’t seem long since certain MPs were flipping homes, ordering duck houses and buying 40 inch televisions at our expense before the Daily Telegraph had a look at their office budgets.
If you want a reminder of some of the hilarity of the expenses scandal, try No Expenses Spared by Robert Winnet and Gordon Rayner or A very British revolution: the expenses scandal and how to save our democracy by former MP Martin Bell.
But, shocking though it may be to some readers, there have been parliamentary scandals before (and there may even be some in the future) so let’s see what Westminster Libraries’ Gateway to Websites can tell us about politicians caught with their pants down (sometimes literally!)
Born in Marylebone in 1843, Jabez Balfour (use your Westminster library card to access the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) worked first as a parliamentary agent for the Liberal Party and then went into property speculation and loan companies. He became the first Mayor of Croydon in 1883 and then an MP, by which time his Liberator Building Society was the largest one in the country. However in 1892 it emerged that, instead of advancing money to home buyers, the Liberator had advanced money to property companies to buy properties owned by Balfour, at inflated prices. Balfour fled to Argentina and was arrested in 1895 and brought back to Britain where he was sentenced to 14 years penal servitude. After his release in 1906, his memoirs were serialised in Lord Northcliffe’s Weekly Dispatch.
You can trace Balfour’s financial machinations in the Financial Times. On Nov 18th 1892, the FT noted,
“Mr Jabez Spencer Balfour has, it is stated, placed himself “unreservedly” in the hands of the Burnley Liberal Association, but no action is to be taken by that body for the present. Another interesting item of political news is that Baron Profumo, of Provident Association of London fame, has been selected as the Liberal candidate for Peckham. What talent there will be in Parliament some day!’
Which, of course, leads us neatly to our next parliamentary scandal as the Liberal Candidate for Peckham (he didn’t get in) was the grandfather of the MP at the centre of the most famous political scandal of all, John Profumo. Profumo was the MP for Stratford on Avon and the Secretary of State for War when in 1961 he embarked on a brief affair with Christine Keeler, a 19 year old model with somewhat dodgy connections, notably with a Soviet naval attache.
Still the benchmark for all British political scandals, just as Watergate is in the USA, the affair was written about many times – check out Keeler’s autobiography, Secrets and Lies or David Profumo’s (son of John, eight years old when his father resigned) Bringing the House Down or the various contemporary accounts available in Westminster Archives such as Lord Denning’s report on the affair. And don’t forget to check out the newspaper archives to see how the story unfolded at the time, including Profumo’s statements in the house.
Somewhat lower down the social scale than Harrow-educated Tory Profumo was John Stonehouse, the son of a dockworker and a former scullery maid who, in 1957, became the Labour MP for Wednesbury. When Labour was out of office in the early 1970s, he began to concentrate on fund-raising activities for the newly founded country of Bangladesh, though mismanagement soon led him to fraudulent cover-ups. In November 1974 he was assumed to have drowned off a beach in Miami (this was only the second time an MP had ‘disappeared’ , the previous occasion being a Mr Willey, MP for Devizes who vanished for a week in 1795). After a world-wide search, Stonehouse turned up five weeks later in Australia where he was mistaken for the missing Lord Lucan. For weeks, newspaper readers were enthralled as it became clear Stonehouse had planned to begin a new life Down Under, using an assumed name, with his secretary Sheila Buckley. Eventually he was sentenced to seven years in prison for fraud and theft, dying in 1988.
Of course, it’s not just MPs who have opportunities to engage in controversial activities. If the term ‘homes for votes’ means nothing to you, then you’ll be shocked to hear that scandal can happen rather closer to home! You can read all about Dame Shirley Porter and the murky goings-on of 1990 in Nothing Like a Dame and The Westminster Whistleblowers and be relieved that nothing like that could ever happen again…