The United Kingdom’s Brexit chaos is so intense that it’s easy to forget about the country’s political scandals of yore. Rest assured that both royals and members of Parliament were making sketchy decisions long before Brexit.
1763: John Wilkes’ Parliamentary Ouster
In 1763, a member of Parliament named John Wilkes spread a false rumor that King George III had only appointed John Stuart, earl of Bute, as prime minister because the king’s mother was sleeping with Bute.
“It’s a completely ridiculous accusation, but this was meant to discredit the prime minister,” says Anna K. Clark, a history professor at the University of Minnesota. Wilkes’ false accusation left him open to criticism of his own private life; and the next year, his colleagues kicked him out of Parliament over some supposedly pornographic writing he had privately published.
1809: The Duke of York Scandal
Frederick, Duke of York, became a scandalous figure in 1809 when the public learned his former mistress had accepted money in exchange for the duke promoting people in the British Army. It was a huge corruption scandal, since the country was at war at the time and the duke was the Army’s commander-in-chief. But the specific details about his mistress Mary Anne Clarke also sparked prurient interest.
“When the duke procrastinated in paying the bills for their lavish lifestyle, she took bribes to gain promotions for officers from him, keeping a list of candidates tacked over the bed,” writes Clark in her book Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution. The duke resigned in 1809 but regained his position as commander-in-chief two years later—a real success story for a man who just happened to be King George III’s favorite son.
1820: George IV’s Messy Divorce
When King George IV took the throne in 1820, he knew he had to do something about his estranged wife Queen Caroline. The two had been separated for nearly all of their marriage; he had his mistresses, and she was now traveling Europe in exile with her handsome Italian valet/lover. George was eager to remarry and produce a male heir, but first he had to divorce the queen. But instead of divorcing her through the House of Commons, where both of their affairs might come out, he put her on trial for adultery before the House of Lords, where it was mostly her behavior under the microscope.
The trial “involved literally airing her dirty laundry in the house of Parliament,” Clark says. “Everybody was obsessed with it for about a year and a half.” Public opinion favored Caroline, partly because people thought it was hypocritical for George to highlight his wife’s affairs when he was so blatant about his own. “People really supported Queen Caroline because they felt that he had mistreated her so much,” Clark says.
1963: The Profumo Affair
John Profumo, the British secretary of state for war, was 46 in 1961 when he began an affair with 19-year-old model Christine Keeler. That year, Keeler also had an affair with another very powerful man: Yevgeny “Eugene” Ivanov, a Soviet naval attache and suspected spy. Two years later, the House of Commons asked Profumo about his relationship with Keeler, who was a security risk because of her connection to Ivanov.
Profumo denied they’d had an affair at first, threatening that he would “not hesitate to issue writs for libel and slander if scandalous allegations are made or repeated outside the House.” But after Keeler testified that they had indeed had a relationship, he admitted he’d lied to Parliament and resigned on June 5. However, an even more damning secret about him wouldn’t come out until after he died. In 2017, declassified MI5 documents revealed that Profumo also had an affair with a Nazi spy in the early ‘30s.
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1973: The Tabloid Threesome
In 1973, the tabloid News of the World published photos of Lord Lambton, a junior defense minister, smoking marijuana in bed with two prostitutes.
This prompted Lambton to resign from his position as Parliamentary under-secretary for the Royal Air Force, but didn’t provoke a great deal of personal reflection. He later said he didn’t see “what all the fuss is about; surely all men patronize whores?”
1974: The Fake Parliament Death
In November of 1974, a member of Parliament who’d long fought off rumors that he was a Czech spy went missing. The British press reported that John Stonehouse’s clothes were found on a beach in Miami, Florida, and he was presumed drowned. Yet the next month, Stonehouse was discovered with his secretary in Australia, where he was living under the name of a deceased former constituent.
It’s not clear why Stonehouse faked his death, though it might have had to do with financial problems. Back in Britain, the government charged him with fraud, theft and forgery, and he ended up spending seven years in prison. Strangely, he didn’t formally resign his position as a member of Parliament until 1976. And even more bizarrely, the U.K. National Archive released papers in 2010 showing that he actually had been a Czech spy after all. The news came over 20 years after his real death in 1988.
1976: Jeremy Thorpe's Attempted Murder
The 2018 BBC drama A Very English Scandal stars Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe, a former member of Parliament and leader of the Liberal Party. Thorpe, who died in 2014, was a closeted man who kept his gay affairs a secret. That is, until Norman Scott, a man he’d had an affair with in the early 1960s, threatened to make their relationship public.
As far as closeted politicians go, Thorpe’s story didn’t become particularly unusual until the mid-70s, when he paid a pilot named Andrew Newton to kill Scott. The would-be assassin accidentally shot Scott’s dog instead, and Scott told the media that Thorpe had hired Newton to kill him because they’d had an affair. The scandal climaxed in 1976 when Newton went to trial and Thorpe resigned as Liberal Party leader. Two years later, Thorpe lost his reelection campaign for Parliament.
2016: The Brexit Referendum
When Prime Minister David Cameron ran for reelection in 2015, he secured support from his Conservative Party by promising to hold a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union before 2017. The promise appeased Conservative members who favored leaving the E.U., but Cameron didn’t think that it would actually result in a full-fledged Brexit.
As it turns out, elections have consequences. In 2016, U.K. citizens voted to leave the E.U., and Cameron resigned in disgrace. After the March 29, 2019 deadline to leave the E.U. passed without a Brexit deal, Prime Minister Theresa May also resigned in disgrace. The country still hasn't figured out a plan.
READ MORE: The History Behind Brexit