The World

A few reasons why the sun now sets regularly on the British Empire

JOHN ELLISON May 31 1976
The World

A few reasons why the sun now sets regularly on the British Empire

JOHN ELLISON May 31 1976

A few reasons why the sun now sets regularly on the British Empire

The World

If the Mother of Parliaments was blushing, it was understandable. Not since the Profumo affair of 1963 had the corridors and lobbies of Britain’s House of Commons buzzed with such shocking gossip about hanky-panky in high places. Urbane, witty Jeremy Thorpe had been hounded out of the Liberal Party leadership by innuendo (a former male model claimed to have had a homosexual relationship with Thorpe; other Liberal MPS acknowledged having paid the ex-model to keep quiet, even though Thorpe strenuously denied the allegation) and onetime financial whiz John Stonehouse, MP, was on trial in what promised to be one of the most bizarre fraudand-conspiracy cases to come before the British courts in years. Meanwhile, a parallel scandal involving pornographic films and yet another British politician was developing amid further allegations of South African plots being hatched by BOSS, the shadowy Bureau for State Security that operates out of Pretoria. No less a person than Harold (now Sir Harold) Wilson, until recently the prime minister, had publicly linked the South Africans to the scandals besetting the tiny Liberal Party, whose six million votes in the last election were drawn mainly away from the Conservatives and therefore helped the Labor Party to power. South African politicians are known to distrust U.K. Laborites.

Almost as incredible as the idea of a former Commonwealth country playing “dirty tricks” on public figures in Britain was the Stonehouse affair. Stonehouse, 50, the Member of Parliament for Walsall North, is a former Labor minister and a father of three. Now he’s defending himself in the Old Bailey on 21 charges of fraud, theft and conspiracy. Beside him in the dock is his 29-year-old mistress and secretary, Mrs. Sheila Buckley, who pleaded not guilty to six similar charges.

The case presented by the prosecution is one of Byzantine complexity, involving false passports, a faked death, an insurance swindle and scattered bank accounts under false names. According to the Crown, Stonehouse decided to fake his death and disappear with $700,000 in July of 1974, at a time when three international companies he’d founded were facing ruin. The prosecution says Stonehouse obtained a passport in the name of a deceased constituent, arranged a quarter-million-dollar life insurance policy to provide for his wife, Barbara, and their children, faked his death off Miami Beach, Florida, amid hints he’d fallen afoul of the Mafia, and moved to Australia via Honolulu. He had arranged for Mrs. Buckley, whom the Crown described as “a willing and knowing participant,” to join him Down Under, but came a cropper when an Australian banker followed a man he knew as “Donald Mildoon” to a rival bank, where the man was known as “Joseph Markham.”

The prosecution introduced letters from Buckley to “Mr. Mildoon” in Australia which were partly written in code and which were “obviously highly embarrassing to Mrs. Buckley.” In one of them, she wrote: “Dear Dum-dums ... I have the most terrible problem and don’t have a friend in the world except you." The fact that Buckley and Barbara Stonehouse joined the MP in Australia before he was unmasked has added further piquancy to the case. The relationship among the three is a mystery. Stonehouse has been pictured kissing his wife good-bye as he leaves for court, where Buckley, in a series of chic outfits, has brought a splash of color to the regulation gloom. The trial is expected to drag on until autumn.

Quite apart from his legal problems, Stonehouse has triggered a political crisis of sorts by resigning his membership in the Labor Party. Henceforth, he says, he will sit in parliament as an independent member of the “English National Party,” a decision which cost Prime Minister James Callaghan his one-seat majority in the Commons and, more importantly, Labor’s automatic right to a majority on parliamentary committees.

Days after Thorpe resigned as Liberal leader, to be replaced by, of all people, Jo Grimond, his predecessor, Westminster continued preoccupied with the Liberals and the so-called BOSS connection. The press had a field day, reporting bizarre tales of BOSS and even being duped by an out-of-work bogus colonel who claimed to have visited BOSS headquarters where he saw dossiers on 15 members of the British Liberal Party. The “colonel,” Frederick Cheeseman, turned up on BBC television, much to the delight of his fellow-regulars in the Walnut Tree, a pub in Kent. “Freddie always liked his little joke,” said the publican.

Frauds aside, the South Africans were taking the situation seriously. Their ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, Dr. Carel de Wet, trudged to the Foreign Office to complain of a plot against his country and relations between London and Pretoria were at a new low. Not only did the ex-model in the Thorpe case have South African connections, but the South African embassy became caught up in another, more murky affair involving a blue film and an as-yet-unnamed British politician said to play a “starring role” in it.

There was also the now-settled-but-notexplained case of Peter Hain, South African-born president of the British Young Liberals. Hain was accused of having robbed a bank, and was identified in a police lineup. But he didn’t rob the bank. Someone who looked very like him did. The case was thrown out, and the rumor persisted that BOSS had staged the robbery in an attempt to discredit Hain and the Liberals. Whatever the truth of the rumors, it seemed further allegations and/or disclosures were inevitable. JOHN ELLISON