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BOOKS Stonehouse: Cabinet Minister, Fraudster, Spy

Labour Party high-flier's downfall a bathetic tale of misjudgement and greed

FROM humble beginnings, John Stonehouse became a rising star in the Labour Party and a cabinet minister in Harold Wilson’s 1964 government, only to be brought crashing down as a result of his own hubris.

His working-class family, active in the Co-operative movement, were staunch socialists and their eldest son John also became a Co-operative activist. After a short spell in the RAF during the war, he gained a degree in economics and politics at LSE.

In 1957, aged 32, he became MP for Wednesbury, the youngest MP at the time and in 1968 was appointed postmaster general and joined Wilson’s cabinet. A tall and personable man, he was well- liked and respected in the Labour Party and, with his soft-left politics, was seen by a number of pundits as a potential prime minister.

His first fateful step was taken during the late 1950s, when he led a Co-operative delegation to Czechoslovakia and on that trip may have been compromised in a honey-trap sting laid by the secret services there.

Throughout his subsequent political career he had irregular contact with the Czechs, passing on low-level information which could probably have been gleaned from public sources. Unbeknown to him, his fellow Labour MPs Will Owen and Ted Short had also been recruited by the Czechs and were doing the same.

Stonehouse was a reluctant informant but the added inducement of cash, of which he was always short, encouraged him to continue doing so. His work for the Czechs was certainly not for ideological reasons — he was a known anti-communist.
 
When Czech secret service officer Josef Frolik defected to the CIA in 1969, Stonehouse’s name was one of those on the list of informants he handed over. Although Stonehouse was later questioned by MI5, they had no hard evidence of his treachery and he convincingly denied having any such links.

Ironically, his downfall came not through his exposure as a spy but because of his avarice. Unlike most Conservative MPs who come from privileged backgrounds and are invariably born with silver spoons in their mouths, Stonehouse only had his income as an MP and later as cabinet minister and found it not enough to support the lifestyle to which he aspired.

He decided to set up a number of businesses in order to generate the money he needed but these soon encountered difficulties and Stonehouse resorted to fraud in order to escape the consequences.

Unable to extract himself from his rapidly collapsing businesses, he flew to Miami in November 1974 and faked his own death by going for a swim in the sea, leaving his clothes on the beach. Although no body was found, he was assumed drowned, only to resurface under an alias in Australia.

He was arrested that same year and extradited to Britain, where he was convicted of fraud and given a seven-year sentence. He was released early after suffering several heart attacks and died in 1988.

Julian Hayes, author of this biography is the son of Stonehouse’s nephew and knew him when he was a boy. His account is, as you would expect from a lawyer, a forensic report and while it is a readable and informative narrative it is a somewhat formal, chronological affair.

And while he  concentrates on the bare facts of Stonehouse’s rise and fall, the deeper psychological, political and social contexts are sketchy.

Published by Robinson, £25.

 

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