'John Stonehouse, My Father: The True Story of the Runaway MP', by Julia Stonehouse (Icon Books)
The story goes that once upon a time, a Labour MP having embezzled cash or ruined his own businesses and having betrayed his country and spied for the Czechoslovakians, faked his own death. It was believed by some that he had done so with the help of his mistress, with whom he then fled to Australia to set up life with her, but was then caught, disgraced and convicted of various offences, being sentenced to a little over 95 years in prison by an English court.
For once, fact is more banal than fiction.
In John Stonehouse, My Father: The True Story of the Runaway MP
, the MP's daughter, Julia Stonehouse, makes credible claims to have debunked each of what she claims are complete falsehoods. Her argument is compelling because it is borne of meticulous research and a level of insight only those who were there can ever provide.
The truth is what she seeks to tell as well as the effect these stories had on families with some standing – such as hers. As you read her account of the furore caused by her father's breakdown, it is not difficult to ponder how often it happens to families without any social standing.
The facts are that John Stonehouse, having been on medication, which is today banned, decided that the only way out of the stresses and troubles of his life was to commit career and psychological suicide by coming up with the type of plan which would be laughed out of a movie studio for being far too complex. Unfortunately, he never shared it with anyone, thus making it the sanest thing he had ever heard.
Having put it into effect with the movement of money from business accounts to foreign accounts in false names, false passports and new identities, he fled. Then came back, then fled again, then missed people and asked them to join him in Denmark, then left for Australia and a new life. Then got caught.
What he was escaping from was business dealings which were going badly, accusations that he had embezzled money from a charity set up for Bangladesh, and the suggestion he had betrayed his country and was in the pay of a foreign government. At each turn, Stonehouse, the father, has been in some measure officially cleared of wrongdoing, including by the Prime Minister of the day on the floor of the House of Commons. It came after a Czech spy, making a few pennies from telling his tales, kept repeating his claims of Stonehouse's treason. Stonehouse, the daughter, goes through each of these with forensic detail to attempt to finally put them to bed. Unfortunately for her and the Stonehouse family, they keep on waking up and giving the family nightmares.
To that end, she is giving us what she wants us to believe is the truth. Her father was suffering mentally and had a form of a breakdown, which is clinically described as a psychological suicide. He wished to kill off his persona and find a new one with which he would live out the rest of his life. In the mid-1970s that was an absurd thing to say. Thankfully, we no longer live in the 1970s. However, his behaviour does not read well and is open to other forms of interpretation. We shall see that on a small screen soon as a TV drama has just finished filming, and we can compare notes with at least two contrary accounts of the whole sorry tale – Stonehouse: Cabinet Minister, Fraudster, Spy
by Julian Hayes and Agent Twister: The True Story Behind the Scandal that Gripped the Nation
by Philip Augar and Keely Winstone. The former is the source for the ITV drama, the latter the source for a Channel 4 documentary.
However, Julia is also seeking to give us the whole truth and does not shy away from the uncomfortable. Her father's affair is detailed and his behaviour towards a wife he wishes to remain loyal – and credit to her, she does – along with a mistress with whom he shall embark upon a new life anyway is given in filterless format. The relationship between Sheila, the mistress, and the family goes from the cliché of secretary bagging the boss to someone with a critical role to play within this family tragedy. It is a feature of not just the maturity of a family and the forgiveness of those he wronged, but an uncomfortable truth presented for the public in amongst the uncomfortable stories he faced. In essence, you get a firm impression that the truth is more palatable than the perfidy in the press.
And it is the press which is principally the focus of the family's ire. The role of former colleagues who shunned John Stonehouse merit a chapter, but the visceral nature of condemnation based upon what is claimed are half-truths and outright lies which continue to this day are simply testimony, according to Sheila, to an inability of them to tell nothing but the truth. Easy headlines and bylines, including the telling of the tale that Stonehouse fled with his mistress to Australia, despite the overwhelming nature of evidence to the contrary, was the area in which I was most troubled.
When Private Eye
was mentioned as perhaps being an organ of disinformation, fed by the state, I began to doubt the whole damn thing. And then both columnist Auberon Waugh and founder Richard Ingrams admit it's possible and my objections lay down to the fact that the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth was beginning to finally obscure the lies.
The most troubling is the oft-repeated assertion as fact that Stonehouse was a spy. A committed anti-communist who as aviation minister was forced to deal with countries behind the Iron Curtain, the evidence is flimsy. Even those who are convinced he was a spy have no more evidence than that quoted by Sheila in her book. Much is conjecture and as for the absolute truth, there is an argument we shall never know it. Based upon material released after the fall of communism and Stonehouse's death from a heart attack in 1988, there is more supposition than evidence. It feels circumstantial and like a Freddie Forsyth penned thriller of its time than a politically believable tale.
At its best, both Stonehouses have presented a story which exposes the role played by people willing to listen to the sensational – us, the 'great' British public – as wrapped up and presented to us by them – the Fourth Estate, the press – and believe whatever we are fed without questioning it. The Stonehouse family legend could have been one long family expose told at the Christmas table for future generations, instead it tells a tale worth telling and Sheila brings a narrative flair which occasionally tends towards the angry but does so because there is reason to act so.
What emerges is a complex man who undoubtedly did so much good, but that has been lost in the story people wanted to hear. Perhaps that is the greatest tragedy of all, that in an attempt to raise the standards of public service, people engaged in lowering expectations because of a tale they perpetuated.
In her final page, Sheila, leaves us with an apposite warning: 'If anyone is suffering from the delusion that the internet brought fake news
into the world, I can tell them from personal experience, there's nothing new about fake news'.
Donald Stewart is a broadcaster, reviewer, educator and writer based in the West Coast of Scotland