NEWS
12/12/2018 13:23 GMT | Updated 17/01/2019 09:10 GMT

No, This Isn't The Most Messed Up British Politics Has Ever Been – But It Is Close

Good luck, everyone.

A looming Brexit deadline, a prime minister facing a vote of no confidence, and a European continent largely looking on in disbelief – British politics is... interesting to say the least. 

As the country grapples with the best way to proceed and reports of Britons stockpiling food increased, David Cameron popped up on the BBC to say he “doesn’t regret calling the referendum”.

Which prompted more than a few colourful replies...

But are things really as catastrophic as they seem? Or has parliament faced far worse chaos?

Well, disregarding the obvious cases where other countries have tried to invade us, the answer is yes: British politics has descended into farce, murder and near-total annihilation before – and we’ve survived the fallout. 

Just have a look at these examples from our rather drama-filled history.

The Duels

If you think a vote of no confidence – when a PM’s ability to lead is voted on by their own MPs – is rough, spare a thought for the Duke of Wellington and George Canning, both of whom fought actual duels during their terms leading the country.

Wellington (Tory, 1828-30) was an advocate of Catholic emancipation, using the issue to seek an end to tensions arising from the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland in 1801.

At the time, Catholics were not allowed to become MPs, and his efforts to address this issue brought the Duke into conflict with the 10th Earl of Winchilsea, who accused him of plotting the downfall of the “Protestant constitution”.

To resolve the dispute they agreed to a duel – before which the Earl apologised and backed down. But the agreement had to be honoured and both men fired – deliberately high and wide – at each other on Battersea Fields.

Culture Club via Getty Images
Duke of Wellington's duel with George Finch-Hatton.

Canning (Tory, 1827), on the other hand, was shot in the thigh during a duel with his political rival Lord Castlereagh in 1809.

Neither men had good fortune afterwards, with Canning dying of pneumonia only 119 days after taking office and Castlereagh killing himself with a penknife after becoming depressed with his floundering political clout.

An Assassination 

Despite being by all accounts a thoroughly decent chap and politician, the thing Spencer Perceval (Tory, 1809-12) is remembered for is being the only sitting PM to be assassinated.

Author David Hanrahan, in his book The Assassination of the Prime Minister, writes:

At 5.00 pm on Monday, 11 May 1812, John Bellingham made his way to the Houses of Parliament carrying concealed weapons. At 5.15 pm, as the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon. Spencer Perceval, was making his way across the lobby leading to the House of Commons, Bellingham shot him dead at point-blank range. Bellingham was immediately arrested and put on trial two days later: refusing to plead insanity, he was convicted and hanged before the week was out.

The Independent
Spencer Perceval: The political assassination the world forgot.

Other Votes Of ‘No Confidence’

We’ve been here before – and not even that long ago. The last time a PM lost a vote of no confidence was in 1979, when James Callaghan (Labour, 1976-79) was forced out of government and eventually replaced by the Tories, led by Margaret Thatcher (Tory, 1979-90).

But the really interesting thing is Thatcher in turn was forced out after winning a leadership challenge.

The Tory party rules were different in 1989, so while not technically a vote of no confidence like today’s, Thatcher was challenged for the leadership while in office by backbencher Sir Anthony Meyer. She won by 314-33, but it was a sign of things to come.

A year later Michael Heseltine launched a leadership challenge, prompted by disagreements over Europe. Sound familiar?

Thatcher won the first round 204-152 and was prepared to fight on, but was persuaded to step down by her cabinet.

She left Downing Street in tears on 28 November. 

Sean Dempsey - PA Images via Getty Images
Margaret Thatcher, watched by husband Denis, makes her final speech outside 10 Downing Street.

The Threat Of Nuclear Annihilation

In 1956, the UK invaded Egypt with its allies France and Israel, in a cynical attempt to take back control of the lucrative Suez Canal.

The decision was taken by PM Sir Anthony Eden (Tory, 1955-57) and led to swift condemnation by pretty much the entire world.

Complicating matters somewhat was the fact Egypt was an ally of the Soviet Union, and this was during the Cold War.

AP
Soldiers of the 1st Battalion the Royal Scots march into Port Said, Egypt, on 16 November, 1956, after landing as replacement troops.

And the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons, which it duly threatened to use.

Britain, still smarting from the loss of its superpower status after the Second World War, was forced into a humiliating defeat – and Eden resigned not long after.

The ‘Winter Of Discontent’

Brexit has prompted fears of food and medicine shortages, civil disobedience and general all-round chaos – but just 40 years ago this was more or less a reality.

In an attempt to curb spiralling inflation, James Callaghan’s Labour government tried to impose pay rise limits, sparking mass strike actions across the country.

Streets became clogged with rubbish and a gravedigger strike in Liverpool even meant bodies were going unburied.

PA Archive/PA Images
Two Dutch tourists take a photograph in London's Leicester square, where rubbish piled up during the Winter of Discontent.

The crisis led to the downfall of Callaghan’s government and, as noted above, Margaret Thatcher took power.

So, what can be learned from all this? Well, Britain was weathered a lot in the past and come through relatively okay, but who knows what could happen in the next few days.

Good luck, everyone.