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You call this a crisis? Six dramatic moments from British political history

Politics | Published:

A Government whose majority has evapo- rated, trying to deliver the outcome of a divisive referendum, having had its fingers rapped by the highest court in the land.

We live in unprecedented times – but this is far from the only occasion that the House of Commons has been the backdrop to drama and turmoil.

Here are six other great political crises to have swept Britain’s seat of power:

The Gunpowder Plot

Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators

Even by the exacting standards of political crises of current times, a Houses of Parliament cellar packed with gunpowder and somebody hanging around ready to put a match to it has to at least get a mention.

Guy Fawkes was a Catholic terrorist who with his fellow plotters wanted to blow the whole lot of them up, including the King, back in 1605. While some might sympathise with his frustration, this was a very wrong thing to have done. Mr Fawkes was caught red handed and the poor chap and his fellow conspirators were rounded up and met grisly ends.

We celebrate the success of The Establishment over the plotters on Bonfire Night on November 5. Traditionally effigies of Guy Fawkes are burned on bonfires, although that's all fake news because Guy Fawkes was not burned at the stake.

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What was in store for Guy Fawkes was being hung, drawn, and quartered. He escaped that fate by contriving to break his neck on the scaffold.

To avoid disappointing the spectators, they quartered his lifeless body anyway and his body parts were distributed around the kingdom as a warning to others.

Youngsters don't these days come round asking for a penny for the guy, but if they do, bear in mind that you are not supposed to be making a donation to his cause.

Divine Right

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King Charles I

The divisive Brexit imbroglio has drawn comparisons with the English Civil War, so here is a short summary of the causes of the English Civil War, to be followed by a Pythonesque precis of the complete works of Marcel Proust in under 40 words.

King Charles I thought he could rule by Divine Right. In other words, if you don't like how I rule, that's tough, I'm the King. It's just a God-given thing.

Parliament began to cut up rough about that, so Charles shut down Parliament and ruled without it for 11 years. And Boris only wanted to prorogue for a few extra days!

When Parliament did sit, it passed laws cutting back Charles' powers. Charles miffed. Tensions reached a crisis in January 1642 when the King marched into Parliament and demanded it hand over MPs who were his biggest critics. Tipped off, they weren't there.

"Since I see the birds have flown, I do expect from you that you shall send them unto me as soon as they return hither," he said. No chance.

After that, the nation got polarised. Sound familiar? People took sides. You were a Royalist, or a Parliamentarian. Put another way, a Cavalier, or a Roundhead – those nicknames were created at those times and were originally insults.

The King declared war on his own Parliament, and the nation was engulfed in bitter fighting. The Royalist forces were defeated in 1645 and Charles was beheaded for treason in 1649. The monarchy was abolished by that killjoy Cromwell, but was restored in 1660.

The precis of Proust will have to wait for another time.

Their Finest Hour

Sir Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill looked out of the window, uncharacteristically said nothing, and the world was saved.

He had been asked the trickiest of tricky questions in the history of trickiness.

"Can you see any reason, Winston, why in these days a peer should not be Prime Minister?"

It was May 1940. The Norway campaign masterminded by Churchill had been a disaster, although Parliament blamed Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who had suffered a fatal loss of support. A Nazi storm was about to break on the continent of Europe.

It was time for Chamberlain to step down, and a national government to be formed. But who should lead it?

The obvious choice was Lord Halifax. Many saw Churchill as a dangerous maverick. Halifax was Chamberlain's man, an appeaser, and under his leadership it is at least conceivable that when the Nazi hammerblows fell, after Dunkirk, and the Fall of France, that Britain would have made an accommodation with Hitler.

It was Churchill's most important job interview ever. And as the deadly question was put to him by Chamberlain, he was not going to fall into the trap.

He looked out of that window of Downing Street, and there was a long, long silence.

It was Halifax who blinked first.

A member of the House of Lords had never been a Prime Minister before, he imploded, before giving other reasons why he was not suitable.

With that, the course of history was changed. Churchill was in.

It should be remembered though that after a string of military defeats Churchill did face a vote of no confidence in 1942. One proposer accused him of meddling. But when another accused him of not meddling enough, the Commons lost interest and he won easily.

Plot, Lies, Cover-Up

Anthony Eden

While we think of the invasion of Iraq as a military and political adventure which was based on misleading the public, it arguably doesn't hold a candle to what happened during the Suez Crisis in 1956.

This was a plot at Prime Ministerial level to mislead and lie to both Parliament and the public about the truth behind Britain's military intervention to seize back the Suez Canal, which had been nationalised by Egyptian leader President Nasser in July that year.

Britain and France made a secret agreement with Israel. It went like this. Israel would invade, and then Britain and France would act all shocked, and send their own forces to "separate the combatants."

As it was all a secret, the Americans were kept out of the loop. They were furious, and so were the Russians. There was international condemnation.

Threatened with American sanctions, Britain and France were forced to withdraw in a disastrous blow to prestige which underlined the fact that there was now a new world order.

Prime Minister Anthony Eden attempted to cover up the conspiracy.

"I want to say this on the question of foreknowledge, and to say it quite bluntly to the House, that there was not foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt. There was not." This lie was his last address to Parliament.

He also ordered his civil servants to burn the damaging evidence.

Health and credibility shattered, he resigned on January 9, 1957.

Who Governs Britain?

Edward Heath

It's February 1974 and it's a cold winter, as it generally was in the days before people had heard of global warming.

In power is the Tory premier Ted Heath. Producing the power are working class men working underground in filthy and dangerous conditions.

They are called miners, they would like a pay rise, and have called an all-out strike. Ted gets all huffy about this. Who do they think they are?

Well, he's not going to have the country held to ransom. If he pays the miners, he might have to give everybody big pay rises, and then his attempts to restrain income and hold down inflation will have gone out of the window.

Mr Heath decides the answer is to go to the people and let them decide a fundamental issue. Who governs Britain?

The people turned out to be not sure. Ted got an equivocal answer. When the votes were counted, Mr Heath had not been decisively defeated. In fact, the Tories got more votes than Labour, but a handful fewer seats. It was the first hung Parliament since 1929.

As always for a desperate government in crisis, the answer was to grab the only rope available. Yes, Ted Heath tried to forge a coalition with the Liberals.

They held talks. But Ted must have been really bad because even they didn't want to join him in a coalition in which their reward would have been a hold on the reins of power.

After a few days Ted gave up and Labour's Harold Wilson formed a minority administration.

IMF

James Callaghan

Whatever you might think it stands for, it actually stands for International Monetary Fund.

In the middle of the 1970s Britain was engulfed by economic crisis. Inflation was rampant, running at one point over 25 per cent. Can you imagine that? People today don't they were born. The going rate for wage settlements was well over 20 per cent, with some knocking on the door of 30 per cent.

By 1976 Labour's wafer thin Parliamentary majority had been whittled away and new Prime Minister James Callaghan was heading a minority government.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was Denis Healey, a political bruiser, who ended one Treasury meeting by saying "Let me make sure that I have indeed insulted everyone around this table."

He was on his way to catch a plane at London airpot to attend a meeting of finance ministers. But there was a run on the pound, which was suffering heavy falls. He decided to turn round and apply to the IMF for a loan.

Britain was being bailed out. It was a national humiliation. At the time it was generally Third World countries which asked for IMF loans.

The price demanded by the IMF was large cuts in public spending, not exactly something a Labour administration wants to have to do.

Things were to improve on the economic front, and Callaghan formed a temporary Parliamentary pact with the Liberals which played its part in allowing his administration to survive until 1979, when things finally fell apart thanks to what was effectively a union rebellion against the attempts to restrain pay, leading to a wave of industrial action in the public sector and the famous winter of discontent.

This did not bring down the government. What did for the government politically was the issue of, surprise, surprise, devolution. Callaghan lost a vote of no confidence and Margaret Thatcher was swept to power.

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