For many years, the British government maintained a culture of secrecy. They were aided by a tame press often unwilling to embarrass the state by exposing major scandals.
As a result, British politicians had plenty of room to cook up crazy conspiracies. Although many of them went under the radar for years, these 10 finally got exposed.
In 1964, the Daily Mirror published a huge scoop linking prominent Conservative politician Lord Robert Boothby to gang lord Ronnie Kray, who ran the East End of London with his twin brother, Reggie. Boothby and Ronnie Kray were bisexual and had met via London’s underground gay scene.
Ronnie was soon organizing sex shows and supplying Boothby with rent boys in exchange for favors, including an invitation to tea in the private parliamentary tea rooms. When the Kray twins were arrested, Boothby actually made a formal protest in parliament.
Boothby had arrogantly assumed that nobody would dare expose his link to the Krays. (In fairness, he was also openly having an affair with the prime minister’s wife and the press politely covered it up for years.)
But the Mirror article should have been devastating, revealing the links between Britain’s most notorious gangster and one of its most powerful politicians. And it would have been had Boothby’s career not been saved by . . . the Labour Party?
It turned out that Labour MP and former party chairman Tom Driberg was also close to Ronnie Kray via the underground gay scene. Labour HQ decided that they couldn’t risk an investigation into Boothby in case it also brought attention to Driberg, whose personal life was a huge scandal waiting to happen. (He had once been blackmailed into becoming a Soviet spy after an unwise encounter in a Moscow men’s toilet.)
Labour leader Harold Wilson sent his personal fixer to organize Boothby’s defense and put pressure on the Labour-affiliated Mirror to apologize and pay huge damages. With both major parties apparently pulling strings on their behalf, Britain’s media became wary of even mentioning the Krays, who continued their reign of terror for several more years.
Back in 1952, the British military was quietly testing some very nasty biological weapons off an isolated Scottish island. One test involved releasing a cloud of weaponized bubonic plague and allowing the wind to carry it over a raft full of monkeys.
But in a farcical moment, a fishing trawler suddenly appeared over the horizon and steamed straight through the plague cloud before happily sailing off toward the mainland. The horrified military at once alerted the government, asking permission to stop the trawler, exterminate any rats on board, and quarantine the sailors under close medical observation.
But that would have risked exposing the tests. The government was terrified of that happening because “we brought back the Black Death” is not an election winner. So, in a moment of complete cowardice, they decided to just let the situation play out.
The trawler was secretly shadowed by the navy all the way back to Fleetwood, where the sailors disembarked to get drunk and “talk to a few friendly ladies.” The military continued to secretly monitor them for some time, with orders to prevent a subsequent fishing voyage from landing anywhere but Fleetwood.
They never docked anywhere else, and a plague outbreak never occurred. So the cover-up held up, although it’s not exactly reassuring that the government was willing to roll the dice on that one.
The Cambridge Five, the most notorious spies in British history, infiltrated the highest echelons of British society on behalf of the Soviets. After the first three members fled to Moscow to avoid arrest, frantic speculation surrounded the identity of the shadowy “fourth man,” who remained a mystery throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Which was all a little unnecessary since the government had caught him in 1964. He was none other than Sir Anthony Blunt, a renowned art historian who managed the Queen’s art collection. And not only did the government fail to prosecute him, they allowed him to continue as a top courtier until he was publicly exposed in 1979.
British intelligence had actually been trying to cover up the whole thing since the beginning, apparently out of sheer embarrassment at how well-connected they all were. (Kim Philby, the third man, had almost become head of MI6 before the ring collapsed.)
When the first two members fled, MI5 had their friends write and beg them not to cause any awkwardness by ever trying to come home. Top Foreign Office officials concluded that “to avoid embarrassment, the best course would be to let [Philby] slip away,” while diplomats were told not to say anything to the Americans to avoid causing “a sensation in the US.”
The fifth man, John Cairncross, wasn’t prosecuted at all because his brother was chief economist and the government didn’t want him revealed as “someone whose brother was a self-confessed communist spy.”
Blunt was exposed by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 after he foolishly tried to sue the author of a book that hinted at his identity. He was stripped of his knighthood and forced to retire from royal service in disgrace, which might have been more convincing had the Queen and half the upper class not known everything for 15 years beforehand.
After leading Britain through World War I, Prime Minister David Lloyd George seemed to be flying high. But behind the scenes, he was masterminding a massive scheme of selling honors and lordships to dodgy characters.
This netted hundreds of millions of pounds in today’s money. (You could become a baronet for the equivalent of £1.3 million.) The operation was run by his influential right-hand man Maundy Gregory.
A former theatrical agent and spy, Gregory was noted for his ludicrously flamboyant dress sense (including a monocle) as well as his utter ruthlessness. When he once ran short of cash, an elderly friend mysteriously dropped dead after writing a new will on the back of a menu, leaving her entire fortune to Gregory.
He immediately had her buried in a shallow grave on a riverbank with the coffin unsealed. By the time her family had her exhumed, the corpse was too soaked and rotten to test for foul play.
Enter Victor Grayson, a socialist who won election to parliament in a sensational upset at age 25. Grayson discovered the cash-for-honors plot and publicly declared that “this sale of honors is a national scandal. It can be traced right down from Downing Street to a monocled dandy with offices in Whitehall.”
Within days, he had vanished without a trace. A possible last sighting had him being rowed across the river to Gregory’s island home.
Gregory was eventually arrested for the scam. But he threatened to name names unless the government intervened to get him a light sentence and a lifetime pension. They did, and he retired to live peacefully in France.
In 1887, Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury wanted to discredit the Irish Republican Movement and particularly its parliamentary leader Charles Parnell. So he ordered his spies to orchestrate a plot to assassinate Queen Victoria by bombing her Golden Jubilee celebration.
A British double agent in New York recruited two Irish-Americans to carry out the plot. The plan was for their movements in England to be monitored in the hope that they would give away other militant Republicans and provide a link to Parnell. When the dastardly plot to kill the beloved queen was foiled by the government, it would help discredit the Irish movement.
The bungling assassins actually arrived in England too late for the Jubilee. There’s some indication that this caused the British to briefly lose track of them—one spy chief nervously prevented his children from attending the celebrations.
However, the rest of the plot went without a hitch. The would-be bombers were arrested along with several people they had visited. Parnell wasn’t linked. But he spent the next few years dealing with forged letters attempting to implicate him in the earlier fatal stabbing of the British Chief Secretary for Ireland.
In 1953, the RAF asked for servicemen to take part in a test, supposedly to find a cure for the common cold. That was a lie—they really wanted to test the effects of nerve gas.
RAF engineer Ronald Maddison volunteered and was dosed with 200 milligrams of sarin nerve gas, only to immediately die in agony. His death was covered up, and his grieving family was told that they would be prosecuted and imprisoned if they ever told anyone he had participated in the test. The true story didn’t fully emerge until the 2000s.
This was only one of a number of chemical weapon tests carried out by the RAF, some of which involved dumping zinc cadmium sulfide over populated areas. (The chemical was then believed to be harmless but is now a suspected carcinogen.)
After World War II, many Holocaust survivors dreamed of migrating to Israel. There was a slight problem, though, in that Israel didn’t actually exist yet. What did exist was the British colony of Mandatory Palestine, and the British were determined to prevent any more Jewish immigration there.
Unsatisfied with Britain’s preferred option (live in refugee camps for the foreseeable future), many Holocaust survivors became illegal immigrants. And that’s when the bombings started.
Determined to stop the flow of refugees from Europe, Britain’s MI6 set up a fake terrorist group called “Defenders Of Arab Palestine” and started blowing up the ships with limpet mines. In 1947, the “Defenders” bombed five ships in Italian ports. They made sure all the ships were empty, but MI6 wanted to escalate things to stop the SS Exodus, which was leaving from France.
For political reasons, Britain was nervous about blowing up a ship in France, so MI6 suggested using a time bomb set to detonate three or four days after it was planted. This would mean that they would have no idea whether anyone was on the ship when the bomb went off.
Fortunately, the British government took a less violent approach. Instead, they just had the navy storm the Exodus, killing three passengers (one of whom was beaten to death). The remaining passengers were sailed to Germany. There, they were forced off the ship and thrown into guarded camps, which definitely wouldn’t have been traumatic for Holocaust survivors.
In 1924, Ramsay MacDonald became the first Labour prime minister of Britain and proposed a thaw in relations with the Soviet Union. This caused the British establishment to openly scheme for his removal. The opposition was so intense that MacDonald was forced to call an election later that year.
Four days before the election, the Daily Mail published an intercepted letter from Soviet official Grigory Zinoviev, which can basically be summed up as “that fool MacDonald has played into our hands, soon we will overthrow the British state.”
The letter was a forgery obtained by MI6 in unclear circumstances. Despite knowing it was fake, MI6 distributed it widely and vouched for its authenticity. It was then leaked to the Mail and caused a sensation. The Conservatives won in a landslide. Exactly how much the letter contributed to that remains in dispute, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
In 1956, Britain was scheming to regain control of the Suez Canal, which the Egyptians had recently nationalized. As an alternative to invasion, the British military drew up a plan to cut off the River Nile before it entered Egypt, devastating the country.
The plans called for a huge dam to be built in Uganda. This would cut off 87.5 percent of the water in the world’s longest river until the Egyptians agreed to give the canal back.
The plan was seriously considered by the British cabinet. But it was eventually abandoned because it would take too long and do significant harm to Uganda—not to mention all the other countries the Nile goes through before it gets to Egypt. They kept the idea around as a propaganda tool for use against Egyptian peasants, who apparently weren’t particularly intimidated.
As the British Empire came to an end in the ’50s and ’60s, the British government launched Operation Legacy, a massive secret worldwide program to destroy any evidence that would cast the empire in a bad light. The instructions sent out from London ordered a complete purge of any documents that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government.”
There was to be a specific focus on documents “indicating racial prejudice or religious bias on the part of Her Majesty’s government.” Those same orders specified that the purge was to be carried out by “British officers of European descent only,” although some lesser documents could be destroyed by officials from “Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or Canada.” Nonwhite people were not allowed to witness anything to do with Operation Legacy.
We don’t know exactly what was in these documents, but the British government wanted them erased from the planet. The orders demanded that they be “reduced to ash and the ashes broken up.”
They could also be hurled into the sea so long as they were “packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast.” Fake documents were created to replace them where possible, but the important thing was for them to vanish.
This was a huge operation: Five truckloads of documents were dumped into the naval incinerator in Singapore in August 1957 alone. Less sensitive documents were sent to the UK and kept behind barbed wire fences in a secret facility. The existence of these documents was only exposed in 2012. Historians are in the process of working through them.