Something else had become apparent about Jeremy Thorpe, something that would stand him in great stead in later life: he had a magnetic personality. To be in his company was to be with someone who crackled with energy, yet at the same time exuded an air of unhurried ease. It was a beguiling combination. Above all, Thorpe was terrific fun. Even when he was trying to be serious a gleam of amusement was never far from his eye.
Not everyone was smitten – there were those who found him slippery and arrogant. But, whatever you thought of Thorpe, he was difficult to ignore. At Oxford, he deliberately dressed in a way that would attract as much attention as possible, wearing brocaded waistcoats and carrying a silver-topped cane. Yet, beneath his popinjay trappings, Thorpe didn’t lack political principle. He could easily have opted to follow his parents’ example and joined the Conservative Party. Instead he plumped for the Liberals – motivated partly by ideology, partly by a wildly romantic notion that he was destined to lead the party back to power and partly by a desire to move out from under his mother’s shadow.
commentary: Jeremy Thorpe did indeed seem a charming, handsome, charismatic man as a political leader in the 1960s and 70s. The kind of person of whom your older relations might say ‘well I like that Jeremy Thorpe – he seems a nice man, even if I wouldn’t vote for him.’ As this book makes clear, he was not a nice man – even allowing for most politicians putting their best face outward. Thorpe was a nasty piece of work and, although Preston does not suggest this in his book, to me he sounds like someone with some serious personality or mental health issues.
The subtitle of the book (which is published today) is Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment – and this is no word of exaggeration. The Jeremy Thorpe/Norman Scott scandal was one of the strangest stories of the 1970s – strange then, strange now. Jeremy Thorpe, leader of the Liberals, one of the three main political parties in the UK, was charged with trying to arrange the murder of a former homosexual lover. Although acquitted, his career was over. And it is probably fair to say that not many people believe he was innocent – he was a less successful OJ Simpson. Thorpe died in December 2014, while Norman Scott is still alive: his comment was ‘What can I say about someone who tried to kill me?
Michael Bloch wrote a biography of Thorpe, published after his death, and has also produced an absolutely riveting book called Closet Queens about gay politicians over the years, inspired by his researches into Thorpe. Now John Preston’s book takes another look at the scandal, and is equally riveting. He tells the story from the point of view of Scott, and the unlucky Peter Bessell – Thorpe’s go-between, and someone else whose life was ruined by the scandal.
There are two different elements here: In a difficult and unfair age, Thorpe knew that his career would be ruined by revelations of a gay affair. That’s something we would now see as self-evidently wrong. But Thorpe, because of his fears, chose to treat badly his former lover – a person with a fragile personality and huge problems and issues of his own – and ultimately tried to kill him. He was helped in all this by an Establishment that looked after its own: the story kept re-appearing down the years, and the message kept going out: don’t touch it with a bargepole. Scott is a fantasist, and unreliable, Thorpe is one of us, we have a gentleman’s agreement etc etc.
Thorpe was surrounded by an entourage of louche characters who enabled his misdeeds, hero-worshipped him, and went to the wall for him. One of the least attractive aspects of Thorpe is the way he ditched them all, with no hint of loyalty, and was more than happy for them to carry the can for his misdeeds. The court case sounds like a farce, from the choice of judge – whose summing-up is a by-word for prejudice – to the accusations made against the prosecution witnesses, to Thorpe exercising his right not to give evidence, to the big questions(eg about money) that were never asked.
The whole story is just horrible, and makes you feel dirty – but it is also compulsive reading, and Preston tells it exceptionally well. Anyone who remembers that time, or thinks that political and public affairs used to be ‘cleaner’ in the past, or who pours scorn on modern morals and PC-ness, would do well to read this book. It is really truly shocking – and if the plot were to be made into one of those fictional political thrillers, we would all dismiss it as highly unlikely. If only.
Top picture is a newspaper front page from the time of the court case. Below - a picture, from Wikimedia Commons, showing a Remembrance Day ceremony in the early 1970s - Jeremy Thorpe representing the Liberals with Harold Wilson for Labour and Edward Heath of the Conservatives. And a photo of Norman Scott.