Thursday, 5 May 2016

Jeremy Thorpe: A Very English Scandal by John Preston


published 2016



Jeremy Thorpe 2



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.



Jeremy thorpeNorman Scott


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.








14 comments:

  1. You know, I heard about this scandal, Moira, but hadn't read deeply into it. On the one hand, you can feel some sympathy because, as you say, this was not an accepting time for gays. On the other, of course, there's what many people think that Thorpe did. It sounds like a fascinating book that really explores what happened in an intelligent way. Going on my radar right now.

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    1. I think it tries to be fair-minded about the events, though the facts are astonishing, and it is all rather sad. And all that makes for fascinating reading.

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  2. Looking back today, it is extraordinary how the story of Thorpe's homosexuality kept getting covered up by the newspapers. With the internet it would be impossible for 'the media' to cover up something like that for long nowadays. It was only with the murder accusations that the whole thing finally burst out into the public domain.

    I've read a number of different takes on this particular scandal over the years, and I've always come to the same conclusion-Thorpe was an accident waiting to happen. That he was a deeply unpleasant man in many, many ways is beyond doubt, although Scott was, when all is said and done, a blackmailer. Liberal party funds seem to have been redirected more than once to pay hush money, and reading about it feels at time like walking around a sewer after the local populace has suffered from a particularly virulent dose of The Runs.

    There's no doubt that revelations about his sexuality would have put paid to his career, although the main part of the problem seems less to do with his homosexuality and more his basic nature. As Matthew Parris has pointed out, there are a great number of famous politicians who managed to cover up their homosexuality and lead successful careers. Thorpe believed that he was not bound by the same rules that bound everyone else. At school he was known as Oily Thorpe, whilst at University he was considered fundamentally dishonest by his contemporaries. Did he arrange to have Scott killed? I'll be honest...I'm still not sure. But I'm equally certain that he would have managed to crash his career into pieces somehow. He was that sort of man.

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    1. Yes I agree with your perceptions - Thorpe took ridiculous risks, given the times and the fact that revelations would have ruined him, he did choose the dangerous path. And sounds horrible. Scott sounds a mess, but I feel more sorry for him because he obviously had a very fragile personality and couldn't cope with aspects of life. Thorpe and his friends do not sound attractive, but there are moments when you do sympathize with them just for the horror of the moment when they thought Scott had been paid off, moved away, found a job - then up he pops again, more problems, back in town. Though there's an ongoing question of a missing NI card -you feel that if Thorpe had just sorted that out maybe a lot of the problems could have been avoided...

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  3. I recall the scandal very clearly, and felt then as I still do now: that Scott was an opportunist blackmailer and that Thorpe, whether or not he'd had an affair with Scott (who really cares?), was essentially an innocent party; even Private Eye couldn't gin up much of a convincing case against Thorpe.

    The big debate at the time wasn't whether Thorpe had hired a hitman to off Scott but if he'd hired said hitman to off Scott's dog. Both speculations seemed to me preposterous.

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    1. This book definitely believes the Scott tale, and although in the end it's he said/he said - well if Thorpe was innocent he left behind a lot of unanswered questions -eg about the money used to pay Newton. People would have cared about an affair back in those days, don't you think? He was very ambitious, and not very patient with anything that got in his way.
      It's a great topic to discuss, anyway, with our differing views - I wonder if there are any more unarguable facts still to be uncovered, or if it will always be speculation?

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  4. It's the dog I feel sorry for! I've got both Bloch's biography - which was absolutely rushed out after his death, at Christmas 2014, and Preston's. I'd rather like to read Closet Queens. I was oblivious to the scandal at the time - I was of an age more likely to be playing with Lego! In fact, I only really learnt of it a few years ago, whereas the Profumo scandal is one that runs and runs - perhaps it's the lack of glamour in this one? A sordid tale, no matter what you believe, and an example of how much being gay could ruin your life then. Thank God we've moved on! And thank you, Moira, for reminding me to read both books. As Thorpe was acquitted, I'm happy to accept the court's verdict. Intriguing post, indeed.

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    1. I enjoyed Closet Queens very much, and do recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.
      You may be right about lack of glamour - no Christine Keeler looking gorgeous on a chair! It's a sad and grim and quite squalid tale. Fascinating reading though...

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  5. I remember the scandal at the time, just (I was briefly int he UK then). I don;t want to come off as too much of a cynic but, with all due respect to the little pooch, compared with the blood on Thatcher's hands with the Belgrano and Orgreave, I really can't find this all that shocking and do wonder if books like this wouldn't keep coming were it not for the pernicious interest in Thorpe's sexual orientation? Also, bit confused by one comment - what was farcical about "Thorpe exercising his right not to give evidence"? On the face of it, probably very sensible of him ...

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    1. Of course it was his right to keep silent, and in law you are not supposed to draw conclusions from that - but it still seems to flat out suggest he was guilty. It didn't save him from anything, and he didn't explain away any of the damning facts.
      What I found shocking about the story was the establishment closing in to protect their own. Shocked, but not surprised. And I see it as one more of the stories that defined the era, along with those you mention...

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  6. Truly one of those cases of truth being stranger than fiction - or at least as strange. Yes, the element of cover-up is still shocking. Perhaps Thorpe was one of those people who are excited by risky behaviour while also believing that they will always somehow get away with it. Yes, I too see it as defining an era.

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    1. I'm interested in how varied the views above are on Thorpe - there's still a lot to discuss. At least it reminds me that some things have changed for the better.

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  7. Sounds like an interesting story about people I have never heard of. Reading about politicians is not my idea of a good time. I don't have a very good opinion of politicians in general, which I am sure is unfair of me.

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    1. No need to try to be fair about politicans Tracy! I really enjoyed this book, but tbh it's probably of limited interest to someone from another country...

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