Sunday, 11 February 2018

Now I'm really looking forward to the BBC three-part Jeremy Thorpe miniseries, "A Very English Scandal"

Three nights ago, I downloaded John Preston's enthralling (and very funny) account of Liberal politician Jeremy Thorpe's disastrous relationship with the male model Norman Scott (née Josiffe),  A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment. I finished it last night. I'm not sure why I hadn't already read it, because - apart from the Watergate hearings - the Thorpe trial in 1979 was the most exciting political legal events of the '70s. Thorpe - quite ludicrously - got off, because the Establishment basically engineered the outcome of the trial (yes, I know that sounds a bit nutty, but it did): the jury found him  and his seedy co-defendants not guilty, but just about everybody else knew that the saturnine spiv was as guilty as sin...

I suspect the first time I heard about the scandal was in December 1975, when Auberon Waugh referred to it (somewhat obliquely, for obvious reasons) in his Private Eye column:
"West Somerset is buzzing with rumours of a most unsavoury description... Mr Norman Scott... who claims to have been a great friend of Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal statesman, was found by an AA patrolman weeping beside the body of Rinka, his Great Dane bitch, which had been shot in the head... My only hope is that sorrow over his friend's dog will not cause Mr Thorpe's premature retirement from public life."
Miaow! At the time, I imagined Waugh was only implying that Thorpe and Scott were lovers (although, as Thorpe was such an obvious bounder, it wouldn't particularly have surprised me to learn that he'd been having sex with the dog). But little did I know that behind Waugh's waspish barbs lurked a full-blown murder plot, fomented by the leader of one of Britain's three main political parties. When claims that Rinka had been killed by a hit-man hired by friends of Thorpe to murder Norman Scott, I refused to believe it -  I was still even having problems accepting that such a high profile politician as Thorpe would have risked his whole career by buggering a vulnerable young man in the room next to that in which his (Thorpe's) mother lay sleeping. But as soon as Thorpe's "Bunnies can (and will) go to France" letter to Norman Scott surfaced, there could not longer be any doubt that Thorpe had had sex with a much younger man (besides, Norman Scott's account of that initial encounter - Thorpe creeping into his room carrying a folded towel and a tube of vaseline, and having to bite his pillow because of the pain - just rang true); and if Thorpe was reckless enough to commit such an act within a few feet of his formidable, sharp-witted mother, and then to write a letter to his victim couched in the sort of terms a heterosexual man might use when addressing his six-year old daughter - well, why shouldn't we believe him capable of hatching a murder plot to cover up his sordid deeds?
Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe and Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott
The other aspects of the case that made it seem unlikely that Thorpe was innocent was the sheer cackhanded, goofy amateurishness of the murder plot itself - surely only a fantasy-prone, panicking politician and his inept cohorts could have ended up paying a half-witted airline pilot (Andrew Newton was known as "chickenbrains" by his friends) with no criminal track record to assassinate anyone. Then there was Peter Bessell, an almost comically inept businessman and serial philanderer, who had fallen under Thorpe's malign, sociopathic spell when they were both Liberal MPs in the '60s, who was tasked with dealing with Norman Scott whenever the little silly lost yet another job or ran out of money yet again, and who ended up participating - along with Thorpe himself - in defrauding a major party donor. For all his faults, and despite the fact that the final shreds of whatever remained of his reputation were remorselessly destroyed in court by Thorpe's barrister, Bessell's account of being pressured by Thorpe many times over many years to murder Scott and make the body disappear also just somehow rang true. Bessell came over as a broken man with nothing left to lose, finally telling the truth.

By any standard's, Thorpe's trial was an utter farce. The judge's grotesquely biased summing up resulted in the greatest satirical sketch I've ever seen:

Presumably as a reward for his support in "handling" his tormentor, Thorpe promised Peter Bessell a peerage. But, when the opportunity to confer one presented itself, in the wake of the 1970 general election (a disaster for the helicopter-hopping Liberal leader, whose personality-based campaign managed to halve the number of Liberal MPs to 6), Thorpe instead offered the peerage to an obscure Scottish Liberal because - as he explained to Bessell - the man had promised to donate £25,000 to the party (yes - cash for peerages: a criminal offence, and a great Liberal tradition). Thorpe decided to spend some of that money on a party political broadcast, in which he appeared in front of an invited audience, hosted by...Jimmy Savile! Yes, indeed, the most prolific paedophile sex abuser in British history. During the 1974 election campaign, one of the two Liberal PPBs was fronted by the MP Cyril Smith, about whom, we learned after his death, 144 complaints of sexual abuse had been received from children as young as eight. Smith's PPB featured a number of celebrity endorsements, including a telegram from Jimmy Savile.  Two of the worst sex offenders of all time, and a serial criminal (cash for peerages, using party donations to create a slush fund to be spent on hiring an assassin - and conspiracy to murder). And not one of them brought to justice. Lib-Dems must be so proud of their history.

The only satisfying outcome of Thorpe's bizarre acquittal was the fact that he was effectively barred from any further participation in public life - Amnesty International offered him a job, but that offer was swiftly withdrawn following a barrage of criticism. A form of justice, I suppose - as is the fact that only one of the principal players in the affair is still alive, and it happens to be Norman Scott.

No comments:

Post a comment