“It would be an appalling injustice and a condemnation of our democratic society if Jeremy [Thorpe] were to resign merely because the party is embarrassed by allegations that were untrue….On the other hand, if there is a sound basis of truth in the allegations, Jeremy Thorpe owes it to the party, which he has led so well and so ably, not to lumber us with the stark choice between apparent disloyalty and engagement in a kind of cover-up.”—Emlyn Hooson, one of thirteen Liberal MPs, in a document circulated to the other twelve members of the party, February, 1976.
If you think that the machinations, the rumor-mongering, and the outright lies we have seen in the latest election cycle in the United States are as bad as it gets, take a look at journalist John Preston’s latest book of non-fiction about a scandal in England in the 1960s and 1970s. Subtitled “Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment,” Preston’s thoroughly researched and dramatically presented study of MP Jeremy Thorpe and his small coterie of friends and family, both in and out of government, gives new meaning to the idea of political egotism, at the same time that it illustrates a British sense of reserve and a respect for privacy that has now vanished from the press and our own twenty-first century lives. At a time in which there was no internet, no reality TV, and no desire to destroy lives in order to sell newspapers with stories based solely on rumor, Jeremy Thorpe’s crimes would not come to a head and result in a trial until nineteen years had elapsed from his first contact with Norman (Josiffe) Scott. Scott claims to have been a victim of rape by Thorpe when he was twenty, followed by several years of homosexual contact, both of which were against the law in the UK in 1960 when the relationship began. Scott had a nervous breakdown as a result of the attack.
During that time, Jeremy Thorpe would become the leader of the Liberal Party of Parliament and a respected politician, while Scott, whose National Insurance card was being held by Thorpe, was forced to look for work in Ireland, unable to get medical care for himself and his family. He and his family sometimes had to scrounge for vegetables left behind in the fields after harvest. Severely depressed, Scott was often unable to hold a job working as a horse trainer, and later working as a model. Thorpe, meanwhile, was enjoying his life as an MP, eventually marrying a wealthy woman and fathering a child, and he regarded Scott as a threat to his future. The death of his first wife in an accident, and his later marriage to an even more aristocratic wife added to his feeling that it could all end if Scott’s threats found sympathetic ears. Surrounding himself with a few friends who were willing to do almost anything for him, Thorpe began to think how much easier life would be if he did not have to worry about Scott.
One friend, a fellow MP, Peter Bessell, suggested that Thorpe’s retention of Scott’s health card might lead some to think Thorpe was blackmailing Scott, and Bessell began to pay Scott a few pounds a week to make up for the money he was unable to get for medical care. Scott, however, could not help but tell his story to others, though his accusations were not ever printed, at this early stage of the conflict. One person did describe Scott’s accusations to another MP, however, and the party did investigate in the early 1970s, ten years after Thorpe’s initial contact with Scott, but the party cleared Thorpe, leaving Scott even more frustrated. In the meantime, Thorpe was becoming powerful in Parliament and was eventually even being considered by some for the role of Prime Minister.
John Preston does a superb job of keeping all the various plot elements from becoming tangled and keeps the reader from becoming frustrated with the fairly large cast of characters. He provides essential information when it is needed, sometimes juggling the chronology in order to keep the action flowing and the pace from bogging down with long explanations of background. The characters, well depicted, are easy to imagine because of the photographs included in the middle of the book. The plethora of written material and letters between the various characters often provides the equivalence of dialogue. As years pass and Scott finds himself becoming more anxious to talk to anyone who will take him seriously, Thorpe finds himself panicking – his whole career could come to an end if Scott were to talk. Eventually, Thorpe does suggest to his stalwarts that Scott needed to go, and they take action on Thorpe’s behalf, sixteen years after the rape attack.
Though the grim comedy of errors which results from the attempted murder occurs at about the mid-point of the novel, it is by no means the climax. In 1975, thirteen years after Scott’s first contact with Jeremy Thorpe, Andrew Newton, Scott’s would-be assassin, goes on trial, and Scott finally gets his turn to talk in court. For the first time, the press begins to take interest. A year later, Newton’s release from prison generates more press interest, resulting, eventually, in trials being held for Jeremy Thorpe and his three henchmen. At this point Auberon Waugh, son of Evelyn Waugh, writes a story for his satirical column in Private Eye magazine, announcing that he plans to run against Jeremy Thorpe for Parliament and plans to make his appeal to the dog lovers throughout the district. (See information in the photo credits.) His column is one of the first to expose Jeremy Thorpe for the poseur that he has been and to involve the public in the long-overdue story of Thorpe and his treatment of Norman Scott and others. The trial is not concluded until mid-June, 1979, nineteen long years after Thorpe’s first contact with Norman Scott.
Author John Preston keeps the reader’s interest at peak as the contrasts between Thorpe’s time and culture, and present day times and culture, reveal the enormous differences between the treatment of the Thorpe scandal, its effects on his political party, and the results for the politicians involved, and life and political scandal as we see it today in the US. An element of civility and an institutionalized etiquette pervade much of the behavior of these English characters, both in politics and in the courts, leading to positive assumptions about the character of the accused, a danger at least as great for civilization in those times as the public assumption of guilt may be today.
ALSO by John Preston: THE DIG
Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://www.telegraph.co.uk/
Jeremy Thorpe, MP, head of the Liberal Party, at his desk. http://www.independent.co.uk
Norman (Josiffe) Scott, who endured nineteen years before getting a chance to testify against Jeremy Thorpe. http://www.bbc.com/news/
Auberon Waugh’s satiric commentary on the case may be found at this site: http://flashbak.com
ARC: Other Press