Nobody does political scandals quite like the English. I live in Spain and we’ve had our share over the last few years, but for sheer entertainment value it’s hard to compete with the Profumo Affair, Labour MP John Stonehouse’s faked suicide, Jeffrey Archer and the prostitute, Jonathan Aitken and the Paris Ritz Hotel bill allegations, and David Cameron’s notorious university initiation ceremony involving inserting a private part of his anatomy into the mouth of a dead pig. It is such a competitive field, but I still feel pride of place goes to the downfall of the charismatic leader of the Liberal party.
The story was told in a 2016 book called A Very English Scandal by John Preston. Curiously, in Wikipedia it is called it a true crime non-fiction novel. But no it is a work of non-fiction. Nevertheless, it turns out to be a real page turner with an amazing cast of characters. It was recently adapted into a three-part drama series by the BBC, which I can thoroughly recommend. Jeremy Thorpe was an MP by 30, and just seven years later he became one of Britain’s youngest ever party leaders. he was a brilliant politician, who had an eccentric fashion sense and according to Preston, “favoured a cashmere overcoat with a velvet collar and, rather more eccentrically, a brown bowler hat.” There was his lover, Norman Scott, who was mentally unstable and had a tendency to blame everyone but himself for his problems. There was Peter Bessell a fellow Liberal MP and a failed businessman, who took money from party funds to hire a hitman. The professional killer, Andrew Newton was known to his friends as chicken brain.
After a chance meeting in a friend’s stable in 1960, Thorpe commenced a sexual relationship with a young man who was then called Norman Josiffe. He subsequently changed his surname to Scott, which was how he was known when he became famous. At the time homosexuality was still against the law. Once the affair was over Thorpe saw Scott as a blackmailer who could wreck his political career. The higher he climbed on the political ladder, the greater was the threat to his ambition from Scott.
After the break-up Scott found employment here and there, but he never really stuck at anything. He had a disastrous and brief marriage, and fathered a son who he was barely allowed to see. He often lived in poverty, and went through periods of severe mental illness that led to a suicide attempt. Given his financial difficulties, he would look to Thorpe, the man he blamed for everything that had gone wrong in his life. He was particularly obsessed with his National Insurance card, which he needed to get a job or benefits. Thorpe would wash his hands of his erstwhile lover and he would leave it all to Peter Bessell. By 1974 Thorpe was on the verge of joining a coalition with the Conservative leader Ted Heath, where he might have headed the home or Foreign Offices. That did no happen. Norman Scott would not go away. There were compromising letters and journalists sniffing around. Something would have to be done. Thorpe wanted to have Scott killed.
This is where it all descends into farce. Andrew “Gino” Newton, the man Thorpe’s men chose for the job, was so incompetent that he went to look for Scott in Dunstable instead of Barnstaple. The former town is in Bedfordshire, where Newton would spend a couple of days before he was told he was in the wrong place. He then had to drive 230 miles to the north Devon town, where he finally found Scott. He persuaded him that he had been hired by an anonymous benefactor to protect him from a hired hitman
He too him in his car out to Exmoor First he shot Scott’s Great Dane. He was then going to shoot his intended victim, but his gun jammed and Scott was able to get away. Newton had to speed off and Scott was able to hail down an approaching car. The first thing he said to the driver was that it was Jeremy Thorpe who was behind it all. The shooting of Rinka the Great Dane on October 23 1975 at a wet and windy lay-by on Exmoor had the opposite effect to what was intended. A scandal that may well have gone away would now wreck the career of Jeremy Thorpe. He would subsequently be arrested and would appear in court.
The trial began on the 8th May 1979, just five days after the election that saw Margaret Thatcher swept to power. Incredibly, Thorpe had stood in his own North Devon constituency, where he was defeated by the Conservative candidate. Another of those standing was the satirist Auberon Waugh who campaigned against Thorpe representing the Dog Lovers’ Party. In an election address declared: “Rinka is not forgotten. Rinka lives. Woof, woof.”
There were four defendants, but only Thorpe faced two charges. Thorpe hired a superstar lawyer, George Carman. He did a brilliant job of discrediting the three star witnesses – Bessell, Scott and Newton- as hypocritical, untrustworthy and amoral liars. Well it is true that they were not perhaps the most credible of witnesses to start with. His other stroke of genius was to persuade Thorpe not to testify. That could have been a real disaster.
The star of the show was the judge, the Honourable Sir Joseph Donaldson Cantley. His fair and ballanced summing-up has entered the annals of legal history:
“It is right for you to pause and consider whether it is likely that such persons would do the things these persons are said to have done. While the accused were of “hitherto unblemished reputation,” Bessell was a “humbug” and Newton a “chump”. As for Scott, he was “a hysterical, warped personality, accomplished sponger and very skilful at exciting and exploiting sympathy… he is a crook. He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite. But of course he could still be telling the truth… you must not think that because I am not concealing my opinion of Mr Scott I am suggesting that you should not believe him. That is not for me. I am not expressing any opinion.”
This summing up was brilliantly satirised by Peter Cook in his Entirely A Matter For You sketch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kyos-M48B8U
After deliberating for 52 hours, the jury unanimously acquitted all four men on all charges. The previously impassive Thorpe broke into a broad smile, tossed the three red cushions on which he had been reclining out of the dock, then leaned over and kissed his wife. ‘Darling, we won!’ he exclaimed to her, while he congratulated his old Oxford chum Carman with the words: ‘Well rowed, Balliol!’
Despite his acquittal, Thorpe’s reputation never recovered and he faded into obscurity. Had all this not happened, Thorpe would now be remembered as one of the most of the great politicians of his era. In an interview not long before his death in December 2014, he remarked: “If it happened now, the public would be kinder.” He is surely right about attitudes to homosexuality – the past was another country. Yet it is amazing that the Rt Hon Jeremy Thorpe seemed blithely unaware that murdering someone might actually be wrong. In 2014 Michael Bloch published biography of Thorpe, which had had to wait until after his death. He said that Thorpe was a man with a massive sense of entitlement, who thought who thought the rules were for little people. He also had a penchant for illicit sex and got a thrill from being able to escape the consequences; he had a Houdini complex. In the end though, Scott would be his nemesis.