Preston, John. “A Very English Scandal”, Other Press, 2016.
The “Trial of the Century”
“A Very English Scandal” is a true crime account of the scandalous private life of Jeremy Thorpe, the British MP whose covert homosexual affair led to blackmail, cover ups, a hired hit man, and ended with what became known as the “Trial of the Century.”
Jeremy Thorpe was a Member of Parliament and Leader of the Liberal Party in the 1960s and 70s and his bad behavior snuck went undetected for years. Police and politicians alike colluded to protect one of their own. In 1970, Thorpe was the most popular and charismatic politician in the country and was prepared to hold the balance of power in a coalition government.
What many did not know was that Jeremy Thorpe was a man with a secret. His homosexual affairs and harassment of past partners, along with his propensity for lying and embezzlement, only escalated as he evaded punishment. Then there was a dark night on the moor with an ex-lover, a dog, and a hired gun that led to consequences that even his charm and power couldn’t help him escape.
When he went to court, his case became referred to as the “Trial of the Century,” since it was the first time at the Old Bailey in London that a leading British politician stood trial on a murder charge, and the first time that a murder plot had been hatched in the House of Commons. It also was the first time that a prominent public figure had been exposed as a philandering gay man in an era when homosexuality had only just become legal. This is a story of hypocrisy, deceit, and betrayal right at the heart of the British Establishment.
Of four men on trial for murder, one was Jeremy Thorpe, the retired head of Britain’s Liberal Party. Norman Scott and Jeremy Thorpe had had an affair some years earlier and Thorpe had promised to take care of Scott, but rather, took his National Insurance card and wouldn’t give it back. Scott found it difficult to find work without the card and while this does not make much sense, it nevertheless happened.
The Jeremy Thorpe scandal was juicy – the main characters were interesting and venality ran through the case from action to the eventual trial. Thorpe was a man who thought quite highly of himself and his position in Britain’s public life. However, it was in his private life that things got a bit messy. Jeremy would go in and out of the closet when he wanted. When he met Norman Scott, a young, sexy equestrian, he fell into desire. The two men had an off and on long affair. Thorpe would bring Scott back to him when the “off” periods went on too long. And this is where the National Insurance card came into play. For whatever reason, Thorpe kept the card, perhaps as a way of controlling Scott.
The other main player was another Liberal MP, Peter Bessell. Thorpe and Bessell were close friends, though Bessell was a womanizer. Jeremy Thorpe used Peter Bessell to get him out of problems, both in his public and private lives. Bessell was often charged with the care of Norman Scott, who for years, hung “around” wanting things, like his Insurance card. Both MPs also were involved in squeezing money from a Bahamian political donor to support the party and some other behind the scenes activities.
John Preston’s book is a fascinating look at the private lives led behind the public lives in Britain in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Norman Scott was a confused and weak-willed young man, a male model with no other marketable skills who was helpless in the face of authority. Peter Bessell was a lay preacher whose oratorical skills got him a seat in Parliament despite a continuing string of failed business ventures and a willingness to sleep with every attractive woman he meets. Jeremy Thorpe was a wealthy, self-indulgent aristocrat with the charisma and charm that carried him into a prominent role in Parliament despite his reckless habit of picking up young men for sex. All three men were incorrigible liars and when they came together, we had a scandal— a political scandal at the heart of the British Establishment.
Here is nonfiction, improbable though the story may seem. Thorpe faced off in court accused of conspiracy to murder and related crimes by the other two after having been one of the most prominent and popular politicians in Britain. He fantasized about reaching 10 Downing Street. But his downfall was spectacular which his own reprehensible behavior had long foretold.
Gay sex, lies and judicial misconduct come together in John Preston’s detailed book. It shares far more about the lives and crimes of the three men at the center of the story than any casual reader would ever want to read. He shares the horrific price gay men paid in Britain before homosexuality was decriminalized and he shares a jaw-dropping story of judicial misconduct at the heart of the English Establishment.
Preston gives us front row seats to the trial and he captures the homophobia of the age, the political machinations of the male-dominated Establishment, and the intricate web of lies and deceit, which became Thorpe’s lot in life. He also shows the oppressive nature of gender roles and heterosexist society during the fifties, sixties, and seventies in aristocratic England. Thorpe, by way of his ambition, narcissism and deception, left behind him a trail of broken lives in his wake, especially Norman Scott, who is persecuted relentlessly for his sexual “deviance” and his mental illness. Scott’s allegations were discredited everywhere. Found innocent of all charges, Thorpe still was vilified in the press and seen as a pariah to the Liberal cause. No one essentially accepted his innocence and, as such, his illustrious political career ended.
It is interesting thought that suffering from Parkinson’s disease in later life and attended to by his second wife Marion, Thorpe’s reputation enjoyed a resurgence before he died in 2014 at the age of 85. A later generation of party leaders praised his record as an internationalist, a supporter of human rights, and an opponent of racism. How quickly we forget!
Thorpe’s story is not an old one. It falls in line with American gay government scandals such as Larry Craig and James McGreevey to cite just two. In some ways the anger of this story has been forgotten by contemporary LGBT millennial readers who do not have to deal with blackmail, marriages of convenience, and criminal sodomy laws but we cannot allow ourselves to forget that homophobia caused deep and painful emotional wounds along with societal stigma that still remains to be documented by future historians and described by novelists. Preston has begun to do so sensitively and with scholarship.