Few of our political scandals have had such a rich mixture of seediness and glamour, grubbiness and excitement, as the Jeremy Thorpe affair. His journey from the Liberal Party leadership to the dock of the Old Bailey was melodramatic, yet its tragic elements were shot through with farce. Remembering it now is to return to a time when incredulity infected all of politics.
Watching Hugh Grant’s portrayal of Thorpe in A Very English Scandal, his eyes flashing with mischief and chutzpah, is to relive events that, even now, seem so bizarre as to have the quality of a daydream. The shooting of a dog, the blundering hitman, the dodgy cast of characters who might have sprung from some English rewrite of Damon Runyon, all bent on saving a dandy politician from the scandal of a gay affair. And then, to crown it all, a court case unlike any we’d ever seen.
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Tabloid language is appropriate for that trial. The verdict was a sensation. At the BBC, for example, television and radio editors had to junk recorded material – including interviews with some of those closely involved – that had been prepared for broadcast in anticipation of a different outcome. Now some of it can be seen. Immediately after the last episode of A Very English Scandal is screened on Sunday, BBC4 will show a documentary – The Jeremy Thorpe Scandal – in which the veteran reporter Tom Mangold will reveal some of the background story that couldn’t be broadcast after the jury returned with their verdict, for the simple reason that it pointed to a dramatically different conclusion.
Mangold tells the story of a man he encountered in a London park who, recognising him as a reporter who knew a lot about Thorpe, had a story to tell. “He was called Dennis Meighan. We went to a slightly sleazy cafe in Shepherd’s Bush, the Ritz, and there he told me that he was the first person hired to kill Norman Scott, for which he’d be paid £13,500 [more than £100,000 today].
The story that follows, in Mangold’s view, is one of a rigorous cover-up, reaching the top of the Metropolitan Police and beyond. Meighan was effectively promised no trouble if he stayed silent. Mangold goes as far as to say that he believes the conspiracy to conceal was at least as bad as the conspiracy to kill – from the moment, years earlier, when the Scotland Yard file on Thorpe (“and his voracious sexual appetite, particularly for rough trade”) was taken from the central registry and locked away in an assistant commissioner’s safe.
For Mangold, the story still shimmers with excitement, four decades on, and everyone who was there can remember its moments of high drama. The scene outside Minehead Magistrates’ Court in Somerset, in late 1978, for example, after an application was granted to lift the usual reporting restrictions on committal proceedings, which meant that Norman Scott’s story would be heard in public for the first time. All Fleet Street was there, the more junior among us – at the time I was a young reporter for The Scotsman – sleeping out all night to be sure of getting a seat in the tiny courtroom.
Over the next few days the prosecution painted the picture of a lurid plot – denied absolutely by Thorpe and his co-defendants – in which a string of bizarre characters told their stories. Scott himself spoke of being able to identify his alleged lover by nodules under his armpits (reducing Thorpe to fits of laughter in court). And then there was the nightclub owner from south Wales, George Deakin, who was said to have helped in the plot and made a splash by wearing a different coloured suit for each day of the hearing. Salmon pink one day, lavender the next, then yellow…
That was the beginning of the endgame, but the story had already been running for years, forcing Thorpe’s reluctant resignation as leader in 1976 and convulsing his party, which had received six million votes in the election of February 1974 and with whom the desperate prime minister, Ted Heath, had tried for several days to engineer a coalition agreement.
The two years between Thorpe’s resignation and his arrest turned him from a glamorous and witty political showman – once conducting an entire election campaign by hovercraft, and always ready with elegant and cheeky repartee – into a sallow, haunted figure.
Richard Ingrams was editor of Private Eye at the time and, looking back, finds it surprising that the magazine didn’t get hold of the story earlier. But when it did, in 1975, it was a rollercoaster.
“I remember vividly getting through the post – shortly after the murder of Rinka, the dog – an account by Norman Scott of his seduction by Thorpe, over several pages, in great detail. It was utterly convincing. I believed every word. And so it began. The Profumo-type lie by Thorpe, and the inevitable resignation that he struggled for so long to avoid.”
A struggle indeed – aided by high-profile friends who wanted to help. Harold Wilson, by then the Labour prime minister, famously implied in the House of Commons that Thorpe might be the target of a South African plot to destroy him because of his long, passionate opposition to apartheid.
But the story wouldn’t go away. And Ingrams recalls how Thorpe responded. “He threatened criminal libel – the big stick. A tricky time.”
The trouble for Thorpe was the growing circle of people in his party who found Scott’s story convincing, even those who had not known of Thorpe’s sexual preferences – homosexual activity between consenting adults had only been (partially) decriminalised in 1967, after all. That side of his life – acknowledged obliquely for the first time by his barrister, George Carman QC, in cross-examination of Scott at the Old Bailey – had not been widely known.
Even the editor of Private Eye had been oblivious. “I had no idea that he was gay,” says Ingrams. “I do remember doing a TV chat show with Ned Sherrin alongside Thorpe as a guest, and I suppose I got some sort of hint, because there was something in that encounter.” Sherrin was flamboyantly gay, and it was clear that Thorpe felt that in safe circles he could reveal more of himself.
“He was personally anxious not to be known as gay,” Ingrams says. “Not, I think, because of any legal worry, but as a matter of pride.” The times were still unforgiving of such revelations. But after the police began to take a serious interest in the shooting of Rinka – said to be the warning to Scott that he would be next if he didn’t shut up – the whispers couldn’ t be silenced. Eventually they led to the conclusion that a plot had been hatched, with the help of the notoriously unreliable Liberal MP Peter Bessell, who was eventually brought down by his financial dealings.
Ingrams remembers investigative journalist Paul Foot, who had been writing on the case for Private Eye, telling him that there was going to be an arrest.
“Footy came to me and said that Thorpe was about to be arrested on a charge of murder or something like it, and we should print. Even then, I could hardly believe it. But I knew that he had sources, and I trusted him, so we printed it. And fortunately the Knacker of the Yard did indeed pick him up. Just as well.”
One of the many pleasures of Russell T Davies’s dramatisation [of John Preston’s book A Very English Scandal] is the looming inevitability of that moment; from Thorpe’s first efforts to pay Scott off (through Bessell), to the battle with his parliamentary colleagues and his resignation, which left him vulnerable and on the road to the Old Bailey.
Hugh Grant captures Thorpe’s appetite for sexual danger, and his iron self-belief. Those of us who watched him in that little magistrates’ court in Minehead, laughing at Scott’s story in the witness box and waving his gold-rimmed glasses as if to dismiss him, won’t forget the scene. It was illuminated by the formidable presence of his mother, Ursula, listening to every word and never flinching. Ben Whishaw is perfect as Norman Scott, and the electric charge between the men rekindles the melodrama of those far-off days.
It is hard to relocate a 1970s scandal to our own time. While revelations about secret homosexual relationships are still exposed by the press, a gay tryst today would surely be unlikely to give rise to a murder plot.
But could a political figure like Thorpe survive for so long in the midst of such a storm? Probably not. Any party would cut its losses. Departures are just quicker now; ruthlessness more prized.
But as Grant’s memorable portrayal suggests, Thorpe was no run-of-the-mill political figure. He was talented, irrepressible, and liked. Until the end, he would fight as if he had never dissembled, let alone lied or instigated a murder plot. After the jury’s verdict in 1979 – preceded by the much-criticised and often satirised one-sided summing up by the judge, Mr Justice Cantlay – he remained undaunted. Thorpe was still sending messages to successive leaders of the Liberal Democrats years later suggesting that the time had come for his long-withheld life peerage to be granted. A very English scandal indeed.
Having reported the case for The Scotsman, James Naughtie is now a special correspondent for BBC News
This article was originally published in the 2-8 June 2018 issue of Radio Times magazine