This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
It is not every day that the leader of one of our great political parties is accused of conspiracy to murder. Yet there has always been a tendency to treat the story of Jeremy Thorpe and his one-time lover Norman Scott as comedy. Not only was the murder plot hopelessly bungled, the walk-on characters in the drama had names which echoed the farces of Joe Orton: Mrs Florence Friendship, Det. Supt. Proven Sharp, Charles Negus-Fancy and Mrs Celia Kettle-Williams, forewoman of the Old Bailey jury that acquitted Thorpe.
Beneath the comic façade, the story is a sinister one
Beneath the comic façade, the story is a sinister and shocking one, of a man so obsessed with his political advancement that he was prepared to countenance murder. Yet Thorpe’s surprise acquittal in 1979 following the travesty of a trial created a problem for anyone hoping to publish a book on the affair.
Thorpe (a litigious character, as I know from personal experience) seemed to think that acquittal was proof of his innocence and even had the nerve to grace a church service in his constituency thanking God for his deliverance. In the circumstances, publishers were reluctant to risk an expensive libel action (possibly financed by Thorpe’s backer, Sir James Goldsmith) challenging the jury’s verdict.
So Auberon Waugh, who had followed the scandal with a pitiless eye, was unable to castigate Thorpe as he would have liked in his book The Last Word. Thorpe’s one-time friend and ally Peter Bessell was forced to publish his book Cover-Up in the US with a derisory sale, the last in a long line of business failures which had earned him the nickname Joe Disaster.
Thorpe’s death aged 85 in 2014 finally gave writers their freedom and two years later the journalist John Preston published A Very English Scandal, subsequently made into an outstanding BBC series by Stephen Frears featuring a memorable performance by Hugh Grant as the Liberal leader. Its success has now inspired Scott to dust down and update the memoir he has been sitting on all these years. Hence An Accidental Icon, which really should have been called The Last Word had Waugh not already used that title.
When the political strands of the story have been so thoroughly explored, the interest of Scott’s book lies in the account of his relationship with Thorpe. I can remember very clearly from my Private Eye days receiving Scott’s long anonymous typescript in the post, describing his initial seduction and subsequent rape with Thorpe’s mother sleeping in an adjoining bedroom.
It was plainly a truthful if lurid description of what had happened to him. I have exactly the same feeling about this book. It may be full of mistakes, self-pity and needless name-dropping, but Scott writes very honestly about his feelings for Thorpe as they developed after that first horrific encounter, describing how the revulsion at his brutal, loveless sex came to be mollified by a growing hero-worship for a father-figure who had charmed and befriended him, leading him to admit later, when giving evidence in court, that he had fallen in love with Thorpe.
This was the last thing Thorpe wanted to happen and the inevitable break-up of their relationship became the cause of grief and resentment on Scott’s part, recalling the words of an old army song from the First World War:
See him in the House of Commons
Making laws to put down crime
While the victim of his passion
Trails away through mud and slime.
But how to account for the fact that Thorpe later convinced himself of the necessity to kill Scott, who had never posed any real threat to him? It was Bessell, who understood Thorpe better than anyone, who wrote of “the guilt, fear and needless shame that permeated his sexuality”, instancing his “loathing of all that Scott represented in his life”. Scott was too mixed-up himself to appreciate such an analysis, but it amounts to the fact that Thorpe was a psychopath who saw nothing wrong in ending Scott’s life — “no worse than shooting a sick dog”, as he told Bessell.
Carman made the absurd suggestion that it was Scott who seduced Thorpe
Scott, like others, sees the subsequent trial as an Establishment cover-up, but by 1979 there wasn’t much left of the old Tory Establishment which Thorpe himself had ridiculed so effectively. What saved him was his membership of a legal freemasonry, his father having been a well-known barrister, his mother a magistrate and he himself a former barrister, the friend and colleague of the Lord Chancellor Lord Elwyn Jones, who, as John Preston points out, would have been responsible for appointing the grotesquely biased Mr Justice Cantley to preside at the Old Bailey trial.
Another crucial member of the freemasonry, prosecuting counsel Peter Taylor (later appointed Lord Chief Justice) could not disguise the sympathy he felt for Thorpe and made an agreement with his opposite number George Carman not to expose the critical issue of his voracious sex life in exchange for a meaningless admission from him that his client had at one time experienced “homosexual tendencies”.
As Preston points out, the question of whether he put those tendencies into practice went unasked, allowing Carman to make the absurd suggestion that it was Scott who seduced Thorpe rather than vice versa.
“How much simpler life would be,” AJP Taylor once wrote, “if the victims of injustice were attractive characters.” Readers may not warm to Scott but nor can they deny that he deserves to have the last word and also the last laugh. He can claim to have survived an assassination attempt, not to mention a character assassination by Mr Justice Cantley and to have lived to tell the tale.
Now 82, he tells us he is ensconced in a listed Devonshire farmhouse with a devoted partner referred to only as Michael, and a menagerie of assorted horses and pets. By contrast, Thorpe, who was only 50 at the time of his trial, had 35 more years to live with nothing much to do, closeted in his wife Marion’s dark and stately mansion, 2 Orme Square, off London’s Bayswater Road, sustained only by the vain hope that any day soon he would be given a life peerage and be able to make a comeback. It never happened and latterly he fell victim to Parkinson’s disease, dying on 4 December 2014. It was not the hoped-for end of a man who had once dreamed of being prime minister and marrying Princess Margaret.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe