Thorpe redux

Will Mapplebeck reviews a book about disgraced Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe in a time of a dark intolerant Britain.

There are several jaw dropping moments in A Very English Scandal, John Preston’s grimly addictive tale of the rise and fall of Jeremy Thorpe, the former Liberal leader who was  put on trial for conspiracy to murder.

There’s the time Thorpe – an established public figure and leadership hopeful – takes new lover Norman Scott to meet his formidable mother, tells her the handsome young man is a television cameraman, and after a supper of boiled eggs, they exit for a liaison in the guest room.

There’s the moment in 1968 when Thorpe, now leader of the third party of British politics, is so tired of endless letters and demands for cash from his unstable ex-lover that he suggests “getting rid” of Scott, comparing killing him to “shooting a sick dog”. And there’s the bungled murder attempt itself, when Scott and his Great Dane are driven out to Dartmoor on a rainy night by the world’s worst hired assassin. 

Somehow Thorpe and his associates managed to keep a lid on his affair with Scott for more than a decade, helped by a sympathetic British establishment and a party leadership that believed Thorpe’s lies. The lengths Thorpe went to seem beyond comprehension now. But it is worth remembering that when his affair with Scott began in 1961, homosexuality was illegal. Thorpe would have been jailed and his political career ruined had anyone found out.

So, in a way, this is a classic tale of how one lie can lead to many others. Thorpe ended up deceiving fellow Liberals, effectively paying the inept hit man through party funds, themselves supplied by wealthy foreign donors. 

A Very English Scandal reads like a comic novel at times, but don’t laugh too much. It features serial bungling and bizarre deceptions carried out by a cast of characters that could have come straight from an Ealing comedy. But it is also a tale of Thorpe’s sexual abuse of a vulnerable adult in a darker, less tolerant Britain.

A Very English Scandal, by John Preston, is published by Penguin.