The shocking true story of the first British politician to stand trial for murder
Behind oak-panelled doors in the House of Commons, men with cut-glass accents and gold signet rings are conspiring to murder. It's the late 1960s and homosexuality has only just been legalised, and Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal party, has a secret he's desperate to hide. As long as Norman Scott, his beautiful, unstable lover is around, Thorpe's brilliant career is at risk. With the help of his fellow politicians, Thorpe schemes, deceives, embezzles - until he can see only one way to silence Scott for good.
The trial of Jeremy Thorpe changed our society forever: it was the moment the British public discovered the truth about its political class. Illuminating the darkest secrets of the Establishment, the Thorpe affair revealed such breath-taking deceit and corruption in an entire section of British society that, at the time, hardly anyone dared believe it could be true.
A Very English Scandal is an eye-opening tale of how the powerful protect their own, and an extraordinary insight into the forces that shaped modern Britain.
The first bit of non-fiction I’ve read for a while and an eye-opening account of one of the most famous trials in Britain in the 70s. As a teenager of 15 or 16, I can vaguely recall the headlines of the time as Liberal politician Jeremy Thorpe was acquitted of conspiracy to murder at the Old Bailey. I was kind of hoping he got off because my mum and dad always voted Liberal. I was too young to really comprehend what it was all about.
John Preston is not a Jeremy Thorpe fan and his account portrays Thorpe as unlikable, conniving, and someone shorn of any scruples or decency. We see the background to Thorpe’s political career and his rise to prominence in the Liberal party. There are allegations of male rape made against Thorpe. Thorpe was homosexual at a time when it was illegal to indulge in sexual relations with other men and would also have been political suicide if the public became aware of his sexual leanings. Many homosexuals were at great risk of blackmail. Blackmail is at the heart of Thorpe’s downfall.
I read this late last year and what sticks with me if I’m honest is the sense that the author has it in for Thorpe. Perhaps rightly so. It’s a masterclass in character assassination. The book was probably unpublishable before Thorpe died in 2014. You can’t libel a dead man.
Other characters in the book merit great sympathy, especially Peter Bessell. Bessell was a fellow Liberal MP and slightly in awe of Thorpe. Thorpe repeatedly takes advantage of Bessell’s naivety and amenable nature throughout the book. The trial sees Bessell’s reputation trashed and his reputation eviscerated. Unfairly so.
Was Thorpe guilty? Did the establishment put the fix in so one of their own got off? I wasn’t necessarily convinced, but I wouldn’t be unduly surprised if they had. They were some notable miscarriages of justice in the 70s – The Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven.
An interesting read. Inevitably there’s a fair bit of he said, she said. On the whole a bit of a hatchet job, but an entertaining one.
4 from 5
Read in November, 2016
Published – 2016
Page count – 340
Source – review copy from publisher Penguin Viking
Format - paperback