It immediately reminded me of the goings on of another Liberal politician, who, in the early 1970s, set off a far bigger story – one which today seems almost unbelievable but equally is almost forgotten – Jeremy Thorpe.
Jeremy Thorpe, with his Edwardian style tailored topcoats, fancy waistcoats, brown trilby and dandified demeanour, seemed as close to the heart of a Country Tory as could be imagined - or if not that, a rather ambivalent Undertaker. Yet, following an Eton, Oxford and President of the Union education, he became a Liberal politician. With his youthful looks and flare for publicity, he soon became Leader of the Liberal party in 1967, presiding over a significant party revival over the next 7 years. He even entered into significant discussions with Edward Heath, the well known sailor, conductor and Prime Minister, to form a coalition and become not just Liberal leader but to take on the position of Home Secretary in the Government –serious stuff then!
Rumours abounded all through his life about his sexuality, with a particular focus on an alleged affair with a former male model named Norman Scott. Scott said he had a homosexual affair with Thorpe in 1961, at a time when homosexual acts were still illegal in this country. Scott tells of his first physical liaison at Thorpe’s mother’s house where, in order to remain silent, he had to resort to “biting the pillow”. A compulsively delightful image!
Scott pushed these allegations during the early 70s, even selling love letters, purportedly from Thorpe, to the Press, one of which included the classic line “Bunnies can and will go to France”. You couldn’t make it up, could you?
In 1975, Scott was out walking on Dartmoor with a friend’s dog, when he was confronted by a former air-line pilot named Andrew Newton, who was armed with a gun. Newton shot and killed the dog, whose name was "Rinka", and pointed the gun at Scott, but it apparently jammed.
Newton was sent for trial and found guilty of the offence in 1976, with Scott, still presumably wanting his pound of flesh (no pun intended), reviving his claims of an involvement with Thorpe during the trial. The pressure from all this ultimately led to Thorpe resigning as Party leader.
When Newton was released from prison, he claimed he had been hired as a “hit-man” to kill Norman Scott. A year later, Thorpe, David Holmes (Deputy Treasurer of the Liberal Party) and two other were charged with Conspiracy to Murder. Thorpe was also charged with inciting Holmes to murder Scott. Heady stuff, what?
Another Liberal MP named Peter Bissell claimed to have had inside information within the Party about the conspiracy, and sold his story to the Press, appearing as a witness in the trial in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
Thorpe elected to remain silent throughout the trial, his defence’s case being that – Yes, he did know Scott as a friend, and that in order to put a stop to Scott’s continuing blackmail claims, Thorpe and his colleagues had discussed putting the frighteners on Scott, but not to kill him.
The case itself has gone down as one where Mr Justice Cantley was heavily criticised for showing a hugely “pro-establishment” bias. As part of the exquisitely balanced summing up required from any judge, he described Scott as follows –
“He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite. But, of course, he could still be telling the truth. It is a question of belief.”
This amazing, one sided nature of the summing up was perfectly satirised by Peter Cook, at “The Secret Policemen’s Ball”, with a short piece cobbled together just minutes before the show. If ever you have the slightest doubt as to Peter Cook’s Comic capabilities, just read this.
Quote from The Secret Policeman's Ball (1981)
(Note – the line in pink italics was contributed to Peter Cook’s script by an up and coming young comedian named Billy Connolly.)
And Not Guilty, it was.
There are continuing attempts to bring this story back to life – it beats anything Peter Mandelson, David Blunkett, Edwina Currey or any of the Division 2 scandals we see today. I suspect it will take Thorpe’s final demise to allow the 6 part TV drama, for that’s what it deserves, to be written and transmitted.