“A Terrible Propensity for Malice”

An account of a juicy British scandal is also a history of the persecution of gay men in 1960s Britain.


John Martz

In December 1968, British member of Parliament Peter Bessell left a meeting with his friend and boss, Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, praying Thorpe would change his mind about a plan he’d just set in motion. The undesirable assignment wasn’t a matter of political policy or election strategy; it was homicide. Thorpe wanted Bessell to attend a meeting with a would-be assassin to plan the murder of a troublesome ex-lover.

The get-together comes one-third into John Preston’s A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament, and it marks the point at which Thorpe snaps into focus. Thereafter, he ceases to be a charming cad with an entertainingly reckless secret homosexual love life; instead he is revealed as a sociopathic manipulator willing to kill to keep his political ambitions alive.

Until then, though, Preston presents Thorpe as the kind of colorful—but not too colorful—politician that still thrives in Britain. He was “ebullient and good-looking in a cadaverous sort of way”; a “smooth old Etonian with a distinctive taste in clothes” who favored “a cashmere overcoat with a velvet collar and, rather more eccentrically, a brown bowler hat.” He also had a gift for retail politics—although he had very little in common with his North Devon constituents, he had an “extraordinary knack for remembering people’s names and for making them feel that their problems were especially close to his heart.”

In one of their very first conversations, in 1965, Thorpe announced to Bessell that he was 80 percent gay, and although it was understood that he must remain closeted—male homosexuality was still a criminal offense at the time, after all—he behaved with a surprising lack of discretion, often sending incriminating letters and postcards to gay friends. It was this love of correspondence that started Thorpe down the path that eventually led to the criminal courts at the Old Bailey, where he found himself charged with conspiracy and incitement to murder in 1974.

Back in 1960, when Princess Margaret, the queen’s sister, announced her engagement to Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Thorpe had dashed off an arch postcard to his friend Brecht Van de Vater. “What a pity,” he wrote. “I rather hoped to marry one and seduce the other.” When the card reached Van de Vater, he proudly showed it off to his handsome 19-year-old live-in assistant Norman Josiffe, along with 30 or so other letters from Thorpe, many written on House of Commons stationery. Later, the high-strung Josiffe grabbed the cache of correspondence and bolted from the house. A few weeks later, when he found himself homeless and directionless after a nervous breakdown, he went to Westminster to see Thorpe, who took him on an overnight visit to his mother’s house—called Stonewalls, ironically enough. After a peculiar formal dinner where the only food served was boiled eggs, Josiffe retired to his room, where Thorpe later buggered him. The next day, Thorpe told Josiffe where he could find a room to rent in London and gave him £10. For some time afterward, they continued their sexual relationship.

Preston does a thorough job of following Josiffe—who later changed his name to Norman Scott—through a long string of fresh starts and disappointments. A pattern emerges of a delicate, damaged man who is forever walking away from the kinds of jobs—usually working with horses, occasionally as a model—that were available to men with no education, a history of mental illness, and a minor criminal record. Josiffe/Scott was clearly charming and attractive, because every time he stormed off, he always seemed to find someone willing to take him in. From Thorpe’s point of view, though, Scott was a ticking time bomb, because everywhere he went, he told people—his benefactors, priests, and even policemen—about his sexual relationship with the man who by 1967 had become the leader of the Liberal Party. Thorpe was all too aware that Scott’s meager possessions included a cache of his letters, now including a vaguely affectionate note sent by Thorpe to Scott that contained the line—later subjected to rigorous public literary scrutiny—“Bunnies can (and will) go to France.”

It was these letters—and Scott’s habit of blabbing about Thorpe to anyone who would listen—that kept Scott on Thorpe’s radar. Finally, after years of attempting to help himself by helping Scott—making introductions, encouraging him to emigrate, having Bessell pay him a regular stipend—Thorpe made the fateful decision to have Scott killed. Fortunately for Scott, the hit men Thorpe’s friends engaged were utterly incompetent.

Preston’s description of the buffoonish, bungled murder attempt—Scott survived, but his Great Dane, Rinka, was shot and killed—and of Thorpe’s Old Bailey “trial of the century” are well-done. Nevertheless, the book’s final third, in which Scott is further victimized by the legal system, makes for depressing reading. Preston refrains from editorializing, but it’s impossible not to be appalled by the ambient homophobia of the period. Gay and bisexual men like Scott and Thorpe lived under daily threat of prosecution, were shut out of employment and subject to blackmail, could be denied entry into the United States, and were routinely described as filthy and depraved. Even after decriminalization in 1966, effeminate men like Scott were treated with contempt by the authorities, dismissed as hysterical and warped, and generally thought to be untrustworthy. To cite but one example, in one of the legal proceedings in which Scott was called as a witness, an eminent barrister attacked him, declaring that homosexuals are afflicted with “a terrible propensity for malice.”

American readers may wish to supplement A Very English Scandal with a selection of newspaper stories about the U.K.’s current efforts to address what is known there as “historical sexual abuse.” For decades, high-profile predators got away with odious crimes on an almost unimaginable scale—BBC stalwart Jimmy Savile and Liberal MP Cyril Smith, both of whom make cameos in the book, were posthumously revealed to have abused hundreds of adults and children—and Preston’s narrative demonstrates, as those cases did, how members of the establishment closed ranks to protect their own. Senior policemen shut down inquiries, politicians prevented interviews, and favorable treatment was doled out. Forty-two years ago, the Old Bailey jury found Jeremy Thorpe not guilty. Now that we can see the baked-in biases of the time as well as the evidence, there’s no doubt the verdict was a grave miscarriage of justice.

In the midst of this awfulness, Preston’s account of the fight to decriminalize male homosexuality in Britain is especially enjoyable. In this story the hero is Lord Arran, the quirky peer who moved the bill in the House of Lords. On the rare occasions that the eighth earl, Boofy to his friends, had previously spoken in the House, it was to advocate for the rights of badgers. He and his wife, a champion powerboat racer, allowed badgers to roam freely in their home in Hemel Hempstead, “and always wore gumboots indoors to stop their ankles from being bitten.” Nevertheless, Arran was driven by the memory of his gay elder brother, who had committed suicide days after succeeding to the title. Later, after a successful but bruising legislative battle, Arran was asked why homosexual law reform had passed while badgers were still unprotected. “He paused,” Preston reports, “and then said ruminatively, ‘There are not many badgers in the House of Lords.’ ”

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament by John Preston. Other Press.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.