In 1974, Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of Britain’s Liberal Party and one of the country’s leading political figures, found himself in the dock of the Old Bailey, accused of conspiracy and incitement to murder Norman Scott, an ex-lover who had an inconvenient habit of telling people about their affair. British journalist John Preston tells the Thorpe story in A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment, published Tuesday (and reviewed here). I spoke with Preston about what the scandal revealed about British attitudes to homosexuality, the establishment, and how much things have changed over the last 40 years.
How would you explain the importance of Jeremy Thorpe to American readers?
He represented a new breed of politician. If you look at the standard-issue British politician of the 1960s and ‘70s, they were overweight, gray-haired, doughy-featured men in badly fitting suits—and they’re all men until Mrs. Thatcher came along. Thorpe was dashing, he was charismatic, and he had an air of great charm and irreverence. He didn’t seem to take things as seriously as his colleagues did, and that was very attractive. He was a genuinely liberal figure; he wasn’t a hypocrite. He voted for the Homosexual Law Reform when it came up in the House of Commons; he was very, very opposed to apartheid when a lot of British politicians—including Mrs. Thatcher—were either tacitly or overtly for it. And Thorpe had this ostensibly mad dream of leading the Liberals back to the prominence they’d enjoyed back in the 1920s. The bizarre thing is he almost made it, because when Britain collapsed into almost-bankruptcy and near-anarchy in the 1970s, Thorpe was within touching distance of power. He could’ve been deputy prime minister in a coalition if he’d played his cards a bit more adroitly. And yet just five years later he goes on trial for conspiracy and incitement to murder. It’s an amazing arc.
At various points in the book you note that highly placed politicians who interact with Thorpe were themselves leading secret gay lives; some of them were even being blackmailed at the time.
This is very much a story of its time. If homosexuality had been legal, none of this would’ve happened. Before I started working on the book, I was idly thinking about things that had happened in my lifetime that could unequivocally be regarded as A Good Thing. One could plausibly argue that Britain is a less racist society now than it was 40 years ago, but there’s ample room for improvement. But what’s happened to gay rights has been an extraordinary transformation. When I was a kid, if you were gay, you went to prison. Now you can get married, you have equal rights. That has been an amazing thing. Thorpe, for all his personal flaws, was a victim of circumstance.
As of course was Norman Scott.
Absolutely. Norman was incredibly conflicted about his homosexuality, which I think was very much a symptom of the times. I still don’t think it’s easy being gay, especially if you’re a Roman Catholic, but it’s a lot easier than it was.
At several points in the book, Norman Scott, who is bisexual, is treated with utter contempt, because he read as gay.
He’s treated with absolute contempt. I was shocked by how completely ingrained homophobia was into people’s behavior. It was considered entirely natural. And so a lot of gay people—gay men, anyway, because lesbianism had never been illegal in Britain—were forced to lead secret lives. Now what complicates things, of course, is that quite a lot of gay men, including Thorpe, actually enjoyed the air of subterfuge. They quite liked the double life they were leading.
Although you don’t mention it explicitly in the book, over the last few years Britain’s been convulsed by revelations and investigations into historical sexual abuse. Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith make cameos, men who we now know abused hundreds of young people. Although there’s no suggestion that Jeremy Thorpe was a pedophile, he used many similar tactics, and the establishment protected him in similar ways. That must have been a little bit on your mind, right?
As you say, Thorpe wasn’t a pedophile, but there was this extraordinary undercurrent of exploitation about his sexual activities. I think that was not particularly uncommon at the time.
Thorpe was acquitted, but at the end of the book, you say it might have been better for him if he’d been found guilty. Clearly, you believe he was guilty, and after reading the book that’s an inescapable conclusion, but Britain is famous for giving people, especially politicians, second chances.
The weird thing about the Thorpe trial is that, with the obvious exception of the O.J. Simpson trial, I can’t think of another example of someone who’s been found innocent but everyone behaves as if they’ve been found guilty. Thorpe was shunned, ostracized, cast into outer darkness. He led this weird half-life in a decaying mansion on Bayswater Road in London. He was desperate to be given a peerage, because he felt that would be a passport back to respectability, but of course it never happened. I genuinely think that if he’d been found guilty, he would’ve done his time, and he would’ve come out … I still don’t think he would’ve got his peerage, but it’s just conceivable that he might have been able to reinvent himself.