The Disastrous Life Of Jeremy Thorpe
Hardly any of my friends remember what happened to Jeremy Thorpe, one of those peculiarly English stories filled with awful details – so I decided to read up on it.
I first made the mistake of reading Auberon Waugh’s ‘The Last Word: An Eye Witness Account of the Thorpe Trial’, but Waugh was never a disciplined writer and his exhaustingly sarcastic, vitriolic account proved impossible to care about. Better were ‘Rinkagate’ by Simon Freeman and ‘Jeremy Thorpe’ by Michael Bloch, and there have been numerous other accounts, including ones with fresh allegations.
Jeremy Thorpe seemed a decent man placed in an untenable position by his times and position; a rather saturnine-looking member of the Queen’s Privy Council, the former leader of the Liberal Party when it was still a force to be reckoned with, a twice-married public figure for over twenty years, but he had a flaw – his own overwhelming sense of privilege. Encouraged in his ambitions by his mother and a childhood friendship with Lloyd George, he told friends from the age of nine that he believed it was his destiny to be Britain’s Prime Minister. At Oxford he got away with the kind of chicanery deemed low even by the standards of student politics. He was highly promiscuous and had a busy sex life with men, but couldn’t resist writing romantic letters to his conquests – never a good idea in a period when the blackmailing of public figures was still common.
In the late 70s, at the height of his career, Thorpe was charged with conspiracy to murder a former male model who claimed to have had a relationship with him. But he was acquitted without having given evidence in his own defence, and after keeping the nation agog through the bizarre trial, the matter was hushed up by the establishment, who hoped everyone would forget.
The problem had begun nearly two decades earlier in 1961 when Thorpe seduced a young stable-boy called Norman Scott. Thorpe had proved an intelligent and fair-minded if waspish and ambitious politician who, if he’d been born later, would have been openly gay. Scott was the absolute worst man he could ever have picked for an affair, a lonely leeching neurotic far happier with animals than humans. And the blackmailing began – years and years of it. Scott never forgot that encounter no matter how hard Thorpe tried to hide it. Worse, he talked to anyone who would listen, driving Thorpe to several nervous breakdowns, and bled him dry for money.
It was a story that one reader described as ‘a tragi-comic bathetic masterpiece of British bumbling in which a high ranking Liberal of the hypocritical old school embezzled funds from a kindly Bahamian millionaire and plotted to murder a histrionic, animal-loving male model, aided and abetted by a cast of bent solicitors, hypnotising GPs, a paranoid ex-Prime Minister and a Walter Mittyesque failed airline pilot-cum-hitman in a plot that would have left Joe Orton gasping.’
For 30 days, the nine men and three women of the jury listened opened-mouthed as prosecution lawyers tried to prove that Thorpe and three other men had recruited the pilot to kill Scott, but who had set out to kill Scott but only managed to shoot his dog, a Great Dane bitch called Rinka. Mr Justice Cantley, the judge, was not impressed with these witnesses and made it clear that, if there was any justice, they should have been in the dock. But then this was a time when a judge could tell a lawyer that his client could not possibly have any knowledge of sex without being married.
Thorpe’s career was destroyed, he suffered the longest case of Parkinson’s on record, and finally died in peaceful obscurity last year. One is almost tempted to draw a Wildean comparison. The establishment kept him safe – which is why we know so little about what really happened to Lord Lucan after he murdered his nanny. You can almost feel sympathy for the man. Sometimes it pays to revisit past scandals and remember the lessons learned.