A Very English Way Of Doing Things

Books, Great Britain


So Britain is to have another election – hardly any surprise there, as the current leader of the opposition is a phantom who has all but destroyed Labour’s core voter base. Jeremy Corbyn is a career politician with the magnetic presence of a retired postman and is unable to make a stand for or against anything with any degree of believable conviction.

If the politicians have got wetter, the system hasn’t changed much. I’ve just read John Preston’s ‘A Very English Affair: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment’, concerning the only murder trial ever heard (I presume) against a party leader. I remember the case very clearly from the time, but had not realised how much the establishment had closed ranks around a guilty man. The events themselves defy belief; the charismatic Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe systematically covered up his sexual relationship with mentally unstable Norman Scott and eventually arranged to have him shot dead, but the dimwitted hitman only succeeded in killing Scott’s dog.

Jeremy Thorpe 2_thumb[1]

Thorpe did not sully his own hands, of course, but used his most loyal supporters to do his dirty work and even had the judge prejudiced, resulting in the most ludicrously one-sided summing-up in British legal history.

But what shocks the most is how incompetent everyone on both sides proved to be. They were hampered by the English way of doing things. Nobody ever castigated anyone else directly for failure – in much the same way that Corbyn’s colleagues never berate him for failing to make a stand on Brexit and Europe, for example. Instead they sent each other polite letters, vague ‘coded’ promises, carefully worded statements and cautiously qualified promises, and when all of those failed, they simply lied.

Against this, the horribly blunt tub-thumping of American politics seems positively refreshing, because in the UK everything is so – well, the word ‘slippery’ turns up in Preston’s book an awful lot. Typically, it feels that if everyone had been honest from the outset, a sense of genuine democracy would have prevailed. But they weren’t, and probably never will be.

During my lifetime a great many revisionist political histories have appeared as secret documents have come to light. What they show is that the very English way of doing things continues much as it ever did. Preston’s jaw-dropping book is out now.

10 comments on “A Very English Way Of Doing Things”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    No one does hypocrisy better than the British.

    BTW, my Grandad became a retired postman and had much more magnetic presence than Corbyn.

  2. David says:

    The author, John Preston gave a talk at The Sohemians the other month on the case. Seemed like it was the legal profession that gathered around to protect Thorpe, at the expense of some of his erstwhile innner circle.

    I was on the 49 bus today carrying a library copy of Wild Chambers, which I’m enjoying very much, when an American academic from Imperial College sitting next to me said how much she had enjoyed the series and asked if Arthur had recovered from his illness as the last she read it had seemed pretty serious. I assured her all was fine, nothing a bit of alternative therapy couldn’t deal with. She got off at South Kensington saying she hoped the tv mini series came together and that she hoped to see me at the Science without Frontiers march tomorrow, Thursday. So there you are, be careful about flashing your Bryant & May about in public because you never know who is watching.

  3. Steveb says:

    also from the 70s

    This was the mainstream (for better or worse) not Thorpe who was a joke and seen as such, a sociopath surrounded by losers and fantasists

  4. Mike Pitcher says:

    just reading the new Bryant and may love it to bits ! Cant wait for the telly adaption.

  5. Mike Pitcher says:

    oops meant adaptation

  6. admin says:

    Well I’m loving THIS thread! As for a TV series – if only. If it went to the BBC they’d wait until I’d been dead for 50 years before making it, as they do with all their ‘brands’.
    And how could I have missed John Preston’s talk at the Sohemians? My pal Cathi Unsworth was telling me about them only the other day!

  7. Sarah Griffin says:

    In the last few months I’ve discovered the Bryant and May collection. I gone bit over board reading one at night while listening to audible versions during the the day while working from home. The characters are now almost as familiar to me as family members. Then I read Paperboy and climbed back into my past reality. I’d like to thank you for nailing the intangible feeling of the moment whether it be the present day preoccupations of celebrity and money or the ghosts of Victorian sentiment of respectability and perceived normality that caused it own cages of anxiety. Now all I have to do pace myself a bit more to read your back collection of work otherwise nothing will get done and my family is already wondering where I disappear to for hours with a book that in my hand. Thanks Chris.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Who are the Sohemians? People who live in Soho? Bohemians who wish they lived in Soho?

  9. Peter Tromans says:

    The more I learn of politicians, the less sympathy I have for any of them. I think I prefer someone without charisma or leadership, who admits to having no idea, to the more typical narcissistic loudmouth prepared to sacrifice anyone and anything for his own advantage.

    I’ve given up on (fake) news. It’s much better to read genuine fiction and science and, of course, Bryant and May.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Okay, I googled them and it sounds like fun. The only problem is that you can’t invigorate something that is dead, only mourn its loss. Historical connections in Soho, though, you could do a lot with that.

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