A Very English Scandal

There are two incontrovertible facts concerning the Thorpe saga. First, that the dog Rinka was shot dead. Secondly, that Norman Scott wasn’t. Everything else depended upon the various and varying accounts of a number of highly unsatisfactory witnesses.

The BBC theme music swings with a jauntiness which matches Jeremy’s brown titfer. The story is based upon Peter Bessell’s discredited account in court. Bessell was extracted from California to give evidence on the promise of an immunity from arrest for fraud, and with £25,000 in his pocket from the Telegraph plus the promise of a further £25,000 if Jeremy were to be convicted. From the prosecution point of view, he was a nightmare witness but they called him anyway, more in hope I would think, than with any confidence he could withstand George Carman’s withering cross-examination. What material for a defending counsel! Bessell bombed. One anecdote must have gone down well with the jury: he told them that Thorpe had initially proposed to have Scott poisoned in a pub but that when it was pointed out to Jeremy that it would not look good if Scott fell off his barstool dead, he replied that the hired hit man should simply enquire of the barman the way to a convenient mine shaft. Even though the BBC show was played as farce, that revealing gem of Bessell’s evidence was omitted.

Norman Scott’s account of events were as much fantasy as fact as he too was collecting payments from the press, who fixated on his ‘bitten pillow’. His account was that he was unaware of any plot to kill him until his dog was shot. He ran for his life. As for Andrew Newton, the alleged hit man, he had already served two years imprisonment for shooting the dog without once mentioning Thorpe. His actual evidence at the Old Bailey, no doubt to the chagrin of the prosecution, was that he planned merely to try to frighten Scott into ‘being a bundle of nerves’.. He thought of a plan to lure him into a lonely place and to pretend to shoot him. He told the jury that the idea to frighten was his alone. He would pretend the gun had jammed. That was not the way the prosecution had opened the case. ‘What a chump the man is’ said Mr Justice Cantley. I was in an adjoining court in the Old Bailey during the trial and in the robing room, Thorpe’s acquittal on the murder allegations was expected and unsurprising on the quality of the evidence before the jury.

I shared a room for 17 years with Emlyn Hooson and George Mackie in Parliament. George had been President of the Party at the time. At least once a week we would get together at 6 pm – and not a minute sooner – frequently with the former Chairman of the Party, Geoff Tordoff, to enjoy a dram Obviously the topic of Thorpe came up from time to time. They recalled those days with a groan but not one of those present ever expressed a view that Jeremy seriously plotted to kill Scott.

Emlyn is of course traduced in the BBC story. You would not think the hesitant and devious person portrayed could ever have been a highly successful defence advocate, the prestigious Treasurer (Head) of Gray’s Inn, a farmer who won prizes for his Welsh Blacks at the Welsh Show, the shrewd Chairman of Laura Ashley, the Chairman of the Severn Bridge Development Group who saw the new bridge through to completion on time and within budget, a man full of ideas and enthusiasm – and charm. Emlyn had a hinterland, wholly supported in everything that he did by Shirley, his wife, and his family.

But Emlyn had been brought up in the Welsh tradition of the Calvinistic Methodists, and although he was not particularly religious, he would always say that he was influenced by his mother’s belief in pre-destination. That meant that he took whatever happened, win or lose, very calmly and equably. Even when he lost Montgomeryshire which had been Liberal for 99 years, Shirley was much more upset. Emlyn had plenty to do in his life. He was not a plotter, nor did he bear a grudge. Jeremy, on the other hand, with only politics and ambition to interest him, thought everyone was like him with a plot around every corner. The TV series has caught his warped view of Emlyn – he couldn’t imagine that Emlyn would not be trying to usurp the crown! He had nothing of Emlyn’s grounding in professional success, business interests or the essentially Welsh settled society around him. Emlyn always said that he wished he had continued as a farmer – he attended an agricultural college in his youth, before active operations in the Navy during the war. We didn’t believe him, of course, but one of my fond memories is a triumphal progress around Welshpool show with Emlyn and George Mackie arguing the relative merits of Welsh Blacks and Aberdeen Angus cattle..

The court scene was well portrayed but condensed. The application to allow publicity was boldly made by my friend and colleague, Gareth Williams, newly in silk but later to be AG and Leader of the House of Lords. But it was in the magistrates’ court , where Thorpe was represented by his solicitor, Napley , not by counsel at the Old Bailey,. The curious scene between Jeremy and George Carman when the latter confesses to a gay lifestyle was a bit of a shock. ‘Gorgeous’ George cultivated the reputation of a womaniser surrounded by blondes – and he was married three times. We were involved together in one or two cases of note, (although I never forgave him for usurping my piano stool when I was in full flow after a good win in Hong Kong, so he could twiddle his own ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’). A. quick look at his son’s ‘warts and all’ biography hints at other early sexual interests following his schooling by the Brothers at ‘Holy Joe’s’ in Blackpool and a year in a seminary. We shall never know whether there was such an incident as portrayed, and if there was, whether it was a Carman device to gain his client’s confidence so that he would accept George’s sensible but bold advice not to give evidence. George gained the top prize of the first class honours in law at Oxford. His shrewd and well planned attack and quiet court manner were authentically shown.

The Tom Mangold documentary was prepared in 1979 on the basis that Thorpe would be convicted. It was monstrous that a TV presenter should be declaring Thorpe’s guilt of conspiracy to murder after a jury had acquitted him on that very charge. Further, Mangold’s update seemed to accept the account of a dodgy gun dealer who accosted him in the park near his home, as the undoubted, unvarnished truth, even though the man had since signed a statement to the police withdrawing his claims. Did the BBC pay the dealer for his story? Do they think a jury would ever accept such tainted evidence?

As for Gwent police reopening the case, who is going to be the defendant? Newton must have been given an immunity before he gave evidence for the prosecution at the trial. Thorpe, Bessell and Holmès are dead. Scott can not know to this day what the plot was, whether there was an agreement to kill him, or just to frighten him. According to the juryman who controversially broke the juror’s oath to give the inside story of the jury’s deliberations at the Old Bailey, the jury were agreed there was a conspiracy to frighten, but to their annoyance, there was no such lesser charge on the indictment. It would be an abuse of public money to have further police investigations after more than forty years to no purpose other than to ‘convict’ dead men..

* Martin Thomas is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and the party's Shadow Attorney General

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27 Comments

  • John Marriott 5th Jun '18 - 10:06am

    I congratulate Lord Thomas on his incisive and generally well balanced resumé of ‘The Thorpe Affair’. Who knows, as no lesser person than Andrew Marr said on his eponymous show at the weekend, “Perhaps even Rinka may still be alive and ending her days in some kennel…”. Given that Great Danes rarely reach double figures in the first place, that kind of longevity for a dog would surely earn her a place in the Guinness Book of Records! By the way, I gather that the police have decided not to reopen the case.

    I agree about the portrayal of Lord Hooson; but you can’t get away from the fact that Jeremy was a bit of a rogue, if ostensibly a charming and, for many, a lovable one. Ironically, if he had been forging a political career today, the fact that he was gay or bisexual would have not caused the problems it did for him. The TV series might do nothing to resurrect his reputation; but it certainly will do no harm at all for the future career prospects of one Hugh Grant.

  • Whether or not there a was an agreement to kill Scott or simply shoot the poor bloke’s dog to scare him, it doesn’t reflect very well.. The BBC drama which makes the affair seem somewhat more contemporary to the trial than it was, also makes it look like Scott lived in a caravan instead of in a rather nice house and so on, much to his chagrin. From what I gather the jury, who were allowed to discuss decisions back then, were peeved that they couldn’t convict on the lesser charge. Wasn’t there a court case against the Newstatesman (they won) about this which lead to a change in the law in the 1980s and yet another of Britain’s pointless layers of secrecy? I get it, Thorpe is something of a Liberal hero, but it seems feet of clay and all that.

  • Mark Smulian 5th Jun '18 - 10:49am

    I was once told one of those stories that ought to be true even if it isn’t. It was that Thorpe, a short time after the trial, attended the unveiling of a portrait of himself in the National Liberal Club.
    No-one knew quite what to say to him, but someone thought his successor as candidate in North Devon would be a safe topic.
    Thorpe replied: “Roger Blackmore is a splendid chap, the only problem is he lacks the killer instinct.”

  • OnceALibDem 5th Jun '18 - 10:58am

    Ah – part 2 of Martin’s absolute hagiography of Thorpe. And it follows the classic party trope of ‘acquitted therefore did nothing wrong’. The idea that Thorpe was an individual of unblemished virtue has been pretty much rebuffed by several people around at the time (Greaves, Lishman, Hebditch etc).

    The (original) panorama investigation had allegations of Thorpe using the Home Secretary to influence the Byers inquiry and there is the issue of the donations solicited from Sir Jack Hayward for the party which at the very least took an unusual and circuitous route. You would have thought the party would want to investigate that.

    Martin seems to take the view, through both his articles, that all these pillars of establishment were good chaps and good chaps don’t question if good chaps might not be good chaps (to paraphrase Sir Desmond Glazebrook). It’s littered with mentions of ‘my chums’ and it’s pretty unconvincing.

  • Martin Thomas 5th Jun '18 - 11:21am

    Nonsense, OnceALibDem! Jeremy was a deeply flawed character and the Party never forgave him. The prosecution for tactical reasons, no doubt, chose not to put a lesser charge in the indictment and twelve jurors, not the establishment nor ‘good chaps’, were not convinced that he incited murder. End of story.

  • Peter Martin 5th Jun '18 - 11:32am

    I suppose it is possible that the plan was to shoot Norman Scott’s dog to scare him off. But this would have to mean that Jeremy Thorpe hugely miscalculated the likely consequences. Instead of giving Norman Scott a fright it just gave him further ammunition to pursue his grievance.

    Regardless of whether Norman Scott had a valid grievance, why didn’t Jeremy Thorpe just do what he could to help out? Including getting him new National Insurance card! How hard would that have been?

    There really should be no more claims along the lines of “Norman Scott’s account of events were as much fantasy as fact”. Unless anyone has hard evidence that he’s lying then its better to say nothing at all. I would say Norman Scott is owed an apology, collectively, by the LibDems.

    PS As an animal lover, I have to say that deliberately killing a dog in this way should be treated as a much more serious crime than the law allows for.

  • William Fowler 5th Jun '18 - 11:42am

    Wonder how much of it was the thrill of the forbidden and living a double life, would Thorpe bother much now that it is legal and generally accepted, given that he was equally successful with women?

  • Not sure where all this takes us in 2018. 40 years ago, blimey, that is twice the time between the World Wars. I remember the saga well but so what. I was Chair of Durham Liberals for a couple of years in 1979-1981 and knew our Councillor referred to in the earlier post. He was well liked and respected. Also had the honour of introducing my three month old son to David Steel after a crowded meeting with students in the main large hall at the University. The bairn slept through the whole proceedings.
    Would a Lib Dem leader get such an audience today? If not why not? That is perhaps more worthwhile our discussion.

  • The BBC news reporting at the time eventually adopted the words, “We are not going to talk about Jeremy Thorpe…” People started to get sick of hearing about the blanket coverage of the trial.

  • Laurence Cox 5th Jun '18 - 12:17pm

    I would have hoped that Martin Thomas had remembered the jurist William Blackstone’s formulation “All presumptive evidence of felony should be admitted cautiously; for the law holds it better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent party suffer” before he declared Tom Mangold’s documentary ‘monstrous’. In his professional role, he must have come across many miscarriages of justice – not all of them cases where an innocent person was convicted.

  • paul barker 5th Jun '18 - 12:33pm

    43 Years ago, a Man shot a Dog.
    That later led to a Trial where all the defendants were found Not Guilty.
    Those are the facts, everything else is Hearsay, Speculation & “Historical Fiction.”
    The whole business has been a classic example of “Fake News” generated by the cosy, symbiotic relationship between The Gutter Press & TV Drama. Its not very different from all those stories which cover plot strands in The Soaps as though they were “Real” events.
    I dont own a TV so its all a bit wasted on me.

  • Like others I remember the trial very well. The acquittal could not resurrect Jeremy Thorpe’s reputation. It was not so much the prevailing culture around gay relationships. Homosexuality had been decriminalised since the sixties and was already being accepted as an acceptable part of modern life by the late seventies. It was I think more about the mistrust that the failure to take the stand in his own defence at the trial engendered. That did not play well with public opinion.
    It would seem the apparently new evidence of the antique firearms collector Dennis Meighan is somewhat crucial, if it can be corroborated by Andrew Newton (assuming he is still alive). If Meighan’s story is just another false claim in this saga, then there is no basis for re-opening an inquiry into this rather sordid affair, about which the truth may never be known.

  • Mick Taylor 5th Jun '18 - 1:05pm

    Once a Lib Dem clearly didn’t know Thorpe. The man was a rogue, though quite loveable in some ways. What he wasn’t, in my experience as one who knew him, was a would-be murderer. In many ways the jury were right. If he had been charged with conspiracy to frighten, he would probably have been found guilty, but he wasn’t. This isn’t based on any view of the establishment as ‘good chaps’ who can do no wrong.
    Thorpe was an astute man, who could put on a superb show and for a time he did well for the party. No other leader since has taken the party to a poll of 6 million votes.
    My main query in all of this is why the BBC and its acolytes are resurrecting this now? I’m not a big conspiracy theorist, but I am convinced that someone is trying to use the very ancient Thorpe story (he lost his seat in 1979 before the Lib Dems were even thought of) to do us harm. It behoves us all to respond with wry amusement and to laugh it off.

  • I remember the BBC news reports that began with,” We are not going to talk about Jeremy Thorpe…”

  • Sue Sutherland 5th Jun '18 - 1:14pm

    I thought the series was very good TV and that Hugh Grant was excellent as Thorpe whom I remember just from media coverage at the time because I wasn’t involved politically then. Mostly it made me feel desperately sorry for gay men of that time and the Et Tu Brute moment in court when Bessell stood up to give evidence against Thorpe was very poignant.
    The other overwhelming theme was the Old Boys’ network which crossed parties to cover up for any member of the establishment. One might have thought our party no longer subscribes to that view of life if it hadn’t been for Coalition where a small number of Upper class boys seemed to forget their political differences to get the country out of economic depression by means which impacted badly on those not of their class. I see this as a shackle on our party, mostly coming from the Liberal side, which has a proud history, but that history is also in danger of preventing us from adopting solutions suitable for the 21st century.
    Finally, the last message I took from the program was if you’re a Councillor or an MP be meticulous about your casework. If someone had sorted out Scott’s NI problem the whole debacle might never have happened.

  • OnceALibDem 5th Jun '18 - 1:45pm

    “and the Party never forgave him.” Well that’s a highly debatable assertion!

    “Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership at that time was tremendously inspirational and so the party is very pleased to see him here.”
    Paddy Ashdown 1997 – when the Dictionary of LIberal Biography reports him receiving a standing ovation.

    “Jeremy Thorpe was a colossal figure in the revival of the Liberal cause in post-war Britain and today’s Lib Dem politicians continue to feast on his legacy. His charisma, energy and innovative campaigning lit up his generation of British politics.”
    Nick Harvey 2014

    Mick does ask a valid question about why now though. But FWIW the 6 million vote mark was passed by the 2010 election.

  • Iain Sharpe 5th Jun '18 - 1:49pm

    It seems to me that post-trial Thorpe just about got the treatment he deserved from the party and the wider world. He was acquitted but hardly vindicated. Given the uncontested revelations at the trial, he was rightly blocked from resuming a front-line political career and indeed from taking up a public role with Amnesty.

    Yet, given that he had been found not guilty, once it was clear he was not going to make a political comeback and in the light of his long, debilitating illness it would have seemed vindictive to continue to treat him as a complete pariah, elided from the party’s history.

    While it’s fashionable to bash the establishment, I think the powers that be in the Lib Dems got it just about right in their handling of Thorpe in the his life after the acquittal.

  • Sandy Walkington 6th Jun '18 - 9:06am

    The Emlyn portrayal in the film is a caricature. It’s almost as if they did a composite of him and Richard Wainwright (who did not feature and was altogether more humourless (though a splendid man)). I believe Emlyn was unable to meet Scott when he first came to the House of Commons and it was his secretary Helen Roberts who had to listen to the whole saga – which must have been an extraordinary experience for her. Emlyn then behaved very responsibly in taking it to the Chief Whip and Leader in the Lords. But it is fair to note that Emlyn freely confessed his aversion to homosexuality – he knew it was irrational but he said he could not help it. I always wondered if he had had some bad experiences in his navy days.

    On a separate note I formally joined the Liberal Party (I had previously been a Young Liberal) in 1973, and the day after was told that Jeremy Thorpe was gay. I was surprise (he was married to Marion) but it was a personal matter, there were much more interesting political issues to debate.

  • @ Sandy Walkington Agree about Emlyn, Sandy, but the Richard I knew did have a sense of humour. As a Methodist Lay Preacher he was a man of integrity and conscience, serving with the Friends Ambulance Unit during the Normandy campaign. I did, and still have, a great respect for him. He was very generous with his time and money and his politics were more radical than many suspected.

    He was furious with Thorpe not just over the Scott business but also the London & Countries Securities Bank business. There was a good old fashioned West Yorkshire integrity about Richard to whom any form of financial chicanery was abhorrent. It was echoed in his service on the Leeds, Skyrac and Morley Savings Bank Board of Managers (now sadly part of the Lloyds Bank group). Thrift and integrity were West Yorkshire traditions which he epitomised and which I know were much appreciated in the Colne Valley.

  • Neil Sandison 7th Jun '18 - 9:53am

    What a relief that politics has moved on from this era of gentlemen clubs ,who you knew mattered more than what you knew .No one would really care these days about who you slept with as long as they were consenting adults .The 70s were pretty awful and not worth going back too.

  • John Marriott 7th Jun '18 - 10:05am

    And finally…….What does it all prove? Lloyd George, Bessell, Thorpe, Smith, Ashdown, Oaten. It just proves that, when it comes to human frailty, Liberals are no more perfect than anyone else. So, let’s stop pretending that we are. As my old dad used to say; “It takes all sorts to make a world”.

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