Review: A very English Scandal

I was glued to the screen for the three instalments of “A Very English Scandal” – not least because I was at party headquarters during the later years of Jo Grimond’s leadership and am the last remaining active member of the small cabal that tried, somewhat quixotically, to prevent Jeremy Thorpe becoming leader in January 1967. I was also a party officer in the later stages of his leadership. Our opposition to Jeremy at the time had nothing whatever to do with his homosexuality, which simply did not figure in any discussion. It was entirely to do with his lack of political depth and his capricious authoritarianism which was difficult, and at times unpleasant, to accommodate. I was glad that there was coverage of Thorpe’s principled stand on anti-colonialism which was always commendable. A lot of the reminiscences since the film stress his undoubted communication skills and his showmanship but, alas, these are not key attributes of leader. Also, it is clear that there was the most remarkable compartmentalisation with the Norman Scott saga being contained entirely within the parliamentary party separate from the problems we had to cope with at headquarters. My obituary of Jeremy Thorpe can be found here. 

Taken as a whole the programmes covered the period well. There was inevitable compression of the material which sometimes gave a skewed perspective, and Russell Davies’ “dramatic licence” led him to treat some of the rumours and speculations of the period as facts. The one serious misrepresentation is that of Emlyn Hooson who is portrayed as a sly politician always seeking an opportunity to topple Thorpe in order to take over the leadership. He certainly wanted to be leader – he stood against Thorpe in January 1967 – but I know of no evidence that he took any action with a view to causing his resignation for selfish purposes. I went back over all my files and publications and there is no such indication in any of them. In fact, Emlyn’s leading role in discrediting Norman Scott at the now infamous meeting with Scott in February 1971 had the effect of entrenching Thorpe’s leadership. Emlyn was, in fact, a man of considerable intellect and principle.

I would be wary of writing off the whole of Peter Bessell’s career. For much of his time in parliament he was a loyal and able spokesman for the party. He was certainly a deeply flawed individual and he eventually became completely unreliable and, as his personal and business affairs collapsed, he also became inconsistent. In their own context the lengths he went to to protect Thorpe were commendable, if at times naive. He was never going to be a compelling prosecution witness but his bizarre arrangement with the Sunday Telegraph to have his fee doubled if Thorpe was found guilty was fatal. His book “Cover-up” has some errors but it is a far more reliable record of the whole period than is often admitted. It would also be unwise to assume that the charges against Thorpe were, despite the jury verdict, not well-founded. Later revelations, not least by David Holmes, were very significant in this regard.

From the Liberal party’s point of view all those involved, whether at headquarters or in parliament faced the perennial political problem that any criticism of a serving party leader from within the party is electorally fatal. Hence it was necessary to hide all the problems of Thorpe’s leadership from the party. This led to many party colleagues being very critical of the party’s treatment of him when his continuation as leader became untenable. Eventually the truth came out, not least at the closed session at the Liberal Assembly of 1978 when (Lord) Gruff Evans, as President, was ruthless in opposing a motion critical of party officers. His detailing of the difficulties we had faced over many years was a revelation to delegates.

Finally, the acting in the film was exceptionally good. Hugh Grant was uncannily like Thorpe. He must have studied his mannerisms closely. Ben Wishaw played the very difficult role of Norman Scott with great sensitivity, and Alex Jennings had the “smoothy” style of Peter Bessell extremely accurately.

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12 Comments

  • David Blake 8th Jun '18 - 5:29pm

    Wish I could get hold of Bessell’s book.

  • OnceALibDem 8th Jun '18 - 8:00pm

    Other than the ‘play the man not the ball’ attacks of George Carman what evidence is there that Bessell’s account isn’t accurate.

    Michael’s account of the ’78 Party assembly makes interesting reading. It sits a bit oddly with Martin Thomas’s hagiographies.

  • David Hughes 9th Jun '18 - 10:37am

    Strongly agree with Michael’s comments about Emlyn Hooson — for me his negative portrayal was the biggest flaw in the TV dramatisation. I had some dealings with him when Chair of the Union of Liberal Students in 1976/77 and discussed his opposition to joining the then EEC, which I think had led him to realise that it would have been very difficult for him to have been leader of such a pro-European party though he did seek nominations in 1976. We kept in touch and he later sent me a substantial unsolicited donation when I was the PPC for Westbury. A very kindly and thoughtful man.

  • Peter Bessell’s book doesn’t seem to be available as an ebook but it is available from

    Walsall Libraries and Information Services

    Walsall, WS1 1TR United Kingdom

    The British Library, On Demand
    The British Library, Document Supply, Boston Spa

    Wetherby, West Yorkshire, LS23 7BQ United Kingdom

    Oxford Central Library

    Oxford, OX1 1AY United Kingdom

  • William Wallace 10th Jun '18 - 10:19am

    Michael is not ‘the only survivor’ of the January 1967 plot to block Jeremy. I’m still around, and my notes on what happened then are filed in the LSE Library.

  • Frank Little: Many of us were aware of Thorpe’s gay and straight lifestyle- you’d say he was bi these days. But honestly none of us found it interesting or special. The party had many homosexual members precisely because we thought it was none of our business who you went to bed with.
    The thing was that many of us who didn’t like Thorpe’s leadership of the party would have felt obliged to support him if he had just come out and said ‘so what if I had a relationship with Norman Scott?’ as a later leader said of his extra marital affair.
    I do think as Liberals we have to be careful of trying to say that a jury was wrong not to convict. They had all the evidence presented in court and most of us do not. This isn’t to say that courts don’t get in wrong sometimes, but the paucity of wrongful convictions in the UK suggests that they get it right most of the time. So if a jury of twelve fellow citizens found Thorpe ‘not guilty’ on the evidence, it is a dangerous path to start claiming they were wrong.
    I raise again my question of why now? And why are so many feeding the flames of speculation? All of this is a long time ago, almost 30 years. Unlike other unsavoury party history considered in other screeds on LDV, there was a court case and a determination made.

  • Mick, Why now? The programme is based very closely on the John Preston book, which was published last year. It is an excellent book and I remember thinking when reading it that it would make for a good TV script. So I don’t think there is anything particularly sinister about the timing. Thorpe died in December 2014, it took Preston a couple of years to research and write the book, then it took the BBC another year or so to get the rights and make the series.

  • Simon Banks 14th Jun '18 - 9:58pm

    I agree Hugh Grant did a very good job: the mannerisms, the body language, the voice, the clothes were uncanny though he couldn’t look like Jeremy Thorpe – that extraordinarily long, narrow head. I watched bits of the programme and thought it caught the era very well, one in which someone could semi-publicly describe his son-in-law as “a rampant p*****h”. Rampant as opposed to couchant?

    I thought Jeremy Thorpe led the party in the right direction policy-wise, but as a Devon & Cornwall candidate when he was leader, I couldn’t quite figure out what made him tick, much the way I reacted much later to Blair. I remember at a meeting of the Liberal Party Council, Tony Greaves (I think) had got hold of information about a secret bank account under the Leader’s personal control and was pressing for information. I think critics just thought it was for helping Jeremy’s friends and allies get elected, not for shooting either animals or people. Jeremy Thorpe got up and told us to trust him because he had given so much time and effort to the party. I thought, “Yes, and so have many other people here – careers and businesses stalled, marriages gone sour – and they’re not MPs, let alone party leaders!”

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