The downfall of a good man...
...Tom Robinson and Quentin Crisp represented, in their very different ways, the most unabashed, open face of homosexuality in the ’70s, pointing the way forward to a less censorious world. A more depressingly familiar image surfaced in 1976 when Norman Scott, universally described as ‘a former male model’, alleged in court that he had been the lover of Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal Party.
It was a story that was to rumble on for over three years, and that had its roots way back in the early 1960s. Scott was then working as a stable boy whilst Thorpe was an unmarried backbench MP with, it was claimed, an active gay sex life; the physical relationship, it was said, had been brief, but Scott had continued to call on favours to a point where he was considered a threat to Thorpe’s exalted public position. The alleged affair pre-dated legalization (though both men were at the time over twenty-one) and if there had been a relationship, it was certainly over by 1967 when, shortly before the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, Thorpe was elected to succeed Jo Grimmond as party leader, but only after rumours concerning his private life had been firmly denied. No word of the story reached the press, which instead celebrated the arrival of this youthful, colourful figure on centre stage: ‘Politics and the Liberal Party will be gayer for his leadership,’ declared the Daily Mirror.
The eruption of Scott into national prominence came in 1975 when he was walking a friend’s Great Dane on Exmoor and encountered an armed man named Andrew Newton, who shot the dog and threatened Scott. The gun, however, failed to fire a second time, and Newton was subsequently tracked down by the police, prosecuted and sentenced to two years in jail for having an automatic pistol with intent to endanger life.
It was at his trial, in March 1976, that Scott first made public his allegations about Thorpe, insisting that the attempt on his life was made in order to silence him, that Newton was a hit man hired by the Liberal leader and his inner circle. The case revealed much about the existing stereotypes of gay men. They had ‘a terrifying propensity for malice’, said Newton’s defence counsel. ‘Were you taken in by him? It was a little Uriah Heep act, and at the crucial moment there came the tears. Were they real or crocodile?’ he asked the jury in reference to Scott’s appearance in the witness box, and he concluded: ‘This type of man is dangerous.’
Though Thorpe was not directly involved in the trial, the accusation was crippling, however much colleagues such as Cyril Smith tried to laugh it off in what must have been the most tiresome fashion: ‘“Shot any dogs, lately?” I would say when I saw Jeremy, hoping that a ribbing might help him throw off a mood of quiet desperation that seemed to have settled on him.’ The story was so sensational that it filled the papers and by May, his position having become untenable, Thorpe resigned as leader.
Was this ‘the action of a politically motivated Fleet Street, aware and afraid that Jeremy Thorpe was leading a party which was threatening the cosy, if ineffectual, two-party system?’ wondered Smith. ‘Furthermore had they realized that the success of the Tory Party could be achieved by destroying the Liberal Party – a cause for which a few newspaper proprietors would prostitute the British press.’ He was not alone in drawing such conclusions. ‘Nobody in the Tory press has pointed out the clear political advantage the Tory party stands to gain from the collapse of the Liberals, who have always taken more votes from the Tories than from Labour,’ noted Kenneth Tynan in his diary. And Tony Benn shared the same sentiment: ‘I think the press have decided to destroy the Liberal Party because it is now an embarrassment to the cause of building up Mrs Thatcher.’
Whether it did do any lasting damage to the Liberals is unclear, particularly since the party elected David Steel to be the new leader, its one figure who looked like a professional politician rather than a misfit without a home in either of the major parties. But certainly Thorpe was finished. When Newton was released from jail a year later, the stories began again, and in 1978 Thorpe, along with three others, was formally charged with conspiring to murder Scott.
The case was scheduled to be heard at the Old Bailey the week after the 1979 general election and, though Thorpe was of course considered innocent until proved guilty, in the grand tradition of British justice, he was duly removed from Parliament by the voters in his Devon constituency, amidst widespread sniggering. ‘What’s the similarity between Jeremy Thorpe and William the Conqueror?’ ran a contemporary joke, recorded by Michael Palin. ‘They’re both fucking Normans.’
The trial was notable primarily for the performance of the judge, Mr Justice Cantley, whose grip on modern mores was not renowned; in a 1970 case where a man was suing for damages, having suffered injuries that adversely affected his sex life, Cantley was plainly baffled, arguing that, since the plaintiff was not married, ‘I can’t see how it affects his sex life.’ His summing-up in the Thorpe trial was equally eccentric and was instantly celebrated as a master class in establishment bias. ‘He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite,’ he said of Scott, before shrugging: ‘But, of course, he could still be telling the truth. It is a question of belief.’ Or, in the words of Peter Cook’s famous parody, he was ‘a scrounger, parasite, pervert, a worm, a self-confessed player of the pink oboe, a man or woman who by his or her own admission chews pillows’.
It required some effort to remember that Scott was the injured party here, the man who had come within a whisker of being shot dead. Even with the judge’s words ringing in their ears, it took the jury fifteen hours to come up with a verdict of not guilty on all the defendants. For Thorpe, however, it was a pyrrhic victory; thereafter doors were politely but firmly shut in his face, as the ranks of society closed against him. At the age of just fifty, a man who should have had a glittering political career was effectively destroyed...
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2008