Two funny, yet disturbing, books have me thinking about who really governs Britain – and who should
Everyone knows about it now, of course. The 2018 BBC drama series A Very English Scandal has introduced a new generation to one of the strangest stories of the 1970s – the Party leader, Jeremy Thorpe, who was charged with incitement and conspiracy to murder. Until recently, the matter had been largely forgotten. It had faded to a footnote. One had to be 60 to remember it at all well, and no-one who wasn’t knew, or cared, what it had been about. Then in 2014 Thorpe, by then an old and very sick man, died; two years later, John Preston published the book on which the series was based.
At about the same time, political journalist Ben Wright published Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking. One book is a story of shot dogs, petty crooks, skullduggery and attempted murder. The other is a merry romp through the many bars of the Palace of Westminster. Both are entertaining, but they do leave you wondering who the hell has been in charge of the nation. They also left me thinking hard about who we want in public life, and what we want of them. My conclusions weren’t quite what one might expect.
|Thorpe in 1965 (National Portrait Gallery/Walter Bird)|
For those unacquainted with the Jeremy Thorpe scandal, the bare facts are as follows. In 1961 Thorpe was a young Liberal MP who had first been elected to Parliament two years earlier (as had Margaret Thatcher). Visiting a friend in the countryside, he was rather taken with a handsome, smouldering 21-year-old stable lad called Norman Scott. He resolved to seduce him, did so, and conducted an affair with him for several years. This was risky, as homosexual sex was to be illegal in Britain until 1967. The affair palled for Thorpe. However, Scott proved unable to manage his life well afterwards and turned to Thorpe for help.
Scott does not appear to have been vindictive or spiteful; he had had a difficult start in life, but loved animals and only really wanted to work with horses. However, Thorpe, fearing blackmail, dumped the problem on another Liberal MP, Peter Bessell – a man scarcely better able to manage his own affairs than Scott was. For several years, Bessell made various efforts to keep the lid on Scott, by helping him in small ways here and there. However, as Scott’s life spiralled out of control, he became more and more importunate. In the meantime, in 1967 Thorpe was elected leader of the Liberal Party, making him a major national figure. Thorpe resolved to do away with Scott rather than risk a scandal.
The matter climaxed with a botched murder attempt, Thorpe’s fall, and his eventual trial and acquittal for incitement and conspiracy to murder. It was a scandal that had the nation rivetted for years, and I have never forgotten it, for I was a Liberal activist in the 1970s; I was thus involved, albeit very peripherally, and was present at one or two of the occasions described in the book.
Author John Preston, formerly of the Sunday Telegraph and London’s Evening Standard, has done a splendid job. A complex narrative with multiple actors is very well managed, and the book is extremely well-paced. It also conveys the feel of the times. Preston takes us through the reforms of 1967 that finally made homosexuality legal in Britain, legislation that owed much to Lord Arran, a well-loved if somewhat eccentric peer known to his friends as Boofy; he and his wife were also deeply committed to the cause of badger welfare, and kept a number of the animals in their house, wearing Wellington boots indoors to avoid badger bites. Arran was deluged with hate mail for advocating the homosexual cause. “On another occasion,” writes Preston, “a parcel containing human excrement arrived at his office. Apparently, under the impression that it was pâté, his secretary told him, ‘I threw it away, Lord Arran. It wouldn’t keep.’” After the reform had passed: “Afterwards Lord Arran was asked why his homosexual law reforms had succeeded, while his efforts to protect the rights of badgers had not. Arran paused, and then said ruminatively, ‘There are not many badgers in the House of Lords.’”
Throughout the book stalks the figure of Jeremy Thorpe himself – charming, warm, kindly and utterly ruthless in his use of his friends, especially Peter Bessell. In the end, Bessell was not fooled. A few others, such as the journalist Auberon Waugh, never really had been. Yet most people seem to have been fixated by Thorpe’s charm. The facts of Thorpe’s affair were known to the police as early as 1962, and to successive home secretaries from 1965. At no point was he warned that he could be prosecuted, or advised to withdraw from the public eye. When he finally did face trial, the proceedings were so heavily loaded in his favour as to seem rigged; the summing-up of the judge, Sir Joseph Cantley, was so skewed towards the principal defendant that it became the subject of a famous parody by the comedian Peter Cook. There had clearly been a cover-up by the Establishment to look after one of its own. Thorpe was acquitted. But although the Establishment had saved his skin, it did not – to his own surprise – welcome him back; he slid into obscurity and died there 35 years later, in 2014. Only then did this bizarre affair resurface in the public consciousness.
My first thoughts on reading Preston’s book were that I should be angry; that, as an idealistic young activist 40 years ago, I had been betrayed by a cynical social system that protected the powerful, and punished the Norman Scotts of this world. Neither was Thorpe the only character in this book who committed crimes, and got away with it where a mere pleb would not. A minor role was played by Labour politician George Thomas, who arranged for Bessell to plead Thorpe’s case to the then Home Secretary, Sir Frank Soskice. Thomas, later Lord Tonypandy, eventually became a much-loved Speaker of the House of Commons – yet after his death in 1997 it was suggested that he himself had been homosexual, had been blackmailed because of it, and, worse, had been guilty of child abuse (it should be said that this was never tested in court). At another point in the narrative, Thorpe does a publicity stunt with Jimmy, later Sir Jimmy, Savile, later exposed (again, after his death) as a child abuser of epic proportions. Last but not least, a larger-than-life figure in the later stages of the book was the Liberal Chief Whip, Cyril Smith, a man of massive girth (he was said to weigh nearly 30 stone, about 190 kg). He was finally revealed (again, after his death) to be a serial sex offender against children.
What is particularly depressing about Preston’s narrative, entertaining as it is, is that all of this was known to people in power at the time. Thorpe’s MI5 file had hit the desk of successive Home Secretaries and Prime Ministers. Of the latter, Harold Wilson was also apparently well aware that Bessell’s business affairs were well dodgy. (It is a pity he did not look harder at one of Bessell’s contemporaries, Labour MP Robert Maxwell, who as chairman of the House catering committee apparently flogged off all its best vintages, and may have trousered the proceeds.) As for Cyril Smith, in 1980 I was having lunch with a friend and fellow Liberal activist in Liverpool, and commented that I had brought Smith to Warwick University for a speaking engagement the previous year, and had liked him (as indeed I had). “But you know that he interferes with little boys,” my friend told me. It was, he said, well known in Rochdale. It seems it was; an attempt to unmask him had been suppressed the previous year. But the allegations did not surface properly until after Smith’s death in 2010, 30 years later.
As I came to the end of A Very English Scandal, I felt angry and cynical. Yet at the very end of the book, there was something that lifted my spirits – of which more below. And then I read Ben Wright’s Order, Order!, and started to see some more shades of grey.
Ben Wright is a BBC political correspondent, currently based in Washington. Order! Order! is a journey through the alcoholic haze of British politics. It is, for the most part, about Westminster (though there are some side-trips to Washington and a vodka-fuelled romp through the Kremlin).
Like A Very English Scandal, it is entertaining. Thus the Speaker of the Commons in the 1960s comes into the Chamber so pissed that he cannot clamber into the chair, whereupon the Government Chief Whip tells him he is a disgrace. “I’ll have you out of that chair within three months,” he calls, to be told, “How can you get me out of the chair, Bob, when I can’t get myself into it?” On a March evening in 1979 the Government falls (I remember this well) and the press corps corps find themselves compelled to cover events without alcohol as the catering staff are on strike. (“Passers-by were confronted with that most frightening spectacle: a sober mob of journalists.”) Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson, denying that he has been drunk in the House: “My lunches consist of bananas, still water, preserved apricots and bats’ droppings.”
But of course this does not always end well. Wright records a Tory MP for High Peak who was notorious for his claret habit and became a sort of Lord of Misrule. Yet it caught up with him in the end, and the MP and journalist Matthew Parris would later remember the member towards the end of his life, drinking water at lunch but ordering melon with port for dessert and desperately trying to spoon the port from it. In due course he died. Wright’s purpose is not simply to make us laugh; indeed, his last chapter reviews the various unpleasant ways liver disease can kill us. To be honest, that chapter, true though it is, feels a little dutiful. But Wright clearly wants to ensure that his book is not taken as a paean of praise to heavy drinking, and he is right to do so.
Yet Wright also wants to present the way that booze has lubricated political discourse – and to show us what we might have lost. He quotes journalist Peter Oborne to this effect. “Political discourse in the last century was more humorous, kinder, more generous,” says Oborne. “Less earnestness, less dogmatism, more humanity at a personal level. I don’t think it’s entirely a gain that we’ve moved from a culture that was based on drinking alcohol together to a culture based on drinking coffee together.”
Wright looks at why things have changed. The hard-drinking culture of the past was sometimes the product of a bygone breed of MPs from an industrial, union background (and, though he does not say so, one suspects the Tory squirearchy supplied a boozy element too). Today’s MP is, by contrast, anodyne and without identity. “The demise of heavy industry,” says Wright, “has been matched by the rise of the professional politician. Today it is common for MPs of all stripes to be incubated in think tanks or serve political apprenticeships as ministerial special advisers before entering the Commons.” As Oborne hints, they drink coffee. Neither are they so likely to hit The Gay Hussar or other West End and Westminster restaurants to brief journalists off the record (as Wright recounts, for Labour MPs, Alastair Campbell stopped that).
There is no evidence whatever that this has improved our political discourse. And it has pushed the politician away from the people. For proof of this we need only look at the popularity of Nigel Farage, who is careful to be seen with a pint in hand. This is calculated, as Farage more or less admits to Wright: “The reason it works is because in a politically correct age where all this stuff is frowned upon I think people see it as two fingers up to the establishment and political correctness,” he says, though he claims that isn’t why he is doing it. But I suspect it is, at least in part. The new sobriety may also have increased the partisan divide. At Westminster, there always was one; the Tory and Labour members tended to use different bars, But there was no strict apartheid. And in Congress, says White, a discreet drinking culture saw the members drop by each other’s rooms for a bourbon sundowner. No more.
Should we beg our pols to go back on the booze? It’s tempting to say yes. At the end of 2016 I published my own polemic, Such Little Accident, in which I argued that political discourse depended on people meeting face-to-face and that we no longer did so. I did not insist that these encounters should involve alcohol. But I implied that they often would, and stressed the pub as a place where people did not go as often as they did.
However, one thoughtful reviewer, herself someone who had taken part in public life, wasn’t so sure. “As a teetotaller I cannot say I am swayed by any argument that pubs are an answer to bringing back real political debate. As an ex-member of the Labour party and ex-city councillor in the late 1980s, being teetotal excluded me from many if not the majority of the decision making by the battalion of overwhelmingly white male Labour councillors.” It is a fair comment, and the drinking culture of the House of Commons as it was until the 1980s will have excluded, or at least not drawn in, many who were not natural participants, especially women (Mo Mowlem is the only woman politician who Wright cites as having navigated that culture successfully). It is also bound to exclude those whose social or religious background does not include the traditional British boozing culture. This cannot be a good thing.
But something has been lost, and I am unsure as to what has been gained.
Where do these two books leave us? On the face of it, they are about the failure of the Westminster system. A ruthless Establishment protects its own, even when they are mixed up in murder – though only to protect itself; they are spat out afterwards. Meanwhile a culture of drunkenness prevails in the House, but is then replaced by a cold technocracy that alienates the voters. It is all rather grim. But there are those shades of grey.
A Very English Scandal presents Thorpe, and to some extent Bessell, and their contemporaries in their very worst light. In a way this is fair; it’s an awful story. Yet Preston admits, albeit briefly, that Thorpe had genuine political principles, of a sort. Moreover, although the book is well-researched, Preston relies heavily on certain sources. He has to; most of the prime movers are dead, and he has made every effort to speak to those who aren’t, as the Acknowledgements section makes clear. But he seems to recount in great detail what Peter Bessell did, thought and felt, so he may have relied heavily on a memoir, Cover-up,that Bessell published privately a few years before his death.
There is also a conspiratorial feel about the book in places. Thorpe’s first wife, Caroline Allpass, died in a car accident not long after the 1970 General Election, after only two years of marriage; her car drifted across the centre line on the A303 and hit a lorry coming the other way. Preston hints at rumours that she had found out about Norman Scott and seemed distracted at the time of the accident. In fact, the witness accounts suggest she simply lost concentration (on a stretch of road that was then quite dangerous; I knew it well). In another passage, Preston implies that Wilson’s first Home Secretary, Sir Frank Soskice, not only knew of the Scott affair in 1965 but had read compromising correspondence between Thorpe and Scott, and swept it under the carpet. In fact, Preston’s account suggests that while this is entirely possible, it’s far from proven; Soskice may have had the facts to hand but not bothered to read them. The Establishment did close ranks around Thorpe. But how deliberately, and how explicitly, isn’t clear.
I wondered, too, to what extent the Thorpe affair was the result of laws and mores that were themselves quite wrong. Thorpe was terrified that he would be exposed as a practising homosexual at a time when it was illegal – but it should never have been. In fact many public figures must have wondered what would happen were their private lives to have been exposed. They had good reason to be afraid, as Lord Arran’s mailbag showed.
I have no wish to excuse Thorpe. Preston may have shown us the worst of him, but it’s clear that he was charming but cynical and a user of the worst sort. Neither should Bessell have a free pass. He was a much nicer man, and behaved well at the end; but his judgement was awful, as regards Thorpe and much else besides. Moreover successive Home Secretaries knew how badly compromised Thorpe was by his private life and did nothing. Late in the book we have Cyril Smith as Liberal Chief Whip, trying to keep a lid on the scandal when he himself had horrible things to hide. There is even a Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police who in 1971 tacitly endorsed a cover-up when he must surely have known what was in Thorpe’s police file. After I finished the book, I mentioned the latter to a friend who is a former detective (not from the Met). He was not at all surprised. “As a police officer, you were always dealing with people more powerful than yourself,” he told me. “You were often told to be careful.” The picture that emerges from Preston’s book is one of a corrupt and closed Establishment that makes fools of us all. As for Order, Order!, it shows us a world of (mostly) men pissed as farts in the Mother of Parliaments, as capable of transacting the business of the land as they were of raising the Titanic.
And yet in a sense Peter Oborne was right; something has gone. We are now governed by technocrats, former “research assistants” whose purpose has always been to enter Parliament and whose private lives, one suspects, have been dull; in today’s 24-hour rolling news culture, they must have nothing to hide, and must always be sharp, available and well-briefed. The idea of going on TV completely soused, as Wilson’s Foreign Secretary George Brown did more than once, would be foreign to them. Perhaps it should be. But it is hard to see what moves them.
The ructions over Brexit, in particular, have uncovered a remarkable lack of spirit in the House. Many if not most members are known to think that it is a bad idea, but cannot bring themselves to oppose it openly lest they incur the wrath of their constituents or their party leadership. So they will do nothing to stop it. One yearns for a George Brown, or even perhaps a Churchill, to get tanked up on the terrace or in the Smoking Room and stride into the chamber, kneel briefly to the chair, take their place upon the green benches, rise – a little unsteadily – to their feet and proclaim: “Mr Speaker, we are sleepwalking to disaster.” But they won’t. With one or two proud exceptions, the careerist, technocratic nature of the modern politician is not to take such a risk.
|Reporting the trial: The Mirror, 1979|
Perhaps this timidity is also because they are under far greater scrutiny than they once were. On paper, of course, we have become more tolerant. A man or woman’s sexual preferences are now, in theory, no-one’s business but their own, provided they do not involve children or the vulnerable. But a quick tour through a few Facebook discussion groups can sometimes show how little has really changed. Those who take their own stand on matters of policy can also be a target; I wonder if Lord Arran might find a modern Tory Remain rebel’s postbag all too familiar. Moreover there is now a merciless 24-hour news cycle that needs far more material than it once did. A sharp light would be shone on the private life of anyone remotely interesting. The colourful individuals of the past – the Tom Dribergs, the Bob Boothbys – may still be with us, but not in public life. We should not be surprised if they now choose to do something else. To be sure, Thorpe was a disgrace, and being a drunk is not a virtue. But maybe the pendulum has swung back too far the other way.
There is a gentler note at the end of A Very English Scandal. Preston reproduces a letter from Peter Bessell to Norman Scott, written after the trial at which both had – at some personal cost – given evidence against Thorpe, only to see him walk. The letter is kind and generous, and makes it clear that Bessell thought they had still done the right thing in giving evidence – but also that, remarkably, he forgave Thorpe:
The important thing is that we must all be willing to face the absolute truth, even if the consequences are not entirely pleasant for any of us…
There is a wonderful side to Jeremy’s character which I shall always admire and hold in affection. That does not excuse his actions in respect of you ...but he needs understanding and sympathy just as much as the rest of us…
Bessell died a few years later. He had been a fool to trust Thorpe, who did not deserve his forgiveness. Moreover his own business and personal life had been a mess. Yet there is something attractive in that letter, and I should much rather dine with its author than I would with most current public figures. Maybe there is a question for us here . What, actually, do we want our politicians to be? Would we have them cold, sober, ambitious and obedient, as they have mostly become? Or would we rather they were fashioned of the same warped, unseasoned wood as the rest of us, the better to carry our hopes and dreams?
Mike Robbins's essay Such Little Accident: British democracy and its enemies
was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN 978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)