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MewzikFreek "lynchola" (Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire United Kingdom)

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A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment
A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment
by John Preston
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thrilling read about a major British political scandal, 16 May 2016
NOTE - This review is based on a proof copy of "A Very English Scandal" (due for publication on May 5th 2016). which was given to me by the publishers, Viking for the purpose of a review. My apologies for any spoilers, but it's difficult to review a highly publicised historical event without giving some of the plot away.

In the 1960's and 1970's, Jeremy Thorpe - the flamboyant Liberal MP and later leader of the Liberal Party - was one of the most familiar figures in British politics and many pundits believed he was destined for greatness. Incredibly, this glittering career was derailed amid sensational claims that he hired a hit man to silence the claims of a gay lover. This scandal resulted in Thorpe's arrest and subsequent trial after he was arrested on charges of conspiracy to murder and incitement to murder. Throughout the winter of 1978 and spring of 1979 his trial shocked an almost incredulous audience, not only in Britain but all over the world.

In his book, "A Very English Scandal", the writer and journalist John Preston reveals how, over a period of almost 20 years, Thorpe lived in constant fear of his homosexuality being exposed to the British public. Until 1967, homosexuality in Britain was a crime, punishable by a prison sentence. Despite this, it almost beggars belief that a major British political figure involved himself in what was probably the most inept murder plot in the history of British crime. Yet, in 1979, Thorpe found himself on trial with three others, charged with conspiracy to murder his alleged former lover - the former stable boy turned male model Norman Scott.

We are introduced to some amazingly colourful characters, some of them outright liars and con-men and a few thoroughly nasty individuals. The four main players are, Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott - who continually claimed he had had a homosexual relationship with the Liberal MP in the early 1960's - the Liberal MP and failed businessman, Peter Bessell and David Holmes, Thorpe's oldest friend and godfather to Thorpe's son from his 1st marriage. Holmes was also an assistant treasurer of the Liberal Party and took over from Bissell in the role as Thorpe's protector. From the start - allegedly at the constant urging of Thorpe - Bessell and Holmes were involved in various outrageous plans to prevent Norman Scott from ever revealing his alleged affair - a fact Thorpe denied until his death in 2014.

The Thorpe case bears some similarities to the Profumo affair of 1961, in which the Conservative Government's Minister for Defence, John Profumo lied to Parliament about his affair with a young woman, who was also involved with a Russian military attache. As a result of his tangled sex life, Profumo's political career was destroyed. In a subsequent trial, a handy scapegoat - Stephen Ward - was fitted up by the police and the British legal system and found guilty, leading to his suicide on the very day he was to be sentenced. There is no doubt that Thorpe continually lied about his homosexuality and ultimately his career would be destroyed just as Profumo's was, even though he always insisted he had never been in a relationship with Scott.

Thorpe and his alleged lover, (born Norman Josiffe, later changing his surname to Scott), appear to have had a few similar traits. Both are portrayed as irresponsible men who played on the sympathy of friends and expected the various messes they made to be cleaned up by others. Both were regarded by many as selfish and egotistical. Scott also sponged money from gullible people, regularly accepting small or large amounts of cash as he stumbled from one life crisis to another. Thorpe's need for cash was based on his seeming lust for personal power and he was adept at soliciting contributions for his party - and for the purpose of hiring someone to frighten Scott into silence.

From the early 1960's, there were various claims that Thorpe was homosexual. It is a matter of record that the Liberal Party investigated Scott's claims as early as 1971. Once the trial began and details of this sordid mess emerged, the British media and general public resorted to some outrageous humour. "Vote Liberal - or we'll shoot your dog", was probably the favourite joke at the time. Despite the pathetic nature of many of the characters, throughout Preston's book, there are some wonderfully laugh out loud moments - many of them concerning the behaviour and attitudes of British politicians. At one point, Peter Bessell describes the attempts to kill Scott as being "like an excerpt from a badly written detective novel", and that neatly sums up the "conspiracy" to silence Norman Scott.

For large parts of the book, it's extremely difficult to decide what is fact and what is fantasy as stated by many of those involved. Most "evidence" come from the recollections of Peter Bissell and Norman Scott. (Preston was given access to a memoir on the Thorpe affair, written by Norman Scott and documents from the late Peter Bissell's family). Bissell obviously wants us to see him in a good light as the faithful friend of Jeremy Thorpe while Scott is clearly prone to flights of paranoid fantasy and - leaving aside his claims about the affair with Thorpe - many of his statements seem barely credible. Like Bessell, it's clear he wants people to regard him as an innocent victim. However, as the story progressed I found it hard to maintain sympathy for either man, especially their attempts to show themselves as more sinned against than sinning. Thorpe is shown in a similar bad light - a man who continually manipulated others to serve his own selfish interests. Unfortunately for him, he is the one character in the story who is unable to make statements in his defence and we are forced to accept or reject Bessell and Scott's versions of events.

Whatever the outcome of his trial or the truth of Scott's allegations, once the story became public knowledge, Thorpe became an electoral liability for the Liberals and his political career was over. He had actually lost his Parliamentary seat in a General Election, just before the trial began. Although he and his fellow accused were eventually found not guilty, the majority of the British public certainly never trusted him again. Whatever the truth of the matter, Thorpe's career was ruined and he was shunned by most of his former Liberal Party colleagues for the remainder of his life.

Ultimately, it was Bessell whose reputation suffered as much as Thorpe's during "The Trial Of The Century", as the media labelled it. Daily Express newspaper columnist Jean Rook described it as "the greatest show on Earth" and it was certainly a media circus of international proportions. From the start, Thorpe's lawyer George Carman skewered Bessell on the witness stand, showing him to be greedy and completely untrustworthy. Bessell hadn't done himself any favours before the trial, agreeing a £50,000 deal with a national newspaper for a series of articles about his involvement in the alleged plot. Sir Joseph Cantley, the presiding judge made what is possibly the most biased summing-up of a criminal case ever made in a court of law. Carman's defence was brilliant and highly effective although many in the legal profession felt that the prosecution case had been less then half-hearted. To many, the fact that Thorpe gave no evidence at his trial was evidence of his guilt, but the jury found otherwise.

As with the earlier Profumo affair, this salacious piece of British history is laced with the hypocrisy of Britain's politicians, lawyers, senior police officers and the ever present British media which always represents itself as the guardian of public when it is as much a pillar of the Establishment as any section of Britain's ruling class. In particular, none of the politicians connected with the Thorpe case emerge with any credit whatsoever. But those politicians along with the rest of the Establishment always prefers to believe its own. A charming, sophisticated and witty man such as Thorpe has always to be given the benefit of the doubt while lesser mortals, such as Norman Scott are to be dismissed out of hand.

This is a well-researched, fast-paced, fascinating read. A highly readable, near fantastical tale which, at times, reads like a fictional political thriller. John Preston uses his skills as an experienced journalist to present all sides of what is a tortuous tale of deceit and hypocrisy at the heart of the British Establishment. Maybe not a conspiracy, but definitely an attempt at a major political cover-up, which descended into near farce.

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Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 17, 2016 6:15 PM BST


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