John Preston, author of A Very English Scandal, explains how he came to write about the Jeremy Thorpe affair – the shocking true story of the first British politician to stand trial for murder
Growing up in the 1970s I vividly remember the Jeremy Thorpe affair – surely the greatest scandal in British parliamentary history. At the start of the decade, Thorpe, the dashing, charismatic leader of the Liberal Party, stood poised on the brink of power. Five years later, he went on trial at the Old Bailey accused of conspiracy to murder his former boyfriend, Norman Scott.
This was – and remains – the most serious criminal charge ever levelled against a sitting MP. Just as importantly, it was the first time that a leading British politician had been exposed as homosexual. More than 40 years on, it’s hard to imagine what a furore this caused. I remember my mother – not normally an unworldly woman – saying to me during the trial that Thorpe couldn’t possibly be homosexual because he had been to Eton. Even then, I remember thinking to myself, Hmm, I’m not so sure about that…
What fascinated me most [...] was the fact that at its heart it's a story about betrayal - about friendship gone horrible wrong
For years I’d wanted to write about the Thorpe affair – partly because of its extraordinary mix of scandal, deceit and astonishingly bad behaviour. And partly because of what it says about the Britain of almost half a century ago – a place where homosexuality was still taboo and where the Establishment regularly closed ranks to protect its own members. With all the stories that have come out recently, people might assume that there can’t be anything left to say about hypocrisy and cover-ups in the corridors of power. But the Thorpe affair easily trumps everything else in this regard.
What fascinated me most of all, though, was the fact that at its heart it’s a story about betrayal – about friendship gone horribly wrong. Throughout his life, Jeremy Thorpe had a knack of getting other people to do his dirty work for him. No one was more loyal in this regard than his fellow Liberal MP, Peter Bessell. But when Thorpe came to trial in 1979, Bessell was the Chief Prosecution Witness against him. I wanted to try and get to the bottom of what prompts someone to turn against his best friend.
However much I wanted to write about the Thorpe affair, I still faced what seemed to be an insoluble problem: I couldn’t work out how to tackle the story in a way that was fundamentally different to anything else that had been written about it. And then I had an extraordinary piece of luck. I happened to mention to a friend of mine that I wanted to do something on Thorpe. 'Oh,' he said, 'Do you want to meet Norman Scott?'
It turned out that his sister-in-law was living in the same village as Scott – Thorpe’s former boyfriend and the intended victim of his murder plot. Immediately, I threw some things into the back of my car and drove down to see him. Now 75, Scott’s memory of the whole affair turned out to be crystal-clear. Sitting in his living room, I switched on my tape-recorder – and all at once saw just how this book could be written.
The shocking true story of the first British politician to stand trial for murder
Behind oak-panelled doors in the House of Commons, men with cut-glass accents and gold signet rings are conspiring to murder. It's the late 1960s and homosexuality has only just been legalised, and Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal party, has a secret he's desperate to hide. As long as Norman Scott, his beautiful, unstable lover is around, Thorpe's brilliant career is at risk. With the help of his fellow politicians, Thorpe schemes, deceives, embezzles - until he can see only one way to silence Scott for good.
The trial of Jeremy Thorpe changed our society forever: it was the moment the British public discovered the truth about its political class. Illuminating the darkest secrets of the Establishment, the Thorpe affair revealed such breath-taking deceit and corruption in an entire section of British society that, at the time, hardly anyone dared believe it could be true.
A Very English Scandal is an eye-opening tale of how the powerful protect their own, and an extraordinary insight into the forces that shaped modern Britain.