5 June 2018

Jeremy Thorpe and the rule of law

By Harry Phibbs

Norman Scott has complained that millions of us have been roaring with laughter on Sunday evenings over the last three weeks as we watch A Very English Scandal, the BBC dramatisation of his affair with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, his attempted murder and the ensuing trial. “There’s nothing funny about someone trying to kill you,” he told the Mail on Sunday. You can see his point.

But then who said humour was nice? The American writer, P J O’Rourke, once reflected that a kitten playing with a ball of wool is only funny when it strangles itself.

“Bunnies can and will go to France,” wrote Thorpe to Scott in 1962. After the bungled murder attempt the letter entered the public domain. That required some sort of explanation from Thorpe to his wife Marion
when it appeared in 1976. “Technically he wasn’t bunny singular,” Thorpe tells his wife in the BBC version. “I was using a generic noun in an imperative clause.” She replies: “Well thank God it’s grammatically correct because the whole country’s reading this.”

Still it was necessary for Thorpe to resign from the Party leadership. He still managed to give Marion a positive spin: “The Party could do with a change in leadership. All that new blood coming in. Clement
Freud, Cyril Smith. Exciting times!”

Amid all this there is a serious point. Ultimately it is a positive one. Often we divide ourselves into conspiracy theorists and those who are not conspiracy theorists. Yet the truth is that there was a conspiracy in the 1970s to protect Thorpe.

It wasn’t just high-ups in the Liberal Party who closed ranks. Harold Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister, was supportive of Thorpe, suggesting that the allegations were a set-up from apartheid South Africa. During an earlier Conservative Government, the Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, a friend of Thorpe’s despite the trivial matter of Party rivalry, was persuaded to instruct the police not to be too awkward.

Can you imagine the police and the prosecutors giving favourable treatment to members of the political class 40 years on? If anything, I suspect the concern now is that the opposite applies; that public figures get discriminated against in being treated more harshly.

Part of the explanation for this progress is the decriminalisation of homosexuality. That drains out some of the poison of blackmail and scandal. Yet the characters in this saga are too unsympathetic for this to work as a straightforward gay rights polemic.

So there is a wider aspect. The rule of law, and equality before the law, were important principles in the 1970s but if “the establishment” — a group of powerful people doing favours for each other — wished to suppress something or subvert due process then it was not so far fetched that they could get away with it. The correlation of forces have changed. Then we had Private Eye. Now we have the internet. Scott’s evidence was dismissed by the judge summing up saying: “He is a crook. He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite.”

I am not claiming that miscarriages of justice are impossible. It is just that by comparison with the past — or many other countries in the present — we are fortunate that justice is so effectively upheld not just in theory but in reality.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist and blogger.