UPDATED Jeremy Thorpe, long a sufferer with Parkinson’s Disease, died overnight in the UK. He was 85.
I am warmly indebted to my old friend and political compadre Simon Titley for reminding me that it was thirty four years tomorrow that the leader of the then Liberal Party in the UK, (now the Lib Dems), Jeremy Thorpe, was acquitted of the attempted murder of his alleged homosexual lover, Norman Scott, in a sensational trial that effectively ended his career and transfixed the nation for weeks.
As a politician Jeremy Thorpe was a one-off. Not many political leaders of the day would have consorted with Jimi Hendrix. He also acquired the risible nickname “Bomber” Thorpe, for arguing the the British should meet the Rhodesian Unilateral Declaration of Independence by bombing the white farmers who led it.
Despite often being lampooned, he proved a successful leader with a knack of winning key by-elections, and in 1974 achieved a credible 19% of the popular vote for the Liberals and came within a whisker of joining a coalition Government with Ted Heath’s Tories, but judged that the resulting minority Government could not survive a confidence motion in the house, nor would it be popular with his party, and he declined.
Persistent rumours about Thorpe’s sexuality dogged his political career. Norman Scott, a former male model, met Thorpe in 1961 while working as a stable lad. He later claimed that he and Thorpe had had a homosexual relationship between 1961 and 1963, when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain.
Scott’s airing of these claims led to an inquiry within the Liberal Party in 1971, which exonerated Thorpe. Scott, however, continued to make the allegations. These allegations were published in great detail in a book called Rinkagate—The Rise and Fall of Jeremy Thorpe by Simon Freeman and Barrie Penrose (Bloomsbury 1996).
In October 1975, Andrew ‘Gino’ Newton, a former airline pilot, collected Norman Scott from where he was living in Combe Martin, North Devon, and drove him to Exmoor; Newton drove Scott onto Porlock Hill, where they stopped and got out of the car.
Newton then shot Scott’s dog Rinka, a Great Dane, (the scandal was also called “Rinkagate” in the public consciousness) before turning the gun on Scott.
When the case came before Exeter Crown court, in March 1976, Scott said that the gun jammed and that Newton then drove off, leaving him alone beside the dead dog.
But Newton always maintained that his intention was only to frighten Scott, who, he alleged, possessed incriminating photographs of Newton. In any event, Newton was convicted for the illegal possession of a firearm and an intent to endanger life.
During his court appearance, Scott repeated his claims of a relationship with Thorpe, and alleged that Thorpe had threatened to kill him if he spoke about their affair. Scott also sold letters to the press which he claimed to be love letters from Thorpe.
One of these included the memorable line “Bunnies can and will go to France”, which supposedly showed Thorpe using his ‘pet-name’ for Scott in connection with a promise to find Scott a well-paid job in France.
Contemporaneously, the phrase “Bunnies can and will got to France” was used to sniggeringly imply that something illegal, or at least immoral, could always be arranged for someone.
The scandal forced Thorpe to resign as Liberal Party leader on 9 May 1976.
He was replaced temporarily by his predecessor Jo Grimond and then permanently by David Steel.
Andrew Newton was released from prison in April 1977, and then revived the scandal by claiming that he had, in fact, been hired to kill Norman Scott.
On 4 August 1978, Thorpe was accused along with David Holmes (deputy Treasurer of the Liberal Party), George Deakin (a night club owner) and businessman John Le Mesurier (neither the actor nor the athletics coach) of conspiracy to murder. Thorpe was also separately accused of inciting Holmes to murder Scott.
The trial was scheduled to take place a week before the general election of 1979, but Thorpe obtained a fortnight’s delay to fight the election. However, Thorpe was narrowly defeated.
Thorpe and the three other accused were put on trial at Number One Court at the Old Bailey on 8 May 1979, a week after Thorpe had lost his seat.
Thorpe was charged with attempted murder and, along with the other three defendants, conspiracy to murder.
One of the chief prosecution witnesses was former Liberal MP and failed businessman Peter Bessell, who claimed to have been present while the murder plot was discussed within the Liberal Party. According to Bessell, poison had been rejected as a method of killing Scott because “it would raise too many questions if he fell dead off a barstool”. One alleged plan had been to shoot Scott in Cornwall and dispose of the body down a disused tin mine shaft.
Bessell agreed to appear as a witness in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
His credibility was damaged, however, because he had sold his story to The Sunday Telegraph for a fee that would double from £25,000 to £50,000 if the prosecution was successful.
Thorpe did not testify in the case, but his counsel, led by George Carman QC, argued that, although he and Scott had been friends, there had been no sexual relationship. Carman claimed that Scott had sought to blackmail Thorpe and that, although Thorpe and his friends had discussed “frightening” Scott into silence, they had never conspired to kill him.
It is a matter of record that Thorpe, who is still alive, was acquitted, but Judge Mr Justice Cantley’s summing-up was widely criticised for showing a nakedly pro-establishment bias, and it made headlines when he described Scott as “a crook, an accomplished liar … a fraud”.
In spite of the judge’s direction, the jury was at first split 6–6, but, after 15 hours of deliberation, it finally reached a verdict of Not Guilty. The four defendants were all acquitted on 22 June 1979.
This left merely the leading satirist Peter Cook to memorably provide a spoof of Cantley’s summing up, which thankfully is preserved by YouTube amongst others, as it is perhaps the finest ever modern example of skewering, savage wit being used to make an important social or political point. If you think Stephen Colbert or John Stewart are good – and they are, really really good – then give yourself the time to watch Cook’s bravura performance. Click the screen below.
Not only is it gut-churningly laugh-out-loud funny, but it remains one of the most culturally significant uses of satire in the second half of the 20th century, and is an example, should an example be needed, of the vital role that free-speaking and free-thinking comedians play in pressing our culture and democracy.
If you have any difficulty playing the spot, (as YouTube is acting up a touch for me) then just click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xi-agPf95M or paste it into your browser.
Oh, and pillow biter? During the trail Scott mentioned, indicating his reluctant participation in receptive homosexual sex, “I just bit the pillow, I tried not to scream because I was frightened of waking Mrs Thorpe.” Pillow biter immediately became, and has remained, a pejorative term for a homosexual man.
The rest, as they say, is history. So now you know …