Wednesday, December 4, 2019

This Day in Crime History (Death of Jeremy Thorpe, Fallen Politico in ‘A Very English Scandal’)

Dec. 4, 2014—Jeremy Thorpe, who lost his chance at becoming a power broker in English politics when his hiring of a hitman to take out his homosexual lover was exposed, died at age 85 of Parkinson’s disease.

Hugh Grant, who played Thorpe in the BBC One miniseries, A Very English Scandal, summed up, with characteristic wit, the difference between how different countries might handle such embarrassing situations, in a December 2018 interview with Michael Schneider of Indiewire:

“If you imagine a Russian plotting a murder it would probably go quite well. Or a Saudi. Or an American. The Mafia do a good job. But [here] it’s English because it’s such a failure!”

English political sex scandals, to elaborate on Grant’s distinction, differ not so much in number as in kind from their American counterparts. American scandals tend to involve someone at the office (Monica Lewinsky) or an affair that shocks a politician’s “base” (e.g., Protestant fundamentalists—at least, before Donald Trump).

In contrast, English sex scandals involve the Establishment closing ranks—even if not necessarily very successfully—behind one of its own. It all comes to naught when really, really wild circumstances come to light.

In the Profumo scandal of 1963, for instance, it involved a Secretary of War sleeping with a call girl who was also intimate with a Soviet military attache—opening up the possibility of state secrets being shared with the Kremlin through pillow talk.

The case of Thorpe revolved around nothing with such high national-security implications, but it was certainly more bizarre and, as Grant implied, serio-comic. 

It not only involved the head of a rising political party employing the services of a contract killer to off a young stable hand-turned-aspiring male model, Norman Scott, whose services the politico had employed for—er, a rather different purpose—but that said killer botched the job—catching up with Scott on a remote country road, all right, but wasting his ammunition on the young man’s dog, a Great Dane named Rinka, only to have his gun jam when he aimed it at Scott.

Four, maybe even three, decades later, after national attitudes had relaxed, Thorpe might have told Scott to do his damnedest with his account of their homosexual relationship. But, though homosexuality had been decriminalized in 1967, it was still considered political kryptonite. 

At a time when he was maneuvering the Liberal Party as a potential junior coalition partner in the government—maybe even enough to win him a Cabinet seat—Thorpe felt he had to squelch the scandal at all costs. With payments to ensure Scott’s silence no longer effective, he allegedly felt stronger measures, like murder, were in order.

But the fall from political grace was sharp. Having become the youngest leader of any British political party in a century when he took over the Liberals in 1967, Thorpe now became the first British Member of Parliament to stand trial for murder. Having tripled the party’s vote count, he was now forced to yield the mantle of Liberal leadership.

In an elemental sense, Thorpe survived his legal ordeal, in no small part due to the judge in the case, who instructed the jury that Scott was "a hysterical, warped personality… a neurotic, spineless creature, addicted to hysteria and self-advertisement"; that the prosecution witnesses were not trustworthy because they could sell their stories to the press; and that the jurors were entitled to consider the entire career of Thorpe. The jury, not surprisingly, acquitted Thorpe. 

The contrast between a patrician defendant and low-class accuser was as stark in the Thorpe case as it was in Profumo’s, but it could not save either man from the loss of power. 

Even after the acquittal, voters turned Thorpe out of office in 1979. He tried tenaciously and repeatedly to win appointment to another position, but it was not to be, and eventually Parkinson’s sapped his energy and will.

Had Thorpe’s career not gone into the ditch, he might have effected a remarkable comeback for a party that, under David Lloyd-George, had been instrumental in the first decades of the 20th century in paving the way toward British social-welfare legislation, leading the nation through the tumultuous Great War, and affecting the destinies of new nations such as Ireland and Iraq. 

The Liberals, whose crash in the 1920s had coincided with the rise of the more militant Labour Party, would have stood, under Thorpe, as a potential centrist alternative to Labour and the Conservatives. But it all came asunder with Thorpe's fall.

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