A Very English Scandal – what was it about and does it matter?
I’d like to argue that it wasn’t about sex. Those who argue that Jeremy Thorpe was a victim of the pre-1967 laws against homosexual acts are missing the point. His homosexuality was, by all accounts, an open secret in his constituency and, as the drama showed, known to the police.
Part of the scandal was that the police simply ignored a formal complaint and deliberately “lost” it at a time when they were presumably happy to prosecute lesser mortals on the basis of similar information.
The scandal wasn’t about sex – it was about power and, above all, the very English expression of power that is the class system.
That’s why people were fascinated. Thorpe wasn’t in the same category as Oscar Wilde – he was in the same category as the Cambridge spies.
This is another of those stories that refuses to go away – the one about how a bunch of public schoolboys became closet communists and got top jobs in the British Secret Service. They got those jobs by belonging to the right sort of families, going to the right school and the right university. They avoided suspicion for the same reason and even when found out might, as in the case of Anthony Blunt, manage to get things dealt with “in-house”.
The most telling fact to emerge about Jeremy Thorpe was from the son of George Carman QC, Thorpe’s barrister, who reported (The Times, 3rd June 2018) that when they were at Oxford, Carman senior wrote Thorpe’s law essays for him.
The most telling line in the drama was from Norman Scott when he said the “Jeremy Thorpe went to Eton – I went to a secondary modern in Bexhill”.
Thorpe’s fall from grace wasn’t about sex, it was about being exposed as a public schoolboy with a sense of entitlement – a sense of entitlement that led him to abuse unequal relationships for his own gratification, to plan the murder of a member of the lower orders (“no worse than shooting a sick dog”) and to do so in the expectation that the Establishment would allow him to get away with it. He was almost right.