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The Jeremy Thorpe story: a classic Greek tragedy

‘A Very English Scandal’ is based on British politician Jeremy Thorpe’s life. Thorpe knew he was endangering his career but couldn’t stop. I suspect that’s a characteristic many politicians share

columns Updated: Jun 02, 2018 18:32 IST
Liberal party leader and Member of Parliament for North Devon Jeremy Thorpe, London(Getty Images)

Only the British could think of this! A three-part prime time series on the attempted murder of the homosexual lover of a leading British politician. And it’s not fiction. It’s a true story. The series is riveting and it has Britain captivated.

Called A Very English Scandal, it’s the story of one of the most fascinating and, in the 1960s and ’70s, one of the most important politicians, the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. Its climax, in the late ’70s, was a riveting court case, splashed across the front pages and television screens for weeks. It shattered Thorpe’s career and left one of the most ebullient and witty politicians in the country, a sad and lonely man.

Thorpe met his lover, Norman Scott, during a weekend visit to a friend’s country estate. Scott was a stable-hand. Attracted by his wanton lanky looks, Thorpe invited Scott to visit him in London. When he did, the love affair that followed, clandestine and usually conducted in cheap digs, lasted for a decade and a half.

Thorpe knew he was playing with fire but still found Scott irresistible. He thought he could have his lover and also hide the secret from the world. He even took Scott to his mother’s home and the series shows how, under her roof, their relationship was first consummated. Years later, when the scandal broke, the newspapers spoke of Vaseline and towels. They’re all too visible on the screen. Later, as part of his cover, Thorpe also got married and had a child.

The problem was that Scott was unstable and a drug addict. This insecurity was a threat but Thorpe thought he could handle it. Only when Scott began talking loosely of their relationship and blackmailed him, did Thorpe realise it had gone too far. Whilst Scott lived his career would always be at risk. But if Scott were eliminated his star could shine. Thorpe now planned to do away with him. That’s when the murder was plotted. A friend, David Holmes, procured the services of an assassin, Andrew Newton, and paid him £10,000.

Unfortunately, Newton bungled. He ended up killing Scott’s Great Dane, Rinka, and then, when he aimed at Scott, the pistol jammed. What Thorpe had hoped would be a quiet successful murder transformed into a messy police case and a memorable trial. The details held Britain in thrall.

In the end Thorpe was acquitted but his career was destroyed. Disgraced, he was cast out of the great British establishment. You could be forgiven if you feel this sounds like fiction. But every bit of this twisted, sordid, embarrassing and, yet, exciting and thrilling tale is true.

Thorpe lived his remaining years in Orme Square near London’s Nottinghill Gate. I would often see him of an evening, wearing a karakul cap and an overcoat with astrakhan collars and cuffs. He would silently pace the road outside his home ignored by the passing world. If someone recognised him and stopped to say hello he would smile. But he rarely looked you in the eye. It was obvious he wanted to be left alone.

This is a tragic story of self-destruction. That’s what makes it so compelling. Thorpe knew he was endangering his career but couldn’t stop. I suspect that’s a characteristic many politicians share. Those who rise meteorically often script their own collapse. It’s classic Greek tragedy. The seed of destruction is part of the drive to achievement. I wonder when a similar story will capture our attention in India.

The views expressed are personal

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 02, 2018 16:52 IST