A Very English Scandal by John Preston
Jeremy Thorpe, who led the Liberal Party between 1967 and 1976, was “witty, charismatic and charming”, said Chris Mullin in The Observer. But the outward polish concealed a secret life: not only was the Old Etonian gay; he was also “up to his neck in subterfuge”. In 1960, soon after entering Parliament, Thorpe had a fling with a 20-year-old riding instructor called Norman Scott. Afterwards, Scott started harassing Thorpe with demands for financial and other help. At first, Thorpe tried to buy Scott off, but when Scott wouldn’t back down, he began to contemplate “extreme measures”. In 1975, while out walking on Exmoor, Scott was attacked by a gunman, who succeeded only in killing his dog. The press got hold of the story, and Thorpe resigned as party leader the following year. In 1979, he stood trial for conspiracy to murder. Though A Very English Scandal is by no means the first book about “one of the 20th century’s great political scandals”, journalist and novelist John Preston has “tapped several new sources” – including Scott himself. The result is “forensic, elegantly written and compelling”.
In the book’s “most powerful” section, Preston recounts Thorpe’s trial at the Old Bailey, said Jerry Hayes in the Literary Review. His defence barrister was the drunken but highly effective George Carman (it was his first high-profile case), who “ripped the prosecution witnesses limb from limb”. The judge, Mr Justice Cantley, was a man of “staggering unworldliness” whose summing up was “a masterpiece of unbridled bias”; praising Thorpe’s public record, he denounced Scott as a “fraud”, a “whiner” and a “parasite”. Despite the overwhelming evidence against him, Thorpe was acquitted (though his career was ruined). It may have been “the trial of the century”, but it wasn’t “remotely fair”.
“A Very English Scandal places a premium on narrative zing,” said Quentin Letts in the London Evening Standard. Preston brings “a novelist’s nib to proceedings”. Readers “fastidious about fact may find their sensibilities bruised”, but it is certainly very “readable”. It reads, fittingly enough, like “one of the great shaggy-dog stories”, said Francis Wheen in The Mail on Sunday. Many of the characters seem to have “escaped from a novel”: it features, for example, a pair of policemen named DCS Proven Sharp and chief constable Colonel Ranulph “Streaky” Bacon. Preston also has a “sharp eye” for irony: in 1972, in a bid to woo the youth vote, Thorpe decided to make a party political broadcast with a “much-loved youth icon”. His choice? Jimmy Savile.