The rising star and eventual leader of Britain’s Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe, was a closet homosexual before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised such acts in private between two men. His political career was shattered in 1979 by claims that he had hired a hit man to kill his troublesome former gay lover.
It was one of the greatest political scandals of the era – the witty, urbane and charismatic former leader in the dock at the Old Bailey court in London, charged with conspiracy to murder Norman Scott, a stable boy and part-time male model.
It was alleged at the trial that Andrew Newton, a maverick airline pilot so dim he was known as “chicken brain”, had been hired by two of Thorpe’s close friends in 1975 to silence Scott permanently because he had been threatening to blackmail Thorpe over their affair as lovers during the early 1960s
Newton lured Scott to Exmoor on October 23, 1975 but botched the attempt, shooting dead Scott’s Great Dane, Rinka, before turning the gun on Scott. The gun jammed and Newton drove away.
In March 1976, at Exeter Crown Court, Newton was found guilty of shooting Rinka and of possessing a weapon, and given a two-year jail sentence. Although he did not implicate Thorpe, the long fuse that would eventually lead to the Liberal leader’s destruction had already been lit.
In 1979, after the general election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power, Thorpe and three of his friends and associates faced a jury. Dubbed the “Trial of the Century,” it was the first time a leading British politician had stood trial on a murder charge, the murder plot allegedly having been hatched in the House of Commons. It was also the first time a prominent public figure had been exposed as a philandering gay man.
Thorpe, defended by an alcoholic barrister, was found not guilty of plotting the murder but politically wary police and politicians alike were said to have colluded in a cover-up to protect one of their own. The trial judge, Sir Joseph Cantley, used the safety of the bench to make scathing comments about the two principal prosecution witnesses. The public perception was that Thorpe had been fortunate to “get off”. His bright career never recovered and he became a virtual outcast until his death.
John Preston, an American, is not the first to write about the Thorpe scandal. He brings to the drama the pace and excitement of a thriller, as gripping as a first-class page-turning detective story, only this time it happened in real life.