Conspiracies do happen, as the Jeremy Thorpe scandal proves. And Eddie Ford reckons the establishment might also conspire against Jeremy Corbyn in the event of a Labour victory
The world does not operate according to diabolical plots hatched by small, sinister cabals. Having said that, conspiracies do happen – attempts are made to make something happen that serves the interests of this or that person, group, lobby or body. After all, someone tried to kill the Skripals in Salisbury, whether it was the Russian or Ukrainian ‘security services’, SBU (Security Service of Ukraine), MI5 or some other actor. Somebody, somewhere conspired to bring that event about. Then there is the ‘murdered’ Russian journalist, Arkady Babchenko, turning up very alive at a press conference in Kiev – again, someone conspired to pull that particular hare-brained stunt. Things are not always what they seem, and the fact that some crackpots believe that too does not necessarily make it untrue.
Which brings us neatly to the recent three-part BBC mini-series premiered on May 20, A very English scandal, starring Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe and Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott. The title of the drama, written by Russell T Davies, was perhaps a nod in the direction of Chris Mullin’s influential A very British coup. The last episode, aired on June 3, was directly followed on BBC4 by a documentary made by BBC veteran journalist Tom Mangold, entitled The Jeremy Thorpe scandal. In 1979, Mangold was the Panorama reporter who led an investigation into the trial of Jeremy Thorpe and others for the conspiracy to kill Thorpe’s former lover from the early 1960s, Norman Scott – that was when homosexual acts were illegal, of course. Therefore any disclosure about his relationship with “Bunnies”, his pet name for Scott, would have ended Thorpe’s seemingly glittering political career.
Convinced that the former Liberal Party leader would be found guilty, as was everybody else, a special Panorama post-trial programme was prepared – but had to be hastily scrapped when the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on Thorpe and the other defendants, with the BBC’s director-general of the time ordering that all copies be destroyed. Wisely, Mangold kept a copy. Edited and updated with new information about a fresh 2015 inquiry by Gwent police, which was dropped two years later under slightly mysterious circumstances, Mangold clearly shows how powerful political forces right at the top of the British establishment tried to protect Jeremy Thorpe, who was considered one of their own, being Eton and Oxford-educated and all the rest of it.
The programme featured fascinating interviews from 1979 with Norman Scott, chief prosecution witness and former Liberal Party MP for Bodmin Peter Bessell, and Andrew ‘Gino’ Newton, the hit man. Newton, as shown grippingly in the drama, shot dead Scott’s Great Dane dog on Bodmin Moor in 1975 and then tried to kill Scott too, but fortunately for the latter the gun jammed and he is still alive today to tell the tale – unlike Jeremy Thorpe who died in 2014 after suffering for decades with Parkinson’s disease.
In my view A very English scandal was superb – everybody should watch it. Hugh Grant’s performance as Thorpe was almost uncanny in the way it perfectly captured the Liberal leader’s physical mannerisms and personality – what an actor: it could have been Thorpe himself staring languidly at you from the TV screen. Ben Whishaw was also excellent – even if Scott, now 78, apparently “hates” the way he was portrayed as a “mincing weakling” (not how it came across to me when I watched the show: rather he seemed quite a resilient character).
For readers of an older generation – or perhaps students of comedy – one of the main memories of this affair is Peter Cook’s brilliant 1979 sketch, ‘Entirely a matter for you’, ruthlessly satirising judge Joseph Cantley’s notoriously biased closing remarks to the jury. Needless to say, those remarks were a near pristine example of the ‘old boy network’ at work, not to mention general class prejudice and bigotry. According to Cantley, Scott had a “warped personality” and was an “accomplished sponger”, “crook”, “fraud”, “proven liar”, “whiner”, “parasite” and, of all things, a “male model”. Enough said.
The judge did not think much of Peter Bessell either: he was a “humbug” whose entire evidence was a “a tissue of lies” because he had signed a “deplorable” contract with The Sunday Telegraph for the serialisation rights of his memoirs and his fee of £25,000 would double were Thorpe to be convicted. But Thorpe, on the other hand, in the judge’s opinion, was a fine man of “hitherto unblemished reputation” and a “national figure with a very distinguished public record” – why would he consort with low-life such as Scott?
‘Judge’ Peter Cook’s summing-up said it all, when he instructed the jury “now to retire … to carefully consider your verdict of not guilty”. In denial almost right to the very end, it seems, Thorpe told The Guardian in January 2008 that if his affair with “Bunnies” happened now, “I think the public would be kinder”. In other words, he was no longer denying that the two had had a homosexual affair, but he did not even mention, let alone express any remorse about, conspiring to murder his ex-lover. You would almost believe that he was the victim, not Scott.
Returning to the main point, the entire Jeremy Thorpe scandal clearly represents an extensive cover-up – or conspiracy, if you prefer. Obviously this did not just involve leading figures in the Liberal Party, but also the Tory government at the time – especially the then home secretary, the infamous Reginald Maudling.
Scott told his story in May 1971 to Emlyn Hooson (chairman of the Liberal Party in Wales and MP for Montgomeryshire) and a certain David Steel, later to become the Liberal leader. An internal party inquiry was set up, chaired by Lord Byers, the leader of the Liberals in the House of Lords. However, at the inquiry Byers became immediately hostile to Scott – who felt “like a boy at school up before the headmaster” (Byers remarked, judge Cantley-style, that Scott was a “common blackmailer” who needed “psychiatric help”). The inquiry then questioned police officers about the extremely intimate “Bunnies” letters sent by Thorpe to Scott early in their friendship. The police claimed in 1962 that they were “inconclusive” – even though they were nothing of the sort. Thorpe persuaded Maudling, and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, John Waldron, to inform Byers that there was “no police interest” in Thorpe’s activities and no evidence of wrongdoing on his part. As a result, very conveniently, the inquiry dismissed Scott’s allegations.
In order to fully understand the Jeremy Thorpe story, it is vital to remember the wider political context. Thorpe’s personal standing was greatly enhanced in March 1973 when he married Marion, countess of Harewood, whose former husband was a first cousin to the queen. More importantly still, the general election of February 1974 saw the party winning six million votes and 14 seats, putting them in a strong position because the election had resulted in a hung parliament. In subsequent negotiations, Thorpe was to be offered a cabinet post by Conservative prime minister Edward Heath, if he would bring the party into a coalition – junior ministries would be allocated to other senior Liberals. Many people at the time thought that Thorpe was an absolute shoo-in for deputy prime minister – an early Nick Clegg, but with more gravitas.
Meaning that in this period Jeremy Thorpe was very well connected and potentially a very important mover and shaker – maybe even a kingmaker. No way could a “parasite” like Norman Scott be allowed to upset the establishment’s plans to ensure political stability. Hence they rallied to defend Thorpe and that carried on into the 1979 court case, and beyond. Always stick together, old boy.
The Gwent police’s re-investigation of the case in 2015 was eventually dropped because Andrew Newton was apparently dead. But where was the death certificate? With the BBC drama, plus a Mail on Sunday ‘exclusive’ on June 3, revealing that Newton – just like Arkady Babchenko – was actually alive and well, the police reopened their investigation. Strangely, the police did not appear to know how to do a simple Google search, unlike Mail journalists, given that his name appears in a 1994 article. This reported on an inquest, where a man called Hann Redwin was accused of foul play over the death of a woman, but it emerged that Redwin was, in fact, Andrew Newton, who was then living in London (he was cleared of foul play at the inquest).
We also discover, quite incredibly in some ways, that four years ago another potential hit man, Dennis Meighan, told the Mail that in 1975 he was offered £13,500 – the equivalent of £140,000 today – by a ‘representative’ of Thorpe to silence Scott for good, because it was feared that he was about to go public with all the details of his past relationship with Thorpe. Meighan initially agreed to kill Scott, but got cold feet and went on to confess to the police – making explicit Thorpe’s involvement in the plot. But curiously his original statement disappeared – to be replaced by one that removed all incriminating references to Thorpe and the Liberal Party, surely at the behest of elements within the British establishment.
If it looks like a conspiracy and quacks like a conspiracy, then it probably is a conspiracy. Yet, as is nearly always the case with the British establishment, these things start to come out so long after the event that most of the people involved are either dead or too old to be held to account. Gwent police now claim to be “satisfied that there is no basis to re-refer the matter to the CPS and the investigation remains closed”.
In view of what the Thorpe affair demonstrates, it does seem appropriate to finish with a few thoughts about that other Jeremy – current leader of the Labour Party. If Corbyn does lead Labour into the next general election, and it ends up with a majority or as the biggest party, it is highly questionable whether he would actually become prime minister. This is much to the bafflement of most on the left, who seem to believe that the British ruling class would never do anything that is not in strict accordance with Queensberry rules.
Communists say look at the Jeremy Thorpe case and tell us seriously that the establishment would not take steps to ensure such a government never happens. For all those on the left who refuse to believe this, look at your TV screen and learn – the BBC has provided the working class movement with valuable information about the workings of the establishment, knowingly or not. If you want to talk about dangers to the stability of the capitalist system, then we in the CPGB can reassure you that Corbyn is a far bigger danger than poor old Norman Scott – he was a victim of the establishment, not a radical opponent, as the Labour leader is still deemed to be. If you take the ongoing campaign to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, this is fundamentally about preventing a Corbyn government. Thus, for example, if Corbyn did lead Labour to victory, is it not possible that the queen would decline to invite this ‘anti-Semite’ to form a government? Would she not follow the advice of her privy council and look for someone else in the Labour Party who is not tainted by accusations of anti-Semitism, such as that nice Sir Keir Starmer?
Such accusations are a load of bull, of course – which is what Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell should be saying, not coming out with claptrap about how there is an ‘anti-Semitism’ problem within the party, and so on. The left also tells us that if the queen moved against Corbyn in such a manner there would be a revolution – what utter nonsense. How can there be a revolution if you have not split the army, or failed to win the working class to the idea of actually taking power?
As for Corbyn and McDonnell, they need to develop a backbone quickly and remember their republicanism, which has become increasingly platonic. We need to open the fight for a genuinely democratic constitution, which by definition means a federal republic – the incorporation of self-determination for Scotland and Wales, together with the abolition of the House of Lords, the standing army, the privy council and the whole monarchical set-up.