Perhaps the most stupefying part of John Preston’s engaging account of the Jeremy Thorpe Trial is that it actually happened. If this was a fiction no one would believe it. At the heart of it lies the extraordinary notion that a successful politician who aged 37 was party leader should allegedly consider the murdering of a man capable of harming his career. He was aided by two willing acolytes of bungling incompetence Peter Bessell and David Holmes . Even the act itself was bungled by airline-pilot Gino Newton who after killing Scott’s dog Rinka could not complete the contract killing as the gun jammed though he argued in court this was deliberate as he was only seeking to scare Scott
John Preston lays out the facts coolly and does not sit in moral judgment. . Thorpe was fatally attracted to danger , at first a life of excessive gay promiscuity and then this ridiculous plot to deal with what Thorpe called “the Scottish Question” The ineptitude was startling eg buying incriminating letters without considering whether copies were kept. Scott was a damaged man but at various points he seemed able to outwit his assailants. Even when at the Commital proceedings he was asked by the Proseecutor Peter Taylor “. Hell hath no fury like a woman spurned” he replied ” I am not a woman”
In any account like this there is risk that the reader already has a distinct recollection of what was dubbed ‘ the Trial of the Century” John Preston gets round this in two ways . His account is highly readable ,a page turner. Secondly he introduces facts that the reader may not know eg Norman Scott’s brother in law was Terry-Thomas. Or Viscount Montgomery believed in all seriousness the age of homosexual consent should be 80 so any blackmail can be paid out of his pemsion.
The power of the Establishment to protect its own is well documented. In 1964 when Jeremy Thorpe was a MP in a minoirty party he was able to have an audience with Frank Soskice the then Home Secretary to discuss the threat of Scott. When he needed help on the vexed issue of a replacement National Insurance card for Scott ( Thorpe had obtained one on the basis he was Scott’s employer) the appropriate Labour Minster was only too willing to help. It is even argued that the choice of Judge Joseph Cantley was made as Thorpe knew the Lord Chancellor Elwyn Jones well. Cantley proved as valuable an ally as his barrister George Carman QC who made his reputation on this case in achieving a not guilty verdict. Carman ‘s high risk strategy of not calling Thorpe but reducing the credibility of Bessell and Scott to nil worked brilliantly . I remember prior to the trial asking a barrister to predict the outcome . He observed that the defence of ‘ Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ ( Henry 11 ) would create enough vagueness to defeat the charges but Thorpe’s reputation would never recover. He was right on both counts as though Thorpe lived on till 85 he never received the peerage he craved and was politically a pariah .
From start to finish this is a riveting ,well researched , well written account of a scandal that beggars belief. Or should that read buggers? Or perhaps even better the whole affair was a total bugger up?