For a fleeting moment, Jeremy Thorpe was the pivotal figure in British politics. In the February 1974 general election, his small Liberal Party won enough seats to hold the balance of power in a closely divided parliament. Thorpe, the party leader, was offered a top cabinet job as part of a coalition government with the Conservatives.
Five years later, he was on trial for conspiracy and incitement to murder.
That’s the story told in “A Very English Scandal,” a miniseries shown first in the U.K. and now available in the U.S. In the early 1960s, Thorpe, played by Hugh Grant, begins an affair with Norman Scott, a 19-year-old stable boy and model. After the affair ends, Scott loudly recounts its details in pubs, police stations and courthouses across the length and breadth of Britain.
An alarmed Thorpe dispatches his cronies to silence Scott with money and threats, eventually deciding that he will never be safe while his former lover is alive. “It’s no worse than shooting a sick dog,” he tells his fixer, the fellow Liberal MP Peter Bessell.
“A Very English Scandal” is by turns a comic farce, an epic tragedy and a study in the intersection of private and public life. It reminds us that politics is, finally, a human endeavor — and can’t always be reduced to strategic calculations and data analysis. And it reminds us that cultural understandings of what counts as “scandalous” twist and turn with sometimes dizzying speed.
Thorpe’s life and career was in many ways a study in contradiction. He was young and witty and vivid and dapper, a showman with a genius for performance: At the height of his political fame he stood in for a week as a shopkeeper in a British neighborhood store, inviting television cameras to film him in his shop uniform. Dubbed “Britain’s JFK,” he offered a stark contrast to the stolid British political class of the time. “I love American politics,” Thorpe once said. “I think they’re so vulgar and therefore they’re such fun.”
But his outward charisma hid a darker side, which some contemporaries thought verged on sociopathy. As early as his Eton and Oxford days, colleagues thought him vainglorious and untrustworthy. According to R.W. Apple, Jr.’s feature article in the New York Times, published in 1978, friends “took for granted” that he would get in big trouble one day. “People think what I expose is the whole,” Thorpe said, according to Apple. “There are things that one passionately wants to keep private, things that are no one’s business.”
One such thing was Thorpe’s sexuality, and the need for privacy here was imperative: homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967, years after Thorpe’s affair with Scott. But even after decriminalization, public figures exposed as gay often found their careers swiftly ended. Here again the case offers a paradox: The same British establishment that regarded Thorpe’s sexuality as a crime — or at least a scandal — also protected him from Scott, who was a lower-class man whom judges, the police and Thorpe’s political colleagues dismissed as a fantasist and a blackmailer.
In its most moving moments, “A Very English Scandal” shows us the consequences of state repression of gay rights. Scott is angry both with Thorpe — the man who tried to have him killed — and with the whole British establishment, which sought to make men like him invisible.
Thorpe’s story invites comparison with that of Gary Hart, the front-runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination who was driven from public life by stories of an extramarital affair. Hart would later contend that he was a victim of outdated societal norms — he noted that Bill Clinton, with a litany of such affairs, was a successful two-term president just a few years later. Thorpe, too, reflected on the collision of his private life with shifting societal mores. “If it happened now,” he told a reporter in 2008, in one of his only post-scandal interviews, “the public would be kinder. Back then they were very troubled by it. It offended their set of values.”
Thorpe was a politician of both style and substance — a lifelong champion of human rights, a vocal opponent of South African apartheid and pro-European in a Euroskeptic time. The absurdity of his situation is captured in “A Very English Scandal.” Thorpe gives a barnstorming speech in Parliament denouncing arms-dealer profiteering in Nigeria, then bounds from the chamber discussing with his co-conspirators how they should dispose of Scott’s body. “In New York, they drop corpses in the river,” he says. Then he comes up with a solution: They can throw Scott’s body into one of southern England’s many abandoned mine shafts.
In the end, Thorpe hires a colorful ex-pilot named Andrew Newton to shoot Scott. Newton, a halfhearted hit man, tracks Scott down and tells him he has been contracted to protect him from “a Canadian assassin.” Scott agrees to get into Newton’s car, and brings along his new dog, Rinka. Newton, who feared dogs, is unnerved by the giant animal “looming in the back, breathing down my neck.” Pulling over to the side of the road, Newton has Scott and Rinka get out of the car. He shoots the dog. Turning to Scott, Newton pulls the trigger.
“Congratulations,” says Thorpe’s lawyer as he waits to stand trial. “These are the greatest charges ever leveled against a member of parliament.” Thorpe delays the trial so that he can stand in the 1979 general election. Beset by the scandal, Thorpe loses his own race, receiving 23,338 votes to the 31,811 of his Conservative opponent, in the election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power. Among the other candidates was the investigative journalist Auberon Waugh, who had been reporting on the Thorpe scandal for years before it became national news. Waugh garnered 79 votes under the banner of his new political movement. Its name: The Dog Lover’s Party.
Stephen Benedict Dyson is an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. He is completing a book on televised political fictions.