The Elm House branch of the conspiracy industry may tie-in with contemporary convictions of clandestine satanic abuse rings in the highest echelons of the British establishment, but it also connects the apparently liberal 21st century society with an unwelcome spectre that haunted the 19th and most of the 20th century ‘ruling class’ with the same dread as incest had haunted them in the 18th century. As a commentator on here (Moor, I think) recently pointed out, the ongoing fascination with a residence in which politicians, peers and pop stars had their wicked way with non-consensual pubescent boys – a dubious attempt to invent another ‘house of horrors’ occupying the same neighbourhood as Rillington Place and Cromwell Street – appears to be rooted in a lingering unease with the notion of homosexuality. Of course, the legend of the predatory gay man seeking solace in unsullied flesh has now been reclassified as a predatory paedo; but the gist is the same.
This may seem at odds with a country in which gay marriage is now a legal institution, the gay age of consent is the same as the straight one, and openly gay public figures are commonplace, but it takes far longer than forty-seven years to overturn an opinion of ‘inversion’ that held sway for centuries. If you’re over fifty, it can still be classed as within living memory that a prison sentence could be the consequence of an ill-timed indiscretion; and however competent the aristocracy and establishment may have been at covering their tracks, the fact that they were regularly forced to do so underlines the fear of public exposure, something that could not only lead to a humiliating court case and a spell behind bars, but the effective ending of a career and a permanently blackened character.
Such a fate befell Jeremy Thorpe in 1976 – nine years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, but a long way from open admission of, and pride in, one’s proclivities, especially amongst the generations born before the war. Thorpe was a charismatic and flamboyant politician who the public took to, regardless of his privileged pedigree, when he was up against the grammar-school usurpers, Heath and Wilson. Elected leader of the Liberal Party in 1967, this dandified toff with the common touch was soon a married man with a young son who survived the near electoral decimation of his party in 1970 before leading them to a whopping six million votes at the February 1974 Crisis Election, one that the first-past-the-post system only rewarded a paltry 14 seats to; but it was enough for PM Ted Heath to dangle the carrot of coalition before an understandably tempted Thorpe. In the end, the Liberals refused to consider the proposition unless the Tories replaced Heath, which they declined to do until a second General Election defeat in October that same year, and Harold Wilson crept back to No.10 with a miniscule majority. Nevertheless, Jeremy Thorpe remained a popular politician who seemed destined to play a part in the future of the nation’s political landscape. But rumours of a kind that could still wreck public figures in the 1970s, ones that had been circulating around Thorpe for several years, abruptly went over-ground in 1976.
Thorpe had been elected MP for North Devon as a bachelor in 1959, but an incident involving a rent-boy in the USA not long after attracted the interest of the FBI, who passed on their suspicions to MI5, resulting in the creation of that most ominous of secret documentation, ‘a file’. Unaware his activities were being monitored, Thorpe allegedly embarked on an affair with a stable groom and part-time model called Norman Scott, one that lasted no longer than a couple of years and wasn’t only conducted in secrecy to avoid ruining Thorpe’s career, but also due to the lawbreaking nature of the relationship at the time. It seemed the classic attraction of a well-connected and wealthy individual to a ‘bit of rough’, the kind of encounters familiar to anyone who frequented the dangerously classless oases that were the London gay drinking dens of the period. But Scott took the end of the affair badly and attempted blackmail, a threat Thorpe – by now a rising star in Westminster – did his best to suppress. Even when an increasingly neurotic Scott took his story to the police, the officer in charge declined to interview Thorpe as though blinded by deference and conscious of not stirring a contentious hornet’s nest. The withholding of fairly concrete evidence on Thorpe’s private life by the secret services and the reluctance of the police to fully investigate Norman Scott’s accusation can in retrospect be seen as a deliberate and discreet attempt to prevent any further sexual scandal involving establishment figures after the damaging revelation of the Cambridge Spies in the late 50s and early 60s, some of whom were homosexual. This connected the apparent degeneracy of homosexuality with the shady world of spies betraying their country in the public perception, and hot on the heels of the Profumo affair, any prosecution of Jeremy Thorpe would have further weakened the public’s diminishing trust in their elected representatives and ‘social betters’.
Norman Scott’s refusal to let the story drop, however, led to extreme measures via the hiring of several incompetent small-time villains to silence him permanently, allegedly by Thorpe and his coterie. An especially unsavoury incident in which Scott’s dog was shot dead by a wannabe hit-man called Andrew Newton was supposed to scare Scott off, but Newton was charged with the killing and firearm possession, leading to a court case that resulted in his imprisonment and brought Thorpe’s apparent involvement with Scott into the public arena. Any hint of a homosexual affair, whether admitted or not, was enough to make Thorpe’s position as Liberal leader untenable, and he resigned in May 1976.
If the drama had ended there, the rise and fall of Jeremy Thorpe’s tenure as a prominent public servant would have been viewed as very much a tragedy of its time, one we could now look back on and ruminate on the injustice of. But when the whole murder plot story hit the headlines in 1978, eventually climaxing in a sensational Old Bailey trial in the summer of 1979, sympathy for Thorpe’s downfall was in short supply. The outrageously biased summary of the judge, one parodied so memorably by Peter Cook on stage the following day, persuaded the jury to find Thorpe not guilty, a verdict viewed by many as the establishment saving the skin of one of its own. But Thorpe’s career was killed by the trial and the verdict. If Thorpe were indeed complicit in the conspiracy to murder Norman Scott, the question arises whether this decision was motivated by the arrogance of a man who regarded himself as untouchable or whether it was brought about by the terror of his sexual tastes becoming common knowledge, the latter something that seems remarkable to most from today’s perspective.
The recent revival of the mythical ‘Dickens Dossier’ as a news story, in tandem with the Elm House soap opera, perhaps vindicates the position of the powers-that-be in keeping a lid on the private life of Jeremy Thorpe. It would seem there is an inherent need amongst some members of the public to believe the worst of the rich and privileged after the scandals of fifty years ago; and a gay subtext is often never far from the surface, something that serves to peel away the supposed liberal consensus of 21st century Britain and reveal a less tolerant and traditional mistrust of anything that deviates from the norm. After all, the longest-running rumours about Jimmy Savile were not that he was a necrophiliac or a posthumous paedophile, but that he was a closet queer.
Jeremy Thorpe’s career would rightly have been ended by such a serious accusation as conspiracy to murder even now, but would he be forced into falling on his sword today simply because a past affair with a member of the same sex had been exposed? We’d like to think not, but one cannot help but wonder how such an affair could be twisted to suit a contemporary agenda. And now he’s dead and gone, of course, anyone seeking to produce a page from the visitor’s book of a certain ‘guest house’ would no longer have to fear any libellous repercussions. Release the hounds.