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For people of my age, it is shocking to realise that there is a whole generation that has not heard of Jeremy Thorpe or his jaw-droppingly sensational trial for attempted murder. Even in the FT offices, which one might hope is filled with clued-up people, his name drew blank looks from almost everyone under 40.
And yet the Thorpe case was the most spectacular political scandal of its time. (And this was a time that also included a minister for technology who committed fraud, faked his own death, fled to Australia with his mistress and was later revealed as a Czech spy.) It involved one of the most famous and gifted politicians of his day, the gay boyfriend who was threatening to expose their affair, the alleged attempted murder of said boyfriend by a preposterously incompetent hitman and — perhaps most shocking of all to the British public — the shooting of the boyfriend’s dog. Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal party (forerunner of the Lib Dems), was destroyed by the revelations. Though he was acquitted in court, he had already been convicted by the public.
Nearly 40 years on, the saga is about to be revived in a BBC drama starring Hugh Grant, alongside the screening of a suppressed Panorama episode from 1979 documenting the truly impressive establishment cover-up that protected Thorpe for years before the truth came out.
Looking back, it is strange to realise that the overwhelming response at the time was one of hilarity. It was appalling, we understood, but it was also screamingly funny; an Ealing comedy of a caper, involving a dead dog, a hopeless hitman, shady political fixers and an almost cartoonishly camp boyfriend. It was so bizarre, so unexpected, that it was almost as if we could only process it as farce.
Much of the emphasis now is on the way the ruling class sheltered him as long as possible. Thorpe, Eton- and Oxford-educated, the son and grandson of Tory MPs, was establishment to the core. At his trial, the judge’s summary was virtually a speech for the defence, memorably noting of Thorpe’s chief accuser: “He is a crook, a fraud, a sponger, a whiner and a parasite . . . But, of course, he could still be telling the truth.”
And yet to focus on the cover-up is to miss a bigger picture. The real story of the Thorpe affair is the state-sanctioned climate of hostility in which gay men understood that exposure meant ruin. We have travelled so far and so fast that it now seems astonishing to recall how bad things were so recently. Anyone now over 50 was alive when being an active gay man was still a criminal offence; in Scotland, it remained so until 1980. 1980!
Thorpe’s affair began before decriminalisation and, although the law had changed before the scandal began to break, it was still enough to destroy the career of anyone in public life. Homosexuality may have been legal but it was barely tolerated. Revulsion, mockery or pity were the only acceptable responses. Following his acquittal in 1979, the Private Eye cover bore the words “buggers can’t be losers”. Even after decriminalisation, gay men were routinely arrested under public order laws. The only gay men you ever saw on television were either deeply sinister or comically effete. Thorpe resigned as liberal leader in 1976, the same year Tom Robinson wrote “Glad to Be Gay”, an epoch-defining howl of pain at the mistreatment and violence endured by the community. The BBC refused to play it on the radio. Even with those lyrics in my head, it is hard to truly imagine how isolating and frightening that era must have been.
None of this, of course, excuses Thorpe’s probable actions. Many men faced similar ruin without turning to murder. Thorpe acted despicably and selfishly but he also acted desperately out of an accurate sense of the ruin that would accompany exposure. Underneath all the other aspects of the absurd and tragic case lies a story of torment and despair.
In today’s Britain, it is unimaginable that a gay man would be so destroyed. But when we watch the dramatisation of the saga, it is worth sparing a moment to reflect on the society that not so long ago drove a man to such extremes.
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