Even in their wildest dreams, the British tabloids couldn’t have imagined such a salacious story dropping into their laps. It was January 1976, and Jeremy Thorpe, British MP (Member of Parliament) and leader of the Liberal Party, had been charged with conspiracy and incitement to murder. His supposed target was aspiring model Norman Scott, who claimed to have been Thorpe’s lover—and Scott’s dog, a Great Dane named Rinka, already shot to death by hitman Andrew Newton in what appeared to be a bungled assassination.
The story of Thorpe’s career in politics, his relationship with Scott, and the alleged assassination attempt is told in the BBC’s “A Very English Scandal.” Starring Hugh Grant as Thorpe and Ben Whishaw as Scott, the three-part miniseries will premiere in the U.S. on June 29, on Amazon. For Grant, playing Thorpe offered some insight into the fear the politician must have experienced.
“He was a star and everyone thought he was extraordinary. And permanently nagging at him was this possibility of exposure of his secret,” Grant told NPR. “To feel the net of the law closing in on him slowly—the stress must have been absolutely unendurable.”
But of course, in reality, fear of exposure came long before Thorpe’s run-in with the law. To be gay in Britain during that era meant putting oneself in constant danger of arrest. “It was a very oppressive climate right up to and including the Margaret Thatcher years,” says political scientist David Rayside, the author of On the Fringe: Gays and Lesbians in Politics. “In the 1970s and 80s, the overwhelming majority in Britain thought homosexual activity was morally wrong.”
Like many countries, Britain had a long history of anti-gay discrimination. The Buggery Act, passed in 1533, made sodomy a capital offense; it wasn’t repealed until 1861. Even then, it was followed by draconian measures to prevent gay relationships, including the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which made “gross indecency” between men—a purposely vague term—a criminal act. The panic over homosexuality continued after World War II, writes historian Michael Bloch in Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians: “A fiercely homophobic Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, aided by an equally puritanical Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Theobold Matthew, was determined to ‘rid England of this plague.’”
Some forward progress was made in the 1960s, especially as grassroots activism took hold within the LGBTQ community. In 1957, a government commission published the Wolfenden Report, making recommendations for laws on sexual behavior. That report recommended public statutes should avoid legislating morality, and that the government should remove consensual homosexual liaisons from criminal law. Within a decade, those goals were achieved. The 1967 Sexual Offenses Act decriminalized homosexual acts between consenting adults in private, though it didn’t remove the stigma attendant on such acts. In some ways, gay individuals were just as vulnerable as before.
“The police were still entirely willing to heavily police those venues where it was thought that homosexual activity occurred. There were many, many arrests every year,” Rayside says. As for a politician being outed, that usually meant the end of one’s political career.
That’s not to say all politicians fought actively against gay rights. The Liberal Party in particular (to which Thorpe belonged) supported continued changes to the laws. But the two dominant parties of the era, the Labour and Conservative parties, were nowhere near as interested in aligning themselves with the gay rights movement.
“Labour as a whole was very uncomfortable associating itself with what it continued to interpret as a bourgeois and dangerous issue,” writes historian Lucy Robinson in Gay Men and the Left in Post-War Britain. Labour Party MP Richard Crossman wrote of the 1967 Sexual Offenses Act, “Certainly working-class people in the north jeer at their members at the weekend and ask them why they’re looking after the buggers at Westminster instead of looking after the unemployed at home.”
Those class tensions were a major component of the homosexuality issue in Britain. Just consider another popular historical series, “Downton Abbey.” In one episode, Lord Grantham excuses the homosexual behavior of his footman, Thomas, saying such incidents happened regular when Lord Grantham attended Eton, a private school. Regardless of how historically accurate the earl’s reaction to his servant’s behavior was, it is true that gay experimentation flourished in upper-class, sex-segregated milieus like boarding school, the military, and the clergy.
“Thorpe embodied that kind of upper-class arrogance that you could get away with things,” Rayside says. “He just assumed it because he belonged to that political class.”
And whatever other politicians may have thought of Thorpe’s behavior, it had little impact on his career for as long as his dalliances remained out of the public eye. Indeed, Thorpe seems to have been remarkably blasé about his sexuality. Although he married twice and fathered a son, he also wrote compromising letters to lovers on House of Commons paper, including a note to a friend at the time of Princess Margaret’s wedding: “What a pity about [Her Royal Highness]. I rather hoped to marry the one and seduce the other.”
But the affair Thorpe could never outrun was the one he conducted with Scott, beginning in 1961. Although Thorpe maintained for the rest of his life that the relationship was only an emotional one, Scott insisted it was sexual—and used it to blackmail Thorpe. With the help of the Liberal Party, Thorpe paid Scott to help with his divorce, when he was on trial for social security fraud, and at other points throughout the ’60s. “Almost every senior Liberal MP and party official either knew about Scott or was actively involved in attempts to shut him up,” writes journalist Douglas Murray in The Spectator.
As the Liberal Party grew in size throughout the early 1970s, the pressure for Thorpe to remain in control of the situation only grew. After all, he was a charismatic politician, “the life and soul of the party” writes Liberal politician Richard Lamb. Thorpe opposed apartheid in South Africa and minority rule in Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe). He helped establish Amnesty International and collaborated with other politicians to pass legislation that brought Britain into the European Common Market. Thorpe’s friends and colleagues would do almost anything to help keep him in power—including, perhaps, hire a hitman to kill the person threatening to tank Thorpe’s career.
By the time of the court trial in 1979, Thorpe had long resigned from his position and been replaced by David Steele as Liberal Party leader. Although Scott and the hitman, Newton, testified against Thorpe and several of his co-conspirators, the judge ultimately ruled in Thorpe’s favor. Newton was jailed for two years for killing Scott’s dog, and the judge deemed Scott to be “a neurotic, spineless creature, addicted to hysteria and self-advertisement.” But even though Thorpe avoided prison, his reputation never recovered and he faded from the public limelight. His exposure slowed the progress of the LGBTQ movement; it wasn’t until 1984 that British politician Chris Smith became the first to come out as gay.
For Rayside, the tragicomedy has remained a popular story precisely because of its unbelievable elements. But he thinks there’s also a real note of fear behind the mockery. “Thorpe was a prominent political figure. For this to come that close to the centers of political power and political legitimacy was new. In other cases where politicians were getting close to being exposed, they would simply resign.”
But Thorpe, risktaker that he was, refused to give in. He fought to the last, leaving behind a turbulent—and still unresolved—legacy.