A Very English Scandal by John Preston (2016). A review by John Cook



The events in this book cover a period of almost 20 years from 1960 onwards. I was clearly unaware of the early stages of sexual interactions between eventual English Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe and the handsome but unstable/dangerous Norman Josiffe (later Norman Scott). I was slightly aware of its denouement, however, with Thorpe and a raggle-taggle of others being accused of conspiracy to murder the then Scott as he simply became too much trouble and a political threat. It was just another example of establishment political hypocrisy and another married man cornered by his failure to confront the reality of his sexuality.


What I do remember clearly was a turn by my youthful idol Peter Cook (no relation) who impersonated Justice Joseph Cantley (the relevant trial judge) at the subsequent Secret Policeman’s Ball for Amnesty International. The key to the incident is the judge’s proclaimed independence of interpretation while summing-up yet carrying out total character assassination and whitewashing as it pleased him. Needless to say, Thorpe was lauded as an establishment person (right schools, family, background etc) while prosecution witnesses were pilloried even ridiculously so. Read the book for more details but the one I found most hilarious referred to George Deakin, one of the bumbling conspirators as ‘He was probably the type of man whose taste ran to a cocktail bar in his living room’. What?!  I offer you a link to Peter Cook’s piece lampooning this prize blimp, don’t miss it if you haven’t seen it before. As Cook said, ‘I could have been a judge, but I never had the Latin.’




The whole thing is a sad and miserable tale typical of so much of the political double-standards and manoeuvring and cliqueiness of social and political in-groups that continues today – the backgrounding of those individuals later charged with a range of sexual offences is well worth the reading. Thorpe wanted his (rough) cake and had it but later regretted it when the pesky Norman wouldn’t go away despite being dismissively treated (what was wrong with man, didn’t he understand his place in the world?). Various strategies were tried by Thorpe and his close (worshipping) associates including small amounts of money as Thorpe attained Leadership of the minor Liberal Party in the British Parliament. A wider net was cast as more money was called for and Thorpe tried to remain as distant as possible. However, there was physical evidence in the form of compromising letters and a long lost National Insurance card. Eventually, patience at an end, a murder plot of the most bumbling and incompetent kind was hatched with the only dispatch being Norman Ross’ unfortunate Great Dane dog.


Preston does a good job of pursuing the tale throughout the twenty years and his lead up to the trial and its process was well done. There are other books and resources on this topic and they have been well ransacked. The main weakness for many readers lies in the repeated expressed motivations of all concerned. They are, almost without exception, so weak and lacking in personal comprehension that they seem at times unbelievable and yet they must be believed to understand their behaviours.


This read as quite a page turner (more so if you don’t already know the outcome of the trial, no spoiler  here). It is not available from BCC in large numbers but I would recommend pursuing it as a mixed human and sexual interest – political exposé piece.



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