Book Club: A Very English Scandal
A Very English Scandal by John preston
Political scandals and true crimes sound like a mashup of perfection, at least for me. I first heard of this book after I watched the clever BBC series starring Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw. When I was told this was based off of a very well written book, I knew I had to read it.
In 1979, Jeremy Thorpe, the rising star of the Liberal Party, stood trial for conspiracy to murder. It was the first time that a leading British politician had stood trial on a murder charge. It was the first time that a murder plot had been hatched in the House of Commons. And it was the first time that a prominent public figure had been exposed as a philandering homosexual. With all the pace and drama of a thriller, A Very English Scandal is an extraordinary story of hypocrisy, deceit and betrayal at the heart of the British Establishment.
When I first heard the gist of what the Jeremy Thorpe affair was about, I had flashbacks of the OJ Simpson case. Like Simpson, Jeremy Thorpe was a well-respected public figure who clearly made an attempt at murder (Simpson succeeded while Thorpe did not though), and despite an overwhelming amount of evidence that pointed to their guilt, both were acquitted. Then both disappeared from public eye due to, well, shunning. The writer, John Preston, is a journalist, much like Jeffrey Toobin who wrote The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, a book I read earlier this year. Their writing styles are very different but both are quite informative with professional observations and straight facts. I remember thinking how amazing it was that Toobin found out for his book and I thought the same thing while reading A Very English Scandal - these journalists’ investigative reporting is astounding and it’s amazing how much they’re able to uncover.
Jeremy Thorpe was a prominent politician in the 60s and 70s. He was the head of the Liberal party, one of the establishment parties. He was well-regarded and had a good reputation among colleagues and the general public. He was a closeted gay man and he had began a love affair with a young Norman Josiffe (later, he changed his last name to Scott). Josiffe moved in with him secretly and became something of a kept man. When their relationship ended, Thorpe promised Josiffe a National Insurance Card as he was technically his “employer” of sorts. The National Insurance Card is important because it is required for a British citizen to receive any kind of benefit from UK’s welfare program. Thorpe reneged on his promise and when Josiffe, now Scott, came down on his luck, his lack of insurance card proved to be most unpleasant. Thorpe refused to talk to him directly, instead asking friend and fellow Liberal Member of Parliament (MP), Peter Beselli to communicate with him instead. When Scott threatens to expose the relationship unless he gets his National Insurance card, Thorpe allegedly orders a hit on Scott. This is carried out by his friends…poorly. They hire some nobody to kill Scott but when it came time, his gun jams and is unable to do the deed. Scott obviously doesn’t die but with a mountain of evidence against Thorpe, he faces these charges in court.
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The Thorpe affair made headlines all over the world at the time. They say American political scandals revolve around money and British ones revolve around sex. That was clear to see in A Very English Scandal. I can’t really say there is much to spoil with this book, just because, well, it’s history and we all know what happened. What I didn’t know were the details of this scandal, and that’s what this book really nails.
If you’re a student of history, politics, or just looking for a juicy scandal to read about, I highly recommend A Very English Scandal.