A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment by John Preston
Other Press 352 pp.
By Jim Swearingen
There has been no shortage in recent years of fictional tales of politically ambitious schemers. On shows like House of Cards and Scandal, we have watched as ruthless politicians engaged in voracious abuses of power. Now John Preston, a British novelist and journalist, has come along to give us yet another such story, complete with sexual excesses and murder. The difference is: this one really happened.
In A Very English Scandal, Preston recounts a so-good-it-reads-like-fiction tale of such Machiavellian goings on, set this time in the British House of Commons. The plot line: a powerful party leader with a bevy of influential friends and loyal conspirators becomes involved in a gay relationship with an unstable and much younger man. The politician becomes both a concerned and predatory benefactor to his vulnerable protégé. But the latter’s erratic nature and volatility threaten to unleash a scandal, which triggers a murder conspiracy. Ultimately, the powerful man is arrested, tried, and brought down.
The name Peter Thorpe is not a familiar one in the U.S., but in late 1960’s England he was an up-and-coming power in the floundering Liberal Party. Thorpe, a savvy, glad-handing politician, had an Eton and Oxford pedigree, but that did not prevent him from representing the largely working class district of North Devon. There was something else about Thorpe that might have prevented him from winning election from his district — but his constituents did not know it.
Homosexuality was still a capital offense in Britain in the 1960s, and for a gay Member of Parliament, the threat of exposure loomed ominously. As a result, Thorpe — and several of Preston’s other characters — lived double lives, their sexual beings forced into a warping constraint. Thorpe wound up in a strange, predatory relationship with a much younger lover, one that Preston explores in some detail.
Thorpe initially seduced the model Norman Scott in a room adjacent to his mother’s bedroom while she was sleeping in it. Scott’s vulnerable, acquiescing nature made him an easy mark for a lascivious exploiter. But once Thorpe tired of Scott’s inability to hold down a job and his lack of discretion concerning their affair, the MP’s affection turned to paranoia and he hatched a murder plot to be carried out by his political minions.
A Very English Scandal is a lively tale of a powerful, self-serving politician who surrounded himself with a particular species of yes-men, the kind that will perversely protect their boss from any hint of scandal whatever his shortcomings, and whatever the personal consequences for themselves. Thorpe was the worst sort of politician, hungry for notoriety and power, addicted to risk and intrigue, while feeling no loyalty to the political friends and associates he called on to clean up his messes. A tragic facet of the story was that none of Thorpe’s coterie seemed to realize that he had been used until it was too late to save themselves. As Thorpe himself quipped, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life.”
Chief among Thorpe's retinue of sycophants was Peter Besell, another Liberal Party MP who could not stay out of financial, marital, or as it turned out, criminal trouble. Bessell was likable, if unreliable and completely manipulable. Like most of the characters in this tale, his psychological need for Thorpe’s approval, combined with his own stupidity, implicated him in all of his boss’s crimes.
The two men's political friendship began, bizarrely enough, when Bessell pretended to be gay so that Thorpe would take him into his confidence about his own sexuality, a trust that Bessell sought for no other purpose than to be chummy. That hungering, sophomoric need for intimacy with a powerful person led to a spiraling series of events that ended with Bessell’s own political destruction. Throughout the story, he sensed impending disaster, but could not resist the thrill of being the trusted confidante of his party’s leader.
Although he seemed to know the difference between right and wrong, Bessell was unwilling to follow what he knew to be the correct path. Time after time, in the book, Thorpe’s right-hand men went along with assuming blame for Thorpe’s own misdeeds, misappropriation of funds, and bribery.
The leader of the Liberal Party had a poor eye for criminal enforcers, and after a botched assassination attempt on Scott that succeeded only in killing his dog, the house of cards around Thorpe started to collapse. On the eve of Margaret Thatcher’s ascendancy to Prime Minister, Jeffrey Thorpe went on trial for conspiracy to commit murder.
How these men contributed to the corruption of their party and political system makes for an addictive read, as does the political backdrop of the legislative battle to decriminalize homosexuality in Britain. The story line will sound hauntingly familiar to American readers: behind the walls of power, the people’s business gets ignored while leaders obsess over their own political survival, imperiled not by controversies over policy, but by their own personal behavior.
Spanning the late 1960’s to the late 1970’s, A Very English Scandal occurs in what will strike the modern reader as an antiquated moral landscape. There is no scandal in this story that open acceptance of homosexuality, a healthy dose of political skepticism, and financial caution among the more gullible characters wouldn’t have prevented. But those were different times, and they forced several of the book’s characters into an unhealthy secrecy that fostered shame and deceit.
That this scandal took place half a century ago across the Atlantic allows American readers to enjoy the indiscreet sexual encounters, homicidal plotting, and cover-ups with a degree of remove. American readers more accustomed to being hit over the head with humor, or attempts at humor, will also appreciate Preston’s deliciously dry British wit. But the story will not feel entirely unfamiliar: the spirit of Frank Underwood, Fitzgerald Grant, and other protagonists of America’s darkest fictional political dramas lurks in this thrilling read.
Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis-based writer.