Monday, 4 June 2018

A Very English Cover Up

A Very English Scandal is a triumph for the BBC. Russell T Davies's dramatisation of the murderous conspiracy with former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe at its heart was one of the most gripping dramas I've seen in years. And that was despite the story and its (seeming) conclusion being well known. It's natural such a heavily trailed piece would also spark further interest in the Thorpe affair, including the first showing of Tom Mangold's Panorama canned in 1979 after Thorpe and co. were found not guilty. And it has also transpired that Andrew Newton, the putative hit man hired to kill Norman Scott, Thorpe's ex, is alive, contrary to the conclusions drawn by Gwent Police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

I'm not going to review the drama or provide another summary of the case. They're ten-a-penny. What I am interested in are what both reveal about the social dynamics of a conspiracy. Not conspiracy in general, which is total guff, but how they actual conspiracies work. Because as the drama and the documentary make clear, it's not just that Thorpe and his friend/sidekick, Peter Bessell, schemed and conspired to murder Scott, but the establishment - official politics, the law, the police and security services - all played a part in covering it up, thereby giving it life. What the dramatisation demonstrated is how not only conspiracies are directed by a few people who get together to, um, conspire, they can have a self-sustaining dynamic beyond the actions of its originators. Or to put it another way, everything done to protect Thorpe and prevent the truth from coming out wasn't because Thorpe directed all from behind the scenes, like some Blofeldian octopus. Key aspects were spontaneous.

What was intended? We saw the shambolic process by which Thorpe's demand for Scott's murder meandered down a line of middle men to elements of the criminal underworld, until the hitjob ended up with and was botched by Newton. This was supposed to put distance between the conspirators and the commission of the crime, but as we know things didn't work out like that. Were they another group of criminals their incompetence would surely have seen them banged up for attempted murder, except institutional privilege had Thorpe's back. Consider how Scott was treated by the police before the attempt on his life. As a vulnerable young gay man with a history of mental health problems, his presenting himself at a station with a story about a powerful and popular member of the political establishment would, in the eyes of the police (and especially in the 1960s and 70s), immediately render him an unreliable witness. Before he even made a statement he was immediately cast as a discredited person. As most points of authority deal with serial complainants, Scott would have easily been regarded as such. Not that it prevented Devonshire plod taking down his details and storing copies of intimate letters, with copies making their way to the security services.

Institutionalised indifference is one. The second is institutionalised deference. In the opening scene of the final episode, we see Scott questioned in a police interview. Asked about the possible motive for the crime, he says Thorpe was responsible. Told to repeat his claim he gives the same answer and gets a clout round his ear. It's doubtful said copper was under orders to rough Scott up, but was lashing out from a place of spontaneous deference. As we have seen recently, the establishment is capable of eliciting spontaneous mass support. In more deferential times, politicians were capable of doing this as well. Thorpe and his aristocratic Tory background would have been enough to inspire plebeian deference for some, especially so in the West Country where the Conservatives were the party that was a lynchpin of community life across a girdle of small towns and villages well into the 1960s. It was from the late 1950s when the Liberals began making inroads here, eventually turning it into something of a stronghold until the Tories wiped them out in 2015. I digress. Simply put, it was no difficulty for fealty of this sort to transfer from one aristocratic politician to another. Extend this deference and reverence wider, and you can find plenty of reasons why large numbers of accusations against establishment figures, like politicians and celebrities, led to nothing without it having to be all directed from the top.

How about institutionalised solidarity? At various points we saw Thorpe and Bessell meet up with other powerful figures to ask for favours. They could do that because they were participants in the Parliamentary game, and so wielded a certain amount of social, cultural, and political capital recognised by others in possession of roughly equal amounts. This recognition, which transcended party loyalties, was the stuff of state elite group loyalty. It guaranteed them a sympathetic hearing and, usually, an undertaking to do the favour asked. They were all in it together and looked out for one another, one of the many unspoken agreements protecting their gentlemen's club. This brings us to the extraordinary remarks of Sir Joseph Cantley, the High Court judge who presided over the trial. In his closing remarks he drew the jurors' attentions to Thorpe's character as an unblemished and selfless public servant, and described Bessell (as prosecution witness) as a humbug, Newton a perjurer, and Scott "a fraud, a sponger, a whiner, a parasite". Cantley did all he could to ensure a not guilty verdict was returned by the jury without explicitly directing them. Why? Institutionalised solidarity. As part of the old boys' network, he used his position as judge to look out for one of his own, and protected Thorpe's exalted status from getting brought low from the flotsam and jetsam of Britain's underbelly.

Lastly we have the Gwent Police inquiry. As we saw, the re-opened investigation was closed down in 2015 because, apparently, Newton, as the last surviving party to the conspiracy, was apparently dead. All it took was the publicity from A Very English Scandal and a couple of Mail on Sunday hacks getting handy with Google to find Newton is still alive and living under an assumed name. Incredible. Evidence dark forces are still at work, even though the truth about Thorpe has long been public knowledge? It's more likely we're seeing the consequences of yet more institutional indifference. Tasked with investigating a legacy case, a lack of resources, a truth revealed and, obviously, an absence of interest on the part of Gwent Police meant, in all likelihood, they couldn't be arsed. It's an indifference that has now caused them a great deal of embarrassment, but ultimately and connected with everything that has gone before, the conspiracy that began in Thorpe's Parliamentary offices four decades ago still has life after its principal actor is dead.

Conspiracies can be explained and charted in terms of their social dynamics just like any other set of relationships. They do not require the all-seeing, all-knowing actions of a panoptic elite to direct every episode and moment of the affair. No, the most sinister and worrying aspect is once conspiracies are set in motion they can and do acquire a momentum all of their own, independent of its authors and its participants, and without deference to the damage they wreak.

1 comment:

Phil said...

Conspiracies can be explained and charted in terms of their social dynamics just like any other set of relationships. They do not require the all-seeing, all-knowing actions of a panoptic elite to direct every episode and moment of the affair.

You're describing the MO of the great majority of actual writers on parapolitics, nay conspiracy theorists. Actual conspiracy theory is difficult, complicated and inconclusive.

As for why everyone from Reginald Maudling to some Barnstaple plod more or less spontaneously closed ranks behind Thrope, I think you're underplaying the element of scandal. The mere allegation that Jeremy Thorpe had had a gay relationship with Scott was dynamite - up to 1967 it would have made Thorpe liable to prosecution, and for some years after that it would have been enough to end his career as an MP, never mind as leader of the Liberals. Let's face it, even now if matey pitched up to the cop shop and said "I've been robbed - robbed by my gay lover who is the local MP!" he wouldn't immediately be seen as making a legitimate complaint. Back then he would have been seen as a pure trouble-maker, and one who was capable of making an awful lot of trouble if he wasn't persuaded to shut up.

As for Scott, Davies presented him as a naïf who was genuinely seeking justice, but I didn't buy that - he'd grown up as a gay man before legalisation, he must have known what kind of bombs he was throwing. Of course, Cantley's summing-up was outrageous - he really did argue that the jury couldn't trust Newton's testimony because he was clearly a crook and an incompetent one at that - but his characterisation of Scott as a whiner, a fantasist and a sponger didn't seem entirely unwarranted.