The Trial of the Century?


The Porfumo Affair of 1963 is often viewed as the first British political scandal that concerned details of a sexual nature about the politician involved. The Secretary of State for war, John Profumo, was exposed for having an affair with a prostitute named Christine Keeler (who was believed to be having an affair with a Soviet spy at the time), which tarnished the Conservative Party’s reputation and arguably led to its electoral defeat in 1964. It was during this scandal that Mandy Rice Davies, friend of Keeler, famously said: ‘well he would say that, wouldn’t he’ in response to Lord Astor’s denial that the pair had an affair. MRDA is now internet slang for ‘Mandy Rice-Davies applies’ which is used to highlight scepticism of a claim due to the evident partiality of the individual making the claim.

In contrast, The Thorpe Affair is a political scandal that seems to have failed to engage with current internet jargon. In fact, Jeremy Thorpe seems to be a figure forgotten in the minds of many, despite his involvement in what commentators have called ‘The Wildest Trial of the Century’.


Jeremy Thorpe was the leader of the Liberal party from 1967 to 1976. A charismatic old-Etonian, Thorpe led the Liberal Party to its best result since the war during the 1974 election, winning 20% of the popular vote. Both Thorpe and Edward Heath held a series of discussions about whether to form a coalition government. Thorpe was aware the grass-roots of the party would not be happy, however Thorpe’s alleged keenness to get his ‘knees under the cabinet table’ made him question this loyalty. However a Heath and Thorpe government clearly did not have the same ring to it as a Cameron and Clegg union and after what Harold Wilson called ‘the longest dirty weekend’, the Labour politician returned to number 10 for his second premiership as prime minister.


In hindsight, Heath may have felt smug about not getting into bed with Thorpe and his fellow 12 Liberal MPS. In 1976, allegations by a man named Norman Scott which stated that he had a homosexual affair with Thorpe during the early 60’s (when homosexuality was still punishable under the law) had reached the British press. But this was only the half of it. By 1977, the Thorpe Affair had resurfaced, after fresh claims from a man named Andrew Newton that he had been hired by Thorpe to kill Scott. In turn, this led to a full-scale police investigation and led to the arrest of Thorpe, along with Holmes (assistant treasurer of the Liberal Party), George Deakin and John Le Mesurier – two men who apparently helped arrange the planned murder.

These were extreme allegations to make against the leader of the 3rd largest party in Britain at the time. Although Thorpe ferociously denied the claims, he was forced to resign from the Liberal leadership in 1976. The Liberal Party had been experiencing a spell of resurgence during the early 70’s and many felt that the bad press surrounding Thorpe was discrediting the party and amounting to the poor by-election results in 1976. To some surprise, Thorpe did continue his political life before the Old Bailey trail in 1979. Now Liberal Party spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, Thorpe participated in debates concerning proportional representation and the Rhodesian Bush War. To even more surprise, Thorpe ran for re-election in the 1979 election, but like most of the South of suburban England, North Devon turned blue. It would be foolish to think that the electoral defeat of the Liberals was not connected to the negative publicity accumulated by the Thorpe Affair.

A week after Thatcher won her comfortable majority in parliament in 1979, The Old Bailey case began. It transpired that prosecution witness Peter Bessell, an ex-Liberal Party colleague of Thorpe, was involved in an arrangement with The Sunday Telegraph in which he would have received £50,000 for selling his story – undermining his credibility completely. The judge was not impressed with any of the defendants and all four were acquitted. On June 22nd 1979 Thorpe walked out of court a free man. The judge had sung his praises, calling him a ‘national figure with a very distinguished public record’ and said that he, along with the defendants, were ‘men of hitherto unblemished reputation’. Nevertheless, the media and public’s perception of Thorpe remained negative and they did not feel like he had explained himself enough as he chose not to testify at the trial.


Although Thorpe’s reputation had been tarnished and his political career essentially over, his social status meant that he had been acquitted. From Eton to Oxford to marrying a woman who was a cousin (by law) of the Queen, privilege was Thorpe’s get out of jail free card.  Had Thorpe been a working class man, it is reasonable to think that the verdict may have been different. Had Thorpe been a working class man who the jury had every reason to believe was a homosexual – his sentence would likely to be very different. The 1970’s was still a time where the Establishment attempted to hide the crimes and wrongdoings of those who belonged to it: ‘men of hitherto unblemished reputation.’ These kind of men were certainly not homosexuals.

Despite the fact that legislation decriminalising homosexuality in the UK came out of the permissive 60’s, the 70’s were by no means a decade that championed the cause for gay rights. 1975 was the year that the British Medical Journal published an article suggesting the use of different ‘treatments’ for homosexuality and ways to ‘mobilise the heterosexual elements’. Even sadder is the fact that the decade that followed the 1970’s was not one characterised by further progressions made in LGBT rights. 1980’s Britain ushered in an age of AIDS hysteria and Thatcherite Victorian Moral policy like Section 28 which built on peoples prejudices towards the homosexual community.


It is interesting to think about the course of events that might have followed had a Tory-Liberal coalition formed in 1974, which would have included Thorpe as a senior minister in the government’s cabinet. A year into Wilson’s second term in government, the Liberal Party leader’s reputation would be under attack after serious allegations of conspiring to murder, coupled with the newly decriminalised but still taboo subject of homosexual activity. Perhaps if Thorpe pandered to Heath in 1974, the government would have been discredited in a way that damaged the Tories reputation, echoing events of the Porfumo scandal a decade before. However, I think it is fair to say that this piece of particular ‘sleaze’ overtakes the Porfumo Affair and any other political scandal in British history. For its extraordinary mix of Westminster politics with homosexuality, infidelity, attempted murder and bribery, the scandal shocked a nation in time a lot less permissive than ours. The Parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009 was trite, if not predictable – the Thorpe Affair, on the other hand, most certainly was not. As the satirist Auberon Waugh wrote: ‘There is no tradition in British political life by which party politicians hire gunmen to murder’.


One thought on “The Trial of the Century?

  1. Hi Albie,

    Great piece of work – lively, well-argued, informed and good links back to Profumo and the 60’s and forward to the present day. A couple of observations – possibly a mention of the notorious Vassel gay naval spy trial a year of so before Profumo which exposed the underlying “rotten/corrupt” nature of the Tory government; and you might have touched on Norman Scott’s dog which was shot dead during the proposed murder plot. Details, though. Excellent.

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