A rum trade, British journalism. Those who do well out of it can’t wait to forget their “get your foot in the door, laddie” training and start acting as though their families have been farming a thousand acres in Purbeck since the Norman conquest, writing occasional anguished letters to the papers they once edited about whether Purdey can survive being owned by a Swiss fancy goods company. And so on.
Charles Moore, ex-editor of everything, isn’t one of these, of course, but he does give the impression of penning his Spectator columns after an exquisite afternoon in the grounds with his family, being painted by Gainsborough.
He can also say some sensible things. As a dedicated non-watcher of the BBC, I haven’t seen the Thorpe programme but he has and last week he wrote, after noting that horrible things can be highly comic, “For some reason, I share the general hunch that Thorpe probably did ask for Scott to be murdered, but it has never been proved. In a case in which almost everyone involved had trouble with the truth, the jury were surely right to acquit.”
It’s a little reminder that, even if there’s a “general hunch” about someone, actually translating that into a solid prosecutable case is quite another matter, just as it’s a reminder to certain others that Thorpe was probably “acting on the advice of his lawyer” when he sat stony-faced and utterly silent throughout the trial, rather than risking cross-examination – as though a lawyer’s advice ever has anything to do with innocence or the truth.
I knew his wife Marion’s family a little but not him. Thorpe had been very popular in the early days, an exceptionally funny mimic whose impressions of fellow politicians regularly had party-goers – he was in demand socially – in fits of helpless laughter, perhaps creating his media reputation for being “modern” and “unstuffy”. Well yes, ordering someone to be shot dead may not be very modern but it was certainly unstuffy, wasn’t it?
His secret lay partly in being a Liberal MP. The Liberal, or Liberal–Democrat party has attracted rogues, thieves and hustlers for a century, like moths to a flame. The thoroughly sinister Thorpe and the unspeakable Cyril Smith, who required a chair for each unloved buttock, found their natural home among members who will believe absolutely anything as long as it’s “liberal”.
Thorpe had, in fact, been preceded by the most sinister figure of them all a half a century before, when Maundy Gregory, son of a clergyman, had begun illegally selling peerages for the Liberal party on a scale that makes Nixon look like a petty shoplifter, netting himself millions in commission. Among the usual Liberal scandals, bankruptcies and trials one performance even outshone Thorpe’s when, after the sudden death of the partner who’d changed her will in his favour, he was oddly reluctant to have her buried.
A botched killing, a hired assassin who looked and talked like Peter Sellers, a dead dog and a weeping Norman Scott in the barren vastness of Dartmoor had nothing on Gregory’s tableau vivant: he schlepped around the beautiful old churches of the Thames valley with a map on his lap and the corpse of Edith Rosse jammed upright into the front passenger seat of his car. There he would leave her - there is no record of her complaining - while he was inside the vicarage making inquiries as to graveyard vacancies before returning, unruffled, to his jalopy and bowling on to the next church.
This sublime performance ended when he finally located a suitable riverside church where Edith, none the worse for all the travel, was eventually interred in a coffin with a loose lid. Nice Mr Gregory, it seems, had been looking for a burial place subject to floods, one that would eventually dilute the traces of the poison he had used on her. Ah, these Liberals! All heart.
Thorpe’s trial was a thoroughly squalid affair with Thorpe trying unsuccessfully to put space between himself and the dirty little gang of villains and fixers who sat alongside him in the dock. Bessel, the chief witness, was yet another hair-raisingly corrupted Liberal MP from central casting, a Methodist preacher turned financial hustler and fraudster, gravel voiced, quite without shame and, already cadaverous from the lung disease that killed him, reeking of the death and cynicism that surrounded the whole affair. If the prosecution had been looking for a witness to ruin their case then they couldn’t have made a better choice.
No doubt many believe that’s what they did. It’s still worth remembering, though, that it was a jury that acquitted him and, reluctantly, I agree with Moore that the jury was probably right not to convict. Two things worked particularly in Thorpe’s favour: the fact that nobody had actually been killed, or even hurt, which to an extent took the sting out of the issue, and the extraordinary and disturbing weirdness of the accusations and personnel.
And their near unbelievability. Looking through the narrow McCann prism, one remembers that Amaral’s logical inference that if the body was gone then the parents calculatedly transported it, was met not just with disagreement but public expressions of outraged, arm waving, disgust and horror that he could even think such a thing, the maniac, about Kate McCann. And I think that Thorpe benefitted from the same reaction. It’s not just corruption that protects public figures but the crazed belief of that public that they have somehow got close to them through their celebrity, close enough to believe that they could never “do such a thing”.
So no, juicy visions of Thorpe being forcibly gang-sodomized, preferably in the Dartmoor prison near where the shooting took place, went unfulfilled. The rest of his life, though, was equally horrible, more grotesque and much more long-lasting – disgraced whatever the verdict, paralysed first by the realization that rehabilitation would never be possible and then by disease, he lingered on for decades, mostly in a darkened room amid the stucco and elegance of his wife's beautiful house in Orme Square, a reminder of what can happen if you are acquitted but cannot “demonstrate your innocence”.He still revolts me, viscerally, to this day.
One of their own