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A Very English Scandal

June 6, 2018 12:27 PM
By Martin Thomas in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

Jeremy ThorpeThere are two incontrovertible facts concerning the Thorpe saga. First, that the dog Rinka was shot dead. Secondly, that Norman Scott wasn't. Everything else depended upon the various and varying accounts of a number of highly unsatisfactory witnesses.

The BBC theme music swings with a jauntiness which matches Jeremy's brown titfer. The story is based upon Peter Bessell's discredited account in court. Bessell was extracted from California to give evidence on the promise of an immunity from arrest for fraud, and with £25,000 in his pocket from the Telegraph plus the promise of a further £25,000 if Jeremy were to be convicted. From the prosecution point of view, he was a nightmare witness but they called him anyway, more in hope I would think, than with any confidence he could withstand George Carman's withering cross-examination. What material for a defending counsel! Bessell bombed. One anecdote must have gone down well with the jury: he told them that Thorpe had initially proposed to have Scott poisoned in a pub but that when it was pointed out to Jeremy that it would not look good if Scott fell off his barstool dead, he replied that the hired hit man should simply enquire of the barman the way to a convenient mine shaft. Even though the BBC show was played as farce, that revealing gem of Bessell's evidence was omitted.

Norman Scott's account of events were as much fantasy as fact as he too was collecting payments from the press, who fixated on his 'bitten pillow'. His account was that he was unaware of any plot to kill him until his dog was shot. He ran for his life. As for Andrew Newton, the alleged hit man, he had already served two years imprisonment for shooting the dog without once mentioning Thorpe. His actual evidence at the Old Bailey, no doubt to the chagrin of the prosecution, was that he planned merely to try to frighten Scott into 'being a bundle of nerves'.. He thought of a plan to lure him into a lonely place and to pretend to shoot him. He told the jury that the idea to frighten was his alone. He would pretend the gun had jammed. That was not the way the prosecution had opened the case. 'What a chump the man is' said Mr Justice Cantley. I was in an adjoining court in the Old Bailey during the trial and in the robing room, Thorpe's acquittal on the murder allegations was expected and unsurprising on the quality of the evidence before the jury.

I shared a room for 17 years with Emlyn Hooson and George Mackie in Parliament. George had been President of the Party at the time. At least once a week we would get together at 6 pm - and not a minute sooner - frequently with the former Chairman of the Party, Geoff Tordoff, to enjoy a dram Obviously the topic of Thorpe came up from time to time. They recalled those days with a groan but not one of those present ever expressed a view that Jeremy seriously plotted to kill Scott.

Emlyn is of course traduced in the BBC story. You would not think the hesitant and devious person portrayed could ever have been a highly successful defence advocate, the prestigious Treasurer (Head) of Gray's Inn, a farmer who won prizes for his Welsh Blacks at the Welsh Show, the shrewd Chairman of Laura Ashley, the Chairman of the Severn Bridge Development Group who saw the new bridge through to completion on time and within budget, a man full of ideas and enthusiasm - and charm. Emlyn had a hinterland, wholly supported in everything that he did by Shirley, his wife, and his family.

But Emlyn had been brought up in the Welsh tradition of the Calvinistic Methodists, and although he was not particularly religious, he would always say that he was influenced by his mother's belief in pre-destination. That meant that he took whatever happened, win or lose, very calmly and equably. Even when he lost Montgomeryshire which had been Liberal for 99 years, Shirley was much more upset. Emlyn had plenty to do in his life. He was not a plotter, nor did he bear a grudge. Jeremy, on the other hand, with only politics and ambition to interest him, thought everyone was like him with a plot around every corner. The TV series has caught his warped view of Emlyn - he couldn't imagine that Emlyn would not be trying to usurp the crown! He had nothing of Emlyn's grounding in professional success, business interests or the essentially Welsh settled society around him. Emlyn always said that he wished he had continued as a farmer - he attended an agricultural college in his youth, before active operations in the Navy during the war. We didn't believe him, of course, but one of my fond memories is a triumphal progress around Welshpool show with Emlyn and George Mackie arguing the relative merits of Welsh Blacks and Aberdeen Angus cattle..

The court scene was well portrayed but condensed. The application to allow publicity was boldly made by my friend and colleague, Gareth Williams, newly in silk but later to be AG and Leader of the House of Lords. But it was in the magistrates' court , where Thorpe was represented by his solicitor, Napley , not by counsel at the Old Bailey,. The curious scene between Jeremy and George Carman when the latter confesses to a gay lifestyle was a bit of a shock. 'Gorgeous' George cultivated the reputation of a womaniser surrounded by blondes - and he was married three times. We were involved together in one or two cases of note, (although I never forgave him for usurping my piano stool when I was in full flow after a good win in Hong Kong, so he could twiddle his own 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes'). A. quick look at his son's 'warts and all' biography hints at other early sexual interests following his schooling by the Brothers at 'Holy Joe's' in Blackpool and a year in a seminary. We shall never know whether there was such an incident as portrayed, and if there was, whether it was a Carman device to gain his client's confidence so that he would accept George's sensible but bold advice not to give evidence. George gained the top prize of the first class honours in law at Oxford. His shrewd and well planned attack and quiet court manner were authentically shown.

The Tom Mangold documentary was prepared in 1979 on the basis that Thorpe would be convicted. It was monstrous that a TV presenter should be declaring Thorpe's guilt of conspiracy to murder after a jury had acquitted him on that very charge. Further, Mangold's update seemed to accept the account of a dodgy gun dealer who accosted him in the park near his home, as the undoubted, unvarnished truth, even though the man had since signed a statement to the police withdrawing his claims. Did the BBC pay the dealer for his story? Do they think a jury would ever accept such tainted evidence?

As for Gwent police reopening the case, who is going to be the defendant? Newton must have been given an immunity before he gave evidence for the prosecution at the trial. Thorpe, Bessell and Holmès are dead. Scott can not know to this day what the plot was, whether there was an agreement to kill him, or just to frighten him. According to the juryman who controversially broke the juror's oath to give the inside story of the jury's deliberations at the Old Bailey, the jury were agreed there was a conspiracy to frighten, but to their annoyance, there was no such lesser charge on the indictment. It would be an abuse of public money to have further police investigations after more than forty years to no purpose other than to 'convict' dead men..

* Martin Thomas is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and the party's Shadow Attorney General