Beyond Discussion

Neal Ascherson

  • The Last Word: An Eye-Witness Account of the Thorpe Trial by Auberon Waugh
    Joseph, 240 pp, £6.50, February 1980, ISBN 0 7181 1799 9

‘Heh, heh!’ went the judge in the Thorpe trial, Mr Justice Cantley. According to Auberon Waugh, who sat in the press benches all through the six weeks of the Old Bailey proceedings, he made a habit of it: his own jokes, the floundering of witnesses, the incredible spectacle over which he was presiding, all presented matter for a good heh. Auberon Waugh purses his lips over this, but that’s his technique as a pamphleteer. When the judge titters, Waugh draws his pale brows together in distaste, but when the judge turns solemn and adjuring, Waugh puts his own glasses to the end of his nose and allows himself a snuffle of amusement.

What a staggering affair it was – not just the dog-shooting and pocket-stuffing and buggery in themselves, but the trial! A great deal was written after the acquittals about the ‘ordeal’ of Mr Thorpe, in particular. That was a curiously well-chosen word. Trial by ordeal has a long history, even in England. And the judicial carnival which took place at the Old Bailey produced less certainty about who really did what to whom than if Jeremy Thorpe, George Deakin, David Holmes and John Le Mesurier had been invited to take off their shoes and socks and walk along a trench full of glowing charcoal. As with the trench method, the populace gathered to watch or to read about how the defendants survived this ancient, agonising, irrational test of virtue. They did survive, and I think that most of the villeins and churls shuffled back to their hovels thoroughly satisfied by the drama and the ritual and inclined to add the traditional ‘Good luck to them.’

Some not. Waugh, among others, thought that the trial was so conducted as to make a right verdict almost impossible, and he is very angry about it. He knows bloody well, and he knows that the defendants know, that ... but this is where everybody writing about the case has to start being careful. Auberon Waugh is careful. In his introduction, he seems to clear his throat and then recites in the most distinct tones he can muscle up: ‘Mr Thorpe is innocent. That is not a question of opinion or belief or interpretation but a matter of historical fact, and nothing in these pages must be interpreted as calling it into question. The fact of Mr Thorpe’s innocence is beyond question and beyond discussion.’

A pause for echoes of this statement to die away. Then Waugh begins quietly and piously to expand upon it. After listening to Judge Cantley’s summing-up, some, he says, ‘may have wondered how such a conspiracy could ever be proved against a man in public life. But then the tremendous respect and deference we all feel towards men in public life may make it hard for us to believe that any such person could ever be guilty of consenting to behaviour of this sort.’ He comments on the ‘astounding fact’ that so many people, including the Director of Public Prosecutions, were prepared to entertain the bizarre notion that Thorpe might be guilty. Even Auberon Waugh, he confesses, was at one time among them. This book ‘may be read, if people choose, as a gesture of atonement for ever having entertained the silly idea that a Privy Councillor, an MP, an Old Etonian, a barrister, a friend of prime ministers, archbishops and high officials, a former client of Lord Goodman, could ever be found guilty of conspiring to murder a homosexual male model of lower-middle class background and doubtful record.’

The details of such truly grotesque events are easily forgotten. Thorpe and the others were accused of conspiring to murder Norman Scott; Thorpe, additionally, of inciting the murder of Scott. The latter claimed to have been Thorpe’s lover, and stated that a gunman had shot his dog and attempted to shoot him on Porlock Moor. The gunman, Andrew Newton, said he had been hired to murder Scott, and the prosecution tried to link the shot on Porlock Moor with a group of Liberals, con-men and bon viveurs who were endeavouring to protect Thorpe against Scott’s allegations. In the course of the endeavours a great deal of money supposed to be for the Liberal Party went astray.

The programme was shown twice. The entire committal proceedings at Minehead were conducted in public; the world goggled. Then there was a general election, at which Mr Jeremy Thorpe and Mr Auberon Waugh contested the North Devon constituency for, respectively, the Liberal Party and the Dog Lovers. Both lost. The trial proper then opened at the Old Bailey on 8 May 1979.

The main prosecution witnesses, Norman Scott, the ex-Liberal MP Peter Bessell and the dog-slaying Newton, all admitted that they had been great liars in the past but said that they were now telling the truth. Some of them, it turned out, stood to make far more money on their newspaper stories if their evidence secured a conviction (in Bessell’s case, £50,000 from the Sunday Telegraph instead of £25,000 in the case of an acquittal), but it was pointed out that the truth was not necessarily always cheaper than falsehoods. Waugh makes the further point, which spoils a good scandal, that the newspaper was generous to offer Bessell anything in case of an acquittal: the English libel laws mean that his testimony could not have been published outside the courtroom unless it had been proven true.

In the course of the trial, the defence advocates succeeded in battering the personal credibility of the Crown witnesses – not necessarily the story they now told – very severely. This job was completed in the amazing summing-up by Judge Cantley. He told the jury to ignore Bessell’s evidence unless it was corroborated. He observed at length that Scott was a liar, fraud, sponger and crook and dismissed Andrew Newton as a perjurer and a self-advertising ‘chump’. This wasn’t the whole content of his very long summing-up, and at one time, as Waugh shows, he seemed to be suggesting to the jury that there had been a conspiracy to kill and not (as the defence suggested) to frighten. But the main weight of his speech was swung against the prosecution witnesses.

To the intense disappointment of the mass media, Thorpe was not called to give evidence. Only Deakin testified. The other defendants all preferred silence. The jury was reminded, frequently, that silence at such a moment did not imply guilt.

The jurors, as they afterwards admitted, were deeply impressed by the ‘half-price acquittal’ aspect, the alluring argument about witnesses being paid to secure a conviction. One of them decided for Not Guilty because he was touched by the constancy of Marion Thorpe. Anyway, they acquitted the lot of them, and that was that.

Around this, Auberon Waugh has written his peculiar but comical book. He takes a rather recessional view of the whole affair, sounding at times as if he were about to lay down his stylus and open his veins in despair at the decline of republican virtues. O mores! Our senators are degenerate and vicious. Our magistrates have elected to serve patrician interest rather than justice. Jurists and orators affect the tones of the plebs (‘suddenly – irrelevantly – one noticed that Mr Mathew had a surprisingly common accent as he ended his address’). Wisdom is supposed to reside between the dirty ears of city artisans – a particularly dangerous assumption. Here, Mr Waugh condemns the whole approach of Mr Taylor, for the prosecution: he was too honest, appealed to reason, and in general invited the 12 men and women to shoulder ‘too great a burden for any jury of predominantly working-class Londoners’. Poor Mr Taylor’s speech was a model of how not to manipulate a jury in times when ‘jurors are drawn from every section of society and are often of limited intelligence ...’

But Waugh is something grander than a snob. He may not believe in equality, but he certainly does believe that inequality instantly loses its justification when it is abused. One of his few heroes in the trial is Mr Gareth Williams, counsel for Deakin, because (in spite of his ‘mean, Welsh, insinuating manner’) he had the courage to break the defence ranks. He pointed out that his client, unlike Mr Thorpe, had left school at 15, did not have powerful friends in high places, did not write letters to the Home Secretary beginning ‘Dear Reggie’ and was not on affectionate terms with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

This frightful breach of defence and loyalty must have been a moment to savour. Waugh had his pencil up in a flash: ‘The judge scowled horribly, and ground his teeth in the way that elderly gentlemen are allowed to do, but I saw three or four members of the jury grin broadly ...’

Andrew Newton is nastily treated by Waugh as ‘the voice of the New Age: flippant, cynical, self-righteous, stupid and television-fed into a sort of mindless conceit’. As a witness, he was the despair of the prosecution and easy meat for the defence. And yet he wasn’t just the chicken-brain Waugh makes him out to be. He shared Waugh’s contempt for some of the advocates and, more significant, shared his view of the whole trial as a pantomime whose script had been written in advance. It was Newton who said, about talk of an organised cover-up, that ‘we are all marionettes, you know.’

Because most of the defendants were persuaded to say nothing in court, Waugh has a problem in evaluating the defence case. In Thorpe’s case, he resorts to the three statements produced by Thorpe between March 1976 and June 1978. Waugh indicates, without injudicious comment, the gaping changes between the versions on matters like the relationship with Scott, or the correspondence with Bessell about Scott. He raises again the question of what exactly did happen to the £20,000 which was supposed to be locked in an ‘iron reserve’ for Liberal purposes, and asks whether the Liberal leader really did invite the Home Secretary and the police to investigate Scott’s allegations as far back as 1971.

Was the whole trial compromised by the behaviour of newspapers – the coverage they gave to the story, the cheques they promised to witnesses? Waugh sees this the other way round: much was said about the role of the press in pushing the investigation forward, but ‘very little was said about the press’s role in keeping the whole matter quiet.’ The papers, he asserts, knew a great deal about the whole Scott-Thorpe complex for years, but, mostly out of cowardice and obsequiousness, declined to write about it. The Sunday Times, indeed (for which Waugh has an awful contempt), ‘wittingly or unwittingly’ joined the cover-up by letting Thorpe publish his famous ‘The Lies of Norman Scott’ on its front page. This had, according to Waugh, two results: it ensured that Thorpe would go to trial by finally breaking the inhibitions of Peter Bessell, until now loyally reticent by his own account, and it also produced this book. Waugh, already providing Private Eye with its unrivalled coverage of the affair, decided that he would stay with the story.

He can be cryptic about it, all the same. He observes, for instance, that on the day that Andrew Newton’s trial for shooting the dog opened at Exeter, Harold Wilson announced his resignation and Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon announced their separation. Here, and in other passages of the same sort, he is trying to tell me something by waggling his eyebrows. I have attempted not to be chicken-brained, but I am still not sure what that something is.

There was infantility about the whole business, a sense of naughty boys doing what they were told not to but being rescued from well-deserved disaster in the nick of time. I thought of Struwwelpeter. There at the Old Bailey was little Friedrich who tore wings off flies, and little Paulinchen who played with matches, and Phillipp who tilted his chair and brought the soup tureen over, and the ‘Grosse Nikolaus’ who dips small boys in his inkpot for saying rude things. But in this tale the worst never quite happens: the tailor won’t burst in and snip off your thumbs, the matches won’t burn you to a pile of ashes. An uncle arrives gasping, and gets you out of the scrape with nothing worse than a fright. His features bear a resemblance to many lawyers and editors and statesmen and courtiers.

After the Thorpe trial, many esteemed gentlemen woke up screaming. How delicious it was, after a moment, to realise that it had only been a dream! All was quiet and familiar again, except that somewhere in the distance a dog was barking.