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Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.

In common with most people who are interested in political history, I have spent a few enthralling hours lately watching the BBC’s A Very English Scandal, a dramatisation of the events that brought Jeremy Thorpe to the Liberal leadership and then to the Old Bailey facing charges of incitement to murder and conspiracy to murder.

While a few historical elisions and rearrangements did disturb my inner pedant, Russell T Davies did a fantastic job in corralling a complex and implausible tale into the format of television drama. Mind you, he was working with some very high grade raw material.

Peter Bessell’s account (written in the early 1970s in an aide-memoire) of the 1969 meeting in the House of Commons is itself a masterpiece of black farce. He describes how Thorpe and his allies discussed the respective merits of the Florida Everglades and disused Cornish tin mines as locations to dispose of the troublesome Norman Scott, and Bessell warned of the awkward scenario of Scott dropping dead from his bar stool, and the assassin having to ask the landlord for directions to the nearest disused mineshaft. It might have been a better plan than the one they eventually went with.

It was also interesting, at long last, to watch Tom Mangold’s 1979 Panorama documentary that was ditched after Thorpe’s acquittal, one of a number of pieces of journalism that ended up mutilated by the verdict. For connoisseurs of the quick libel-related rewrite, there is also the Sunday Times team’s Jeremy Thorpe: A Secret Life, which reads like a prosecution case into which nervous house lawyers have interpolated frequent interjections about Thorpe’s innocence. The documentary, and the drama, both cast some light on the long-term cover-up by which ministers of both main parties, and bits of the British state independent of ministers, protected Thorpe.

The bit of the Conservative years that interested me most was the role of Reggie Maudling as Home Secretary. When the Liberal Party had their internal inquiry in 1971, Reggie was approached for evidence. He mused when he was looking at a Home Office file on Thorpe that he ‘had the political career of Jeremy Thorpe in his hands.’ Reggie gave Thorpe a pass and connived in his denials to the Liberal inquiry.

Reggie was not pleased a year later when Thorpe and his Liberal colleagues produced a parliamentary motion on ‘standards of conduct in public life’ in July 1972, referring to the evidence of corruption that had surfaced during the Poulson bankruptcy hearings. The scandal rapidly reached Reggie’s door, as he had been Poulson’s business partner while in opposition, although the extent of his complicity was then little known.

Thorpe’s launching of a stone from a particularly fragile glass house did seem base ingratitude. But Thorpe had been obliged to sign up to the motion launched by Emlyn Hooson, the backbench Liberal MP, who had been a thorn in his side throughout his leadership and had been awkward over Scott’s allegations. Reggie was characteristically forgiving when he met Thorpe a little later, even though he had a right to be upset because he had resigned as Home Secretary while Thorpe was riding ever higher as Liberal leader.

Maudling appears in the BBC drama, the first time to my knowledge that Reggie has been directly represented by an actor in film or television. Michael Culkin, the actor, gives him his due as a jovial and intelligent man, and Davies as the writer had obviously read a certain amount about Reggie’s background and character and as Reggie’s biographer (interest duly declared) I was gratified at the thought that the man who brought Doctor Who back to the screen might have read the book. If he wants to do a similar series on Reggie, that would be rather wonderful.

But with the gratified feelings I was also a little disappointed, as I’m sure Reggie wasn’t quite that fat in 1971 and his voice had a warm, complicit tone mellowed from years of port, cigars and whisky, which did not quite come across.

The other portrayal of Reggie on television that I’ve seen was indirect but absolutely clear. Peter Flannery’s magisterial 1996 series Our Friends in the North drew heavily on the Poulson scandal and had a Reggie avatar in the form of Claud Seabrook, a former Conservative Cabinet minister on the lookout for business propositions when out of office in the 1960s. He was obviously unimpressed by the racism and deviousness of his business partner, the Poulson figure (‘Edwards’) but was morally flexible and when investigated was pompous and hostile.

The 1974 episode has several memorable scenes, including one where Danny Webb’s basically honest but compromised police officer questions a blustering Seabrook at the House of Lords before he himself is closed down as the wheels turn. The actor portraying Seabrook was Julian Fellowes, who – unlike Maudling – eventually made it to the upper House, his peerage minted by David Cameron in 2010 in recognition of his role as creator of Downton Abbey and his Conservative loyalties.

The other intriguing Conservative moment in the Thorpe story came with the February 1974 election. Jeremy Thorpe stayed close to home in North Devon, stretching the resources of 1970s television broadcasters when they tried to cover the Liberal campaign with the leader far away from the London studios.

In part, this was Thorpe’s anxiety about holding the seat given the small majority in 1970, but it was also the need to keep a lid on what Scott might do. Would a dramatic, confident campaign have taken the Liberal vote higher? When, in summer 1974, Thorpe did make a flamboyant entry to the campaign trail on his hovercraft tour, it was too late to capture the imagination.

The Conservatives were clearly jittery about the allegations against Thorpe before the February 1974 election. The local candidate Tim Keigwin had, like nearly anyone else who had been to a pub in the Barnstaple area over the last couple of years, heard all about Scott’s allegations, and had looked a bit further into the case. He asked his colleagues at Central Office for advice, and the advice from the party leadership and the party chairman Lord Carrington was not to touch the story with a barge-pole.

He was further dissuaded by the presence at all his election meetings of a Thorpe campaign worker (or possibly legal adviser) sitting prominently, taking notes. The experience of being pressurised and sat upon was not pleasant for Keigwin, who indeed did not mention the Scott case but after the result was announced said that ultimately ‘the truth will out’ – which could have been taken as being a defence of the Conservative Government’s record. Keigwin did not fight the seat in the October election.

The thing about a successful cover-up is that people don’t find out about it, so we can’t really say that Thorpe was the last great cover-up of the post-war era. It did make the Profumo affair look very small stakes and amateurish, but two other highly successful cover-ups did begin in the same period in the early 1960s. These were the identity of the ‘Fourth Man’ in the Cambridge spy network, who was revealed in 1979 to be Sir Anthony Blunt, and the spectacular scandal involving Bob Boothby, Tom Driberg, and their relationship to organised crime in the form of the Kray Twins, which has still not really entered public consciousness.

The Poulson scandal in the early 1970s was a different model of cover-up, the sort that became known thanks to John Ehrlichman in the Watergate scandal as a ‘modified limited hangout’ where some minor figures are sacrificed and a degree of culpability to a peripheral bit of the scandal is accepted.

A good cover-up continues to have legs even after it has been disproved. There are still a few people who think Thorpe was entirely innocent (even the trial jury would have found him guilty of a conspiracy to intimidate Scott if he had been charged with this), that Reggie Maudling didn’t know anything about Poulson’s corruption, or that Bob Boothby had been libelled by the Daily Mirror and didn’t know Ronnie Kray.

I’ve always thought that the often-quoted folk wisdom that the cock-up theory of history is superior to the conspiracy theory of history conceals more than it reveals. The truth is that both have their merits, and the Thorpe case illustrates that the careful analyst needs both.

As an old joke has it, Norman Scott was paranoid, but that didn’t mean that nobody was out to get him. Scott was entirely right to jump to the conclusion that when a man killed his dog and threatened him with a gun that evening on Exmoor, Thorpe was responsible. There was indeed a conspiracy against Scott, launched by people who thought that his ordinary human life was worth less than the political career of an establishment politician. So far so good for conspiracy.

But… If the establishment had really been as efficiently conspiratorial as it was supposed to be, there would have been no need for Thorpe’s amateurish plot. Thorpe would have said something to Wilson, or Heath, or whoever, and Scott would have been disappeared at the hands of people who knew what they were doing. But Thorpe clearly had no access to professional help; his colleagues went through several possibilities, managed to acquire a semi-functional gun from a proper, although not particularly bloodthirsty or high-ranking, criminal, but then couldn’t find a person both willing and able to kill Scott.

The depiction of the recruitment of preposterous hit-man Andrew Newton in A Very English Scandal was pretty accurate, including the dodgy characters in South Wales and the drunken mayhem in Blackpool. The revelation that Newton had wasted three days in Dunstable after mis-hearing his instructions to look for Scott in Barnstaple was what convinced Richard Wainwright, another Liberal MP, that there was something in this outlandish story.

So the Thorpe scandal was also a tremendous cock-up, even without the inevitable innuendo. The plot against Scott was in the hands of utter incompetents from start to finish.

The truth, I think, is that both cock-up and conspiracy happen. People get together and try to accomplish something by organised, covert action. But the same people are rarely able to control the environment sufficiently or take account of all the variables, so the conspiracy ends up going off at half-cock and embarrassing everyone. Alternatively, someone makes an embarrassing blunder or commits a crime, and then tries to organise their friends and allies into a conspiracy to cover it all up.

The Thorpe scandal managed to cover both of these possibilities, flipping back and forward between incompetence and conspiracy, between the sinister and the farcical, in a fantastic muddle.

Cock-up and conspiracy are complementary, rather than opposite. Most of human and political life involves both, but there may be a few occasions when one encounters the pure cock-up or the pure conspiracy in the wild. I’m going to stop writing now, before I am tempted to apply this analytical framework to any contemporary events…

32 comments for: Lewis Baston: The Thorpe farce shows that both cock-up and conspiracy drive history

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