THE BBC will shortly transmit a three-part drama starring Hugh Grant, A Very English Scandal, about the trial of the Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe for conspiracy and incitement to murder.
I remember the case well. In the 1970s, people still spoke of “ho-mo-sexuals” in slightly hushed voices, with an implied mix of scorn and pity. Thorpe’s affair with Norman Scott began in 1961, when sexual relations between men were still illegal. Scott was only 21, and had recently left hospital, where he had been treated for depression.
Thorpe took him briefly into his home, and gave him money. There seems to have been some initial affection between them, judging from Thorpe’s letters and Scott’s testimony, but it was short-lived. Thorpe had other lovers; he eventually married.
To Thorpe’s horror, Scott began talking openly about their affair. Thorpe feared ruin, and used all his influence to rubbish Scott and pay him off simultaneously. Finally, Thorpe suggested to a colleague, Peter Bessell, who would later give evidence for the prosecution, that getting rid of Scott would be “no worse than shooting a sick dog”. A hit man was duly hired, at which point the incipient tragedy turned into farce. The gunman turned out to be afraid of dogs and shot Scott’s much-loved dog Rinka, while Scott himself escaped.
The drama will reveal a society very different from our own. In some sense, Thorpe was as much as Scott a victim of his time. It was not easy to be a gay man, even in the 1970s. Scott had his supporters, including my mother’s golfing friends (usually pro-Establishment to a tee, as one might say, but, in this case, their disapproval of homosexuals and sympathy for dog-lovers prevailed.)
The drama is likely to resonate today because of the questions that it raises on the abuse of power in sexual relationships. Some prominent people — usually men — still believe that they are owed an exciting sex life. They often target vulnerable people, perhaps because they enjoy the inequality, or because they instinctively know how easily the vulnerable can be silenced and shamed. The Establishment tends to support them. The judge’s summing up at Thorpe’s trial was simply appalling: he portrayed Scott to the jury as a crook, a whiner, and a parasite.
We may think that we are moving beyond such abuses by introducing the notion of consensual sex. But sex can be consensual while still deeply damaging: vulnerable people may have expectations that they will be offered protection, even love, which has never been on offer. There is no real justice for such a mismatch: just the bitterness of two people who both feel betrayed.
Distinguishing consensual from non-consensual sex is a start, but even better would be a new sexual ethic emphasising to all of us both a sense of responsibility and appropriate self-control.